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Michael Jordan’s retirement: Check your celeb cultism

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Is the worship service over yet?
You know, the one glorifying Michael Jordan, the greatest human since Moses — or at least since Mark McGwire.
When Jordan retired from professional basketball Jan. 13 — this time for good, he (almost) guaranteed — the sports/media world seemed ready to deify him by acclamation, the way the Roman senate used to bestow divinity on a current or dearly departed emperor.
“God, Buddha, MJ,” proclaimed a sign in Chinese and English, held high by an Asian fan in a photo found on the National Basketball Association’s official Internet site. A collection of tributes from fans, newspapers and various acolytes included these:
— “It would be difficult to find one person on this planet who has never heard the name Michael Jordan.” (Missions researchers, meanwhile, estimate more than 1 billion people have never heard the name of Jesus Christ.)
— “God will never fly again: Jordan to retire” — headline in Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
— “The heavens are a little less crowded this morning,” mourned one sportswriter. “Michael Jordan has left the firmament.”
— “The NBA and the fans and America and society and history are losing the greatest influence sports has ever had,” said Miami Heat coach Pat Riley. “The true meaning of leadership is influence, and he has influenced the world.”
Amid all the hyperbole, let’s examine Riley’s statement about influence, a serious observation from a winning coach who is a keen student of motivation.
Is Jordan the greatest basketball player in the history of the universe? Probably. He’s given millions of fans countless thrills with his amazing individual skills and uncanny ability to take over big games at will. “He was a 6-6 celestial body with the grace of Baryshnikov,” said a swooning admirer — an apt comparison considering the fact that NBA refs regularly let Jordan take enough steps on offense to choreograph “Swan Lake.” In a quintessential team sport, Jordan changed the focus, perhaps permanently, to individual pyrotechnics.
That’s influence.
In marketing, the real force behind pro ball and other forms of entertainment, Jordan is undisputed king. His personal earnings have soared into the hundreds of millions, with no end in sight. Almost everything he touches turns to gold: sports products, toys, burgers, hot dogs, cologne, movies — especially sneakers (the $100-plus kind kids in the projects shoot each other for because parents can’t afford them). When Jordan started wearing baggy shorts, everybody bought baggy shorts.
That’s influence.
Influence, however, doesn’t equal greatness. Celebrity doesn’t guarantee significance. Wealth doesn’t confer enduring worth. That is the great fallacy of our era of hype, an era so lacking in leaders — and the understanding of real leadership — that Bill Clinton tops the pope in a current list of people most admired by Americans.
It’s an international fallacy. Princess Diana, merely by dying sensationally after living an increasingly bizarre, media-driven life, became a quasi-religious cult figure in many countries.
To his credit, Jordan possesses real talent — as opposed to being exclusively a media creation — and has brilliantly exploited it on the court and in the business world. And compared to some of the thugs in the NBA and other pro sports, he’s a classy guy.
But he’s also been known to belittle teammates, humiliate competitors, gamble with shady characters and play 36 holes of golf a day after vowing to spend more time with his family.
Hey, Babe Ruth was no angel — didn’t claim to be. Nor does Jordan. It’s the desperate idol worship people heap on sports stars and other celebrities that reveals the deep spiritual hunger of a material age. Most try to satisfy it with substitutes for the real thing.
The First Commandment still applies: “I am the Lord your God … . You shall have no other gods before Me.”
If you think it applies to someone else, compare the time you spend worshiping God daily to the time you spend watching sports and entertainment. You may have joined the cult of celebrity without knowing it.

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  • Erich Bridges