By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) They come at night, the sports memory thieves. They must.
I have yet to figure out exactly how they extract cherished images and experiences from the brains of Bulls fans, but it appears they do. They may be microscopic in size, getting in through the ear canal and ablating the specific cells that recall Michael Jordan’s greatness, or perhaps they pull up in a black sedan and reprogram us MIB-style, with a Texas drawl and the white flash of a neuralizer.
This has to be what’s occurring, because it’s the only way to explain the odd secondary response to the coverage of Michael Jordan turning 50 over the weekend. It has not been enough for some fans to celebrate their favorite player, feeling compelled to reaffirm his unassailable standing at the greatest ever and lashing out at the perceived inadequacies of LeBron James as if he represents some kind of threat to Jordan or his legacy.
The numerous retrospective looks at Jordan’s impressive accomplishments should simply be proud opportunities for those who enjoyed his work so thoroughly. Instead, too many seem to react as if endangered – using this marking point to beat back any possible argument that dares to question Jordan’s utter, eternal superiority.
It’s both childish and provincial, two aspects of sports fandom all too common in Chicago.
Nothing about James has any effect whatsoever on how one feels about Jordan. There should be no need for concern about the erosion of a great legacy because another historically-talented player is forging one of his own. The assumption of finite, zero-sum territory for legends is total nonsense.
It is also completely unfair to both players to continue with these attempts at linear comparisons and contrasts between two fundamentally different athletes, playing in different eras. One was a maniacally-driven overachiever who pioneered the conversion of his individual game to levels of artistic expression and international commerce. The other is an idealized physical specimen who has always preferred to function as part of a larger group, with his prodigious influence on the action discernible more in aggregate than in explosive punctuations.
There’s no point for the kind of small-mindedness that prevents so many Jordan fans from appreciating James. Anyone who enjoys watching the best athletes on the planet should find a way to make room for something this special, instead of acting on reflexive insecurity. Why bother watching any of it or caring strongly about it if there’s the constant desire to protect the heritage of a statue?
The personalities involved have something to do with this, too. The often-angry Jordan sets the tone for his defenders – always has – with his penchant for insults, bullying, and self-created enemy straw-men to fuel his relentlessness. James is a different kind of cat, more at ease among friends and less likely to take verbal pot-shots at competitors. He was damaged by his lamentable PR stumbles in free agency, but is well on the way to repairing his image through more joyfulness around the court and well-managed professional branding.
Jordan fans act like Jordan, taking the fight to the opponent. James doesn’t yet have a group that acts similarly on his behalf — largely due to the alienation of his hometown base in Cleveland – so there’s never a strong response.
And there shouldn’t have to be. There shouldn’t have to be any of this, in the first place.
Jordan can keep his place in the hearts and minds of Chicago fans, whatever it may be. No special memories are going to be erased.
In fact, if there’s just a little bit of effort to be open and honest about what one sees now and in the future, they can even be enhanced.
Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.
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