Kevin Durant and the Myth of Michael Jordan’s America
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
With game #3 in the NBA finals set for tonight, and the series in question, one thing not in question is that the league has finally found its Michael Jordan for the twenty-first century. While others have fallen short for a number of reasons, it seems that Kevin Durant is on the precipice of following in Air Jordan’s footsteps.
Although the NBA lockout marked the end of this search, given the league’s focus on team rivalries over superstars, it now clear that Kevin Durant has taken the mantle. Irrespective of who ultimately wins the series, Kevin Durant has already been declared the winner of America’s next best commodifiable baller. His reign is not so much about basketball but the narrative, the embedded racial meaning, his appeal in “red state America,” and the representational possibilities available with Durant. Clearly LeBron James’ basketball resume is on the same level; in fact, with multiple MVP awards, endless skill, and an ability to dominate each and every game at both ends of the floor, LB6 has game that is once in generation. The same cannot be said for KD35, whose skills are unimpeachable yet his power and resonance rests with the story and ideological confirmation he provides the league and countless fans.
Since MJ’s retirement, the league, its marketing partners, and fans alike have pinned for someone to fill his AIR Jordans. Each anointed as the next Michael Jordan, Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Vince Carter, and Harold Miner (“Baby Jordan”) all failed to deliver because of injuries, limited production, or a combination of both. Each in their own right was imagined as a player who could fill the shoes, whose talents, charisma, and athleticism would propel the NBA during its post-Jordan era. None of them met these expectations resulting in an NBA in continued search for a twenty-first century basketball God.
Kobe Bryant and LeBron James each took the mantle of the next Jordan to places none of the other NMJ (next Michael Jordan) had reached. Kobe, because of his talents, the ways in which he patterned his game and demeanor after Jordan, his quest for rings, and most importantly his competitiveness, all elevated the comparisons, leading many to argue that he was the NMJ. Yet because of Eagle County, Colorado, because of his conflicts with Shaquille O’Neal and the ultimate demise of the Lakers Dynasty, and because he is said to have demanded to get out of Los Angeles, Kobe has fallen short in other’s quest to find the next Michael Jordan. Like Kobe, LeBron James has delivered on the court, dazzling fans with his passing skills, his athleticism, and his ability to make his teammates better. Worse than struggling to secure a title, LeBron James fell short in the MJ sweepstakes when he decided to take his talents to South Beach. Simply exercising his rights of free agency meant that James was no longer eligible for Jordan status within the national imagination.
While possessing the skills, charisma, and baller potential, the two most promising players to lead the NBA, to build upon the global popularity established by Jordan, have fallen short not because of any basketball deficiency, but their inability (or our inability) to fill some mythical shoes. The quest to find the Next Michael Jordan, thus, has nothing to do with basketball but rather is part of an effort to find a player who reinforces popular narratives about the American Dream, the protestant work ethnic, and post-racialness.
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