One of the gestures that defines Michael Jordan is the shrug he gave in Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals. It’s still the first half, but Jordan has hit an unprecedented six 3-point shots. Running back up the court, he looks at the bench and holds his hands palms up, as if to say, “I can’t miss. It’s not me. I can’t miss.”
Inevitably, the shrug became a t-shirt. We could wear this a great many places without further explanation. Millions of people would recognize the man, the moment, and the gesture.
This brings us to the ESPN documentary The Last Dance which turned the story of the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan into 10 arresting hours of television, a detailed archaeology of the man and his greatness, a respite in our hours of COVID darkness, and the only thing, I’m told, to compete with Game of Thrones for its powerful, if fleeting, hold over popular culture.
The best moment occurs perhaps in Episode 6 when Jordan is shown pitching quarters with security guards in the bowels of the Chicago arena. Jordan had just given John Michael Wozniack a chance to beat him.
Wozniack nails it on the first try. What does Wozniack do to celebrate? He does the shrug.
At some level, Wozniak can’t have had any doubt about the gesture. Jordan is a God dressed in the adoration of thousands of fans at the court and millions more at home. Who is Wozniack dressed in a polyester uniform even to hint at a similarity?
But of course this is a gesture of deference. Wozniak is being ironic and funny. No one would mistake him for a super star. His shrug is meant to amuse.
On the other hand, look at the smile on Wozniak’s face. This is a look of triumph, of superordination. He just beat Michael Jordan. Even in polyester, and just for a second, he’s the man.
This suggests the fluidity of the American sports fan. On the one hand we have no doubt that Jordan is better than the best of us. On the other, for a moment, under the right “felicity conditions,” as Austin called them, we are prepared to claim fellowship. Wozniak is Jordan.
This is a standard fixture of American life. Kids who worship their heroes in the morning, spend the afternoon firing balls at hoops, supplying their own “roar of the crowd” sound effects, leaping around in victory, and doing the shrug. This is part of what our fandom requires of us.
American culture does these two things really, really well. It asks us to celebrate the greatness of our heroes without reservation, to ”give it up” entirely for those who do the extraordinary.
But it also “cuts us in on the action.” We can be as gods, if only fleetingly, even in polyester. For a moment we are Michael Jordan.
Logically, of course, these two things should not coexist. Either our gods are glorious, so revered they test our very powers of reverence. Or, they are pretty darn mortal and entirely within our reach for purposes of imitation. Majestic gods. Or ordinary ones. But not both.
This might be a job for the Human Area Relations Files at Yale. (This offers a close to comprehensive records of human cultures.) But I am guessing that most cultures are mutually exclusive on this count. Cultures chose. Majestic gods. Or ordinary closer-to-mortal ones.
Why and how does American culture break the rule here? So how does it allow ordinary mortals to be gods? What is it about American culture that demands reverence but allows imitation? I have no answers. (Not even glib ones, and these are my speciality.)
If we can figure this out we will have discovered one of the secrets of the American celebrity culture.