Jordan comparisons have come to define, and dog, a number of careers in the NBA. The legacy of 23 follows every shot Kobe misses, every playoff mistake Lebron makes. After all, the gold standard is not Russell’s 11, but Jordan’s 6. However, Jordan comparisons permeate much farther than those nominated into the “Greatest-of-all-time” sideshow. The latest victim of the Jordan comparison? Lamar Odom. After 4 tumultuous months on the Dallas Mavericks, Odom was yesterday declared inactive for the rest of the season, a dramatic fall from grace since his Sixth Man of the Year campaign a mere season ago, tailed not by Jordan’s accomplishments, but rather the Jordan mythos.
While the prevailing narrative is one that characterizes Odom as “sensitive,” his story goes beyond a botched Chris Paul trade, beyond a personal attachment to Hollywood. His story is not, as Twitter would suggest, part of a “well-documented” Kardashian curse. This is about an inability to address underlying emotional problems caused by the murder of his cousin over the summer, an individual whom Odom described as “one of my favorite people in the world.” This is about his chauffeur-driven SUV crashing into a motorcycle, which in turn killed a 15-year old Queens pedestrian. This is about losing his mother at 12, his grandmother who raised him in 2004, and his infant son in 2006.
After all, it was a very real possibility that Odom would not play this season. He was not conditioned, and in a terrible emotional state. However, we are not a society that allows our athletes to be subject to their emotional whims – we do not merely glorify warrior ethos among our athletes, we demand it. After all, they are our modern day gladiators, not to be stopped by debilitating flu during Game 5 of the NBA finals or even cancer.
Online forums are already using Jordan as a foil to Odom, many citing Jordan’s “Flu Game” as a standard for athletes to deal with their outside problems. Odom’s story is being shaped by the acute marketing of Jordan, Nike, and the “Just Do It,” no excuses basketball culture over the past two decades. It is a culture where fans demand that players power through any ailment, and every rookie is one awkward landing away from being labeled a bust. Our football culture tells players to pay through pain, and try to injure their opponents, and then unleash a national furor when this culture is made explicit.
This is why Odom returned to play. In most places, sympathy befalls those who have their performance suffer do to personal issues and family deaths. The NBA has no such mentality. Noted Dallas sports personality Craig Miller is already labeling Odom as “the reason why people hate professional sports.” He will never be forgiven for not honoring the warrior ethos, the Jordan legacy.
Many in Los Angeles still blame Odom for spurring his own trade and many elsewhere will blame Odom for not performing once he got there. However, while Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak publically stated that Odom requested a trade from the Lakers, Odom has himself denied this charge. Anybody who believes that the Lakers management felt the need to trade Odom away for peanuts due to a trade request has not understood the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
At the end of the day, this story is about a man – one trapped in a cycle of negative reinforcement, dogged by expectations that are irrational at best, inhumane at worst.
It is fitting that the NBA and Odom’s crisis are framed by Jordan comparisons, as the summer of 1993 poses another. After two strangers murdered his father at a rest stop, Jordan “retired” from the NBA to play Minor League baseball, a decision that many in Chicago still have not forgiven him for. While his minor league stint left much to be desired, Jordan would return two years later to win rings four, five and six. As a Laker fan throughout Odom’s stint in Los Angeles, I can only hope that Odom’s personal journey will lead him back to basketball. Odom may not be Michael Jordan, but I hope that he– like MJ– can find redemption.