The art behind Michael Jordan's image

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But at some point, legend or not, stature itself seems hollow — like a silhouette of greatness.

I did not receive an invitation to Jordan's birthday party — a private gathering, held Sunday at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, far too calcifying a place for a guy who used to show up at the Foster Park hoops in a Ferrari that matched his Air Jordans — but I imagine ennui settling over him. And if so, I hope he shakes it soon. Because, like David Bowie (until the other day), or Philip Roth (who recently retired from writing), Jordan has become one of those celebrities who goes away too soon without quite leaving the culture, a kind of ghost. But unlike Roth or Bowie, we still don't know enough.

Even when he's name-dropped in rap — where, culturally, Jordan seems the most alive — the reference has a ring of ancient history. For instance, Kendrick Lamar's “Michael Jordan” begins with nostalgia: “I used to want to be like Michael Jordan.” Then splashes a colder reality: “Figured I would hit the NBA and make me a fortune.” Even Jay-Z's “Encore,” with arguably the best Jordan reference ever — “When I come back like Jordan/ Wearing the 4-5/ It ain't to play games witchu/ It's to aim at you” — is about a career wane.

When I think of Jordan at all these days I picture a guy so inattentive to his cultural image and importance that he's making underwear commercials and sporting weird little Hitler mustaches and dressing so relentlessly '90s that he inspired a bad-fashion blog, “What the (expletive) Is Michael Jordan Wearing?”

Jordan needs a work of art about himself that will erase the memories of this.

As lukewarm as the reception was to “Magic/Bird,” a Broadway play last year about the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the idea held a nugget of promise. Jordan needs more, a work that will do for him what “Lincoln” did for our 16th president, “Mad Men” did for the early '60s and Thomas Mallon's novel “Watergate” did for Nixon — a piece of art that makes real what had become a cultural abstraction.

Standing in his Skokie apartment, Santiago flipped through a small Moleskine notebook into which he'd drawn the tentative contents of “Bull on Parade.” He stopped on an image of a teenage Jordan skimming a hotel pool during a summer job. “He hated jobs,” Santiago said, then flipped more pages. Santiago said he doesn't follow basketball much. He's just interested in bringing narrative cohesion to Jordan, “to show how he handled his life. Because, after all these years, you just get little sprinkles of how he feels about things.”

He flipped more. I spotted the United Center, Jordan trying out for his high school team, Chicago's skyline.

“I want to know how you get to where Jordan got to,” Santiago said. “How do you get to be the best ever? That's a great subject: What does it mean to get to that place? And what does Michael Jordan mean now?"

cborrelli@tribune.com
Twitter @borrelli
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