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Matthew Futterman On Nike's 'Legend-Making Machine'

This article is more than 6 years old.

The ongoing NBA playoffs, like every edition of pro basketball’s post-season, is giving us individual stars. But for purists, basketball at its best is the ultimate team game. The Cleveland Cavaliers demonstrated that on Wednesday night, when 10 players combined to sink 25 shots from 3-point land: a playoff record.

Bill Bradley, Princeton, ’65, New York Knicks, ’67-’77, was a thoughtful basketball player and he relished the team game. He once said, “I believe that basketball, when a certain level of team play is realized, can serve as a kind of metaphor for ultimate cooperation.”

But in one college game, he seemed to forget all that.

"He set that record essentially by running up the score against Wichita State," says sportswriter Matthew Futterman. "He had 32 points with nine minutes to go. The game was a complete blowout. And he poured in another 26 points in those final nine minutes."

Futterman was intrigued by how team player Bradley could have been such a ball hog that night, pouring in point after point in a consolation game when the outcome was no longer in doubt.

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Futterman spoke to Bradley about that game years later. The former U.S. Senator felt a little guilty about his performance, but...

"He said 'Well, you know, that was just the joy of shooting,'" Futterman says. "And that line really stuck with me as sort of a metaphor for what a lot of athletes go through when the ego takes over. For a lot of athletes, the ego is sort of like Kryptonite. It can bring you to great heights, but then, if you’re overexposed to it, it can bring you down really, really fast. And I think that’s the story of the modern sports world once the athletes sort of take over sports and turn it into their business."

Futterman’s theory is that you can draw a straight line from Bill Bradley’s performance that night to a change in the way basketball players began to think about Themselves – with a capital “T” – in relation to the game, with a small "g." After that comes the famous - or notorious relationship between Michael Jordan and Nike.

Becoming Legendary

In an interview years ago, Jordan himself said, “Phil Knight and Nike have turned me into a dream.” Even Jordan couldn’t have predicted how powerful that dream would become.

"He sort of makes Nike, this offbeat shoe company up in the wilds of Oregon, realize that the best way to sell shoes is not to talk about the attributes of those shoes and those clothes that he’s wearing, but to make up legends and stories about the players that are actually wearing the shoes," Futterman says.

So Jordan embraced the creation of the Mike everybody was supposed to want to be like, or so posits Futterman.

And of course it didn’t end with Jordan. The shoe companies competing with Nike had to create their heroes and legends. And heroes and legends don’t pass the ball. They dunk it. Which had consequences for the way basketball was played all the way from the playground to the NBA, at least for the players determined to be the next Mike…many of whom – even if they had the basketball chops, couldn’t operate in the rarified air of Air Jordan.

For a lot of athletes, the ego is sort of like Kryptonite. It can bring you to great heights, but then, if you’re overexposed to it, it can bring you down really, really fast.

Matthew Futterman

"Sebastian Telfair, who was a phenom coming out of high school, he signed a very lucrative sneaker deal coming out of high school early on. And he lived to regret it, he said, because he thought maybe having that deal, knowing that money was coming to him, maybe he didn’t work that extra 15 minutes or hour that he could have each day. It does provide a certain level of security. Although the money’s coming, it’s a matter of living up to it. And that’s a lot of pressure. And some of these athletes can live with that, and some of them really do buckle under the pressure of it."

Telfair, drafted in 2004 out of high school, never averaged as many as 10 points a game during his 10-year NBA career. He was last seen playing for a team called the Flying Tigers in China. But paying legends money to somebody who does not become legendary isn’t the only risk Nike discovered.

Tiger, Lance And The Dangers Of Hero Making

"So they sign Tiger Woods," Futterman says. "And, you know in the first campaign with Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods was going to be this sort of civil rights symbol. You know, 'Hello world, are you ready for me?' That was the slogan."

"Well, Tiger Woods didn’t really care very much about politics, and so that was abandoned pretty quickly. Eventually, they spun the legend of Tiger Woods, family man. We saw how that worked out. They signed Lance Armstrong, because Lance Armstrong had a pretty good legend. He had beaten cancer and come back to win seven Tours de France, and it was all because he was just on his bike six hours a day, as the Nike commercial told us.[sidebar title="An Excerpt From 'Players'" width="630" align="right"]Read an excerpt from "Players" by Matthew Futterman.[/sidebar]Well, turns out he was on some other things besides the bike six hours a day. And, you know, the list goes on. There’s Marion Jones, Oscar Pistorius. I mean, time and again, they’re signing these athletes and creating these stories about them in order to sell their stuff. But every so often the strategy’s revealed as this sort of legend-making machine."

That machine is still operating today. Anybody who watches sports on TV knows that. But Futterman posits that something new may have arisen from the rubble of the legends of various drug cheats, serial adulterers, tax evaders, and killers. Exhibit A demonstrating a new approach is a recent Footlocker commercial starring last season’s NBA MVP, Stephen Curry.

The Pendulum Swings

"I do think that Steph Curry is a really important figure moving forward," Futterman says. "He’s not a Nike athlete. But when you see someone like that, so successful, largely seemingly through hard work, you know didn’t get a college scholarship, ended up at Davidson, this is supposed to be the league of giants and here’s a guy who’s 185 pounds who’s just slaughtering everybody. When you see something like that happen, I think it tends to swing the pendulum back. There’s a genuineness about him that I think people are really attracted to, and I think the corporate world has noticed that as well."

So the pendulum swings. And does it herald the re-emergence of team play on the basketball court? That’s one of the matters Futterman addresses in his new book, Players. At this point, perhaps the answer depends on whether you’re watching the Cavaliers on a night when they’re encouraging LeBron to hog the ball, a la Bradley on that uncharacteristic evening at the end of his Princeton career, or admiring the team play that’s worked so well for Curry’s Golden State Warriors.


Bill Littlefield Twitter Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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