Wheaties, please celebrate Michael Jordan again. But release idol worship. – Chicago Tribune
To celebrate 100 years of displaying sports champions on the front of its Wheaties cereal box, General Mills is once again featuring Michael Jordan for a record 19th time since his first appearance in 1988,
Nineteen times, but they can’t make it right.
Let me explain: I had to go back to my age to eat more cereal in the morning, because my doctor disapproves of the richness of the egg panache recipes that my wife, Marianne, likes to prepare. So farewell, Polish sausage and cheese omelet; welcome, “Breakfast of Champions”.
In the grocery store aisle bristling with shelf after shelf of multicolored cereal boxes, I was drawn to the orange Wheaties box with that oh-so-familiar outdoor jump shooter.
Not so much because of the Wheaties, which aren’t bad as long as you add grapes, pineapple chunks, and banana slices for flavor. Instead, the attraction was the basketball deity on the front of the box, evoking an era of 1990s joy and sweet dreams for the people of Chicago. Not to mention, reflecting on the life and times of His Air-Ness is like medicine during this spring’s NBA playoffs, in which the Bulls were strangled in the first round. This, after the Blackhawks and Bears failed to qualify for the playoffs, and neither the Cubs nor the Sox, so far, have a winning record.
But this is not a chronicle about regret. Rather, it’s about jealously guarding our property of Chicago’s greatest sporting hero and staying vigilant about how he characterizes himself.
“Jordan’s legacy of greatness continues to inspire generations of fans,” reads the first paragraph on the back of the box. So far, so good. No mandatory point deductions, despite the jargon and vacuity.
He continues, “The basketball legend is famous for his determination, competitive spirit and relentless commitment to excellence.” That’s about half right. His “commitment” was often to poker, craps and any other type of betting, with no regard for excellence, as was sadly the case with his casino partying until the wee hours on the eve of the game. 2 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Knicks in 1993. Still, I’m not going to quibble about those attributes of drive and determination.
Cereal box additional text: “He is a living example of the hard work and commitment to others that it takes to be a true Wheaties champion. Michael Jordan is a legend.
No controversy with the last sentence. Yet while MJ remains committed to his family, fans, and charities, he was known for his derision of his inferiors. Belittling the talent of Bulls forwards Toni Kukoc and Stacey King or Seattle SuperSonics guard Gary “The Glove” Payton, and even training and giving fellow compatriot Steve Kerr a black eye, Jordan s felt little commitment to teammates, and zero, of course, to opponents.
Finally, here’s where General Mills’ advertising department turns into a poppycock: “His six NBA championships, five NBA MVP awards, two gold medals and countless records show that with hard work and a passion to succeed, everything is possible.”
Simply wrong, as millions of budding athletes can attest. No amount of passion and hard work will make you a superstar if you weren’t born with the “gift”. No matter how many sprints I ran or how much iron I pumped, becoming an NFL linebacker, let alone a legend, was never a distant possibility.
No one could be like Mike. No one else has ever possessed the same lightning-like neurons. No one else has ever possessed the unique fast-twitch muscles that allowed him to leap 4 feet in the air, which is an absurd 20 inches taller than the average NBA player and 4 inches taller than the greatest, second (or third?) greatest player of all time, LeBron James.
It is for his incredible exceptionalism that Jordan is revered, not for being an immaculate role model. The immortal, superhuman powers of Beowulf, Achilles, and Odysseus, despite their narcissism, are what inspired their own “generation of fans”, not their character or work ethic. Skilled and motivated journeymen such as Norm Van Lier, whom we admire and respect; Michael Jordan, we idolize.
During six championship years, Jordan was responsible for a significant reduction in stress in the lives of Chicagoans and our shared awareness of pride and optimism. We traded stories of his supernatural exploits at the water cooler, organized our work and school schedules around those of the Bulls, and beamed with Barney Fife-esque swagger at our team’s international fame.
So, thank you, Wheaties, for this rightful commemoration. But when you bring MJ back for his 20th cover, please bring your all-hazards team this time to write the copy.
David McGrath is Professor Emeritus of English at the College of DuPage and author of “South Siders.” He was also a bench warmer on St. Bernadette’s eighth-grade basketball team. He can be reached at [email protected].
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