The other day, a friend of mine asked, “Did you see Shaq on TV last night?” I assumed he was referring to O’Neal’s sublime performance after returning from injury, in a game in which he buried a buzzer-beating, game-winning basket and just about every other hoop leading up to it.
“Naw, naw,” my friend shook his head. He meant the new Pepsi commercial, which cleverly sets a series of Shaq highlights to the “Theme From Shaft,” complete with new lyrics, then concludes with diminutive Michael J. Fox adamanantly refusing to yield his cola to the towering O’Neal.
“Great ad,” my friend said. “Great ad.” But, now that I had mentioned it, he mused, why, yes, Shaq had performed pretty darn well on the court. Then, as an aural aid, my friend even began singing the commercial’s jingle for me: “Doo-da-doot, doo-da-doot, doo-da-doot, doo. Shaq!”
There is a line somewhere, like some trackless, imaginary spot in the desert dividing New and Old Mexico, that separates playing pro sports on TV from play-acting for TV advertisers. Suddenly, my friend’s comment made me understand that we had meandered over to the other side without even realizing it.
Most of the rest of the country had already made the crossing too. These days, the commercials have surpassed the contests as vehicles for sports celebrities and for our own entertainment pleasure.
The purist in you still doesn’t think so? Weigh just a few items of evidence.
Exhibit A: How many famous Michael Jordan highlights can you recall? His loop-the-loop scoop against Seattle in the NBA Finals? The playoff shot that killed Cleveland? His “come fly with me” dunk in the All-Star contest?
Now, how many Michael ads stick to your memory? The Hanes’ Greek pantheon of underwear? The McDonald’s game of horse spot with Larry Bird? Recyclable batteries? Nike’s “Money, it’s gotta be the shoes” encounters with Spike Lee? And now, God save us, Michael’s big old bald, sweaty head as some kind of perverse endorsement for a babe-magnet fragrance?
Exhibit B: Today’s googly-eyed, pimply-faced teen aspirants dream, as always, of playing at the highest professional level of their sports. But even that is only a penultimate achievement, secondary to what has become the crowning mark of arrival: your very own shoe commercials in which you school the fools, dunk on da punks, and proclaim this as your planet (and don’t even think about bringing that weak stuff here in my house).
Exhibit C: During the Super Bowl parties each year, ever notice how the buzz of conversations drowns out the play-by-play announcers, but the whole room turns silent and attentive every time there’s a commercial? After all, that kick return by Desmond Howard may have been electrifying, but it could be seen countless times in the highlights. There is no replay for TV ads.
Exhibit D: During the furor over his titanically stupid, racially stereotyping quip about Tiger Woods’ favorite foods, Fuzzy Zoeller could afford to sit out a PGA tourney or two without being reduced to surviving on roots and wild berries. But losing his endorsement deal with K-Mart? Youch! That’s pummeling the Fuzz where it hurts.
Once athletes like Jordan or Shaq or Ken Griffey Jr. or Andre Agassi are anointed as all-pro endorsers as well as all-pro athletes, their competitive skills attain Bunyanesque proportions. Their exploits on the field or on the court, while still relevant, share only equal billing at best with their comic-book superhero personae.
Thus, our image of the real Griffey as a powerful hitter and a great center fielder may become blurred, ever so slightly, with the comic-book Griffey in the Nike spots who knocks baseballs into orbit and sprints all the way across the continent to shag a long fly, as if he were playing for the Looney Toons instead of the Mariners.
Jordan, of course, in one of his incarnations really does play among the Toons, soaring above the animated alien giants. Watching Jordan stuff shot after shot on that court, it’s easier to forget that even the greatest player in history can’t can every opportunity. Even His Airness must sometimes err.
Not even Shaq, playing against his cloned selves in an all-Shaq five-on-fiveas he does in one Pepsi commercialcan score every point in a game.
You’ve probably guessed by now where this argument is headed: a full-bore, neo-Luddite rant against the purity-of-sport-despoiling nature of omniscient, global media, whose incessant flow of images magnifies public figures like Shaq and Michael to the point where we see them only as surreal caricatures, like giant balloons in the Macy’s parade, instead of as ordinary people with extraordinary athletic gifts.
Yeah, well. Bad guess.
For better or worse, our society has long idolized sports stars. Sixty-five years ago, for example, Babe Ruth’s not-so-handsome mug found its way onto almost every available medium across America. Of course, the media of the Bambino’s day weren’t as capable (or as inescapable) as they are today. But the difference between the adulation of Ruth then and Shaq now is merely one of degree and not of kind.
Friends, here’s another flash: Pro sports, just like all those money-grubbing agents and weaselly team owners keep telling us, really is, at its essence, entertainment. It is not pure and unsullied, nor does it exist for the sheer joy of competition. It is not as elemental as the gladiators in the Colosseum. On the other hand, it is not nearly so high-toned and allegorical as those way-in-need-of-a-life people at NFL Films would have you think either.
Besides, maybe we have some national need for ridiculously overdrawn comic-book heroes. A generation ago we had Batman and Robin. Now we’ve got Mike and Shaq.
So all you purists waiting for the elevation of our culture, an end to crass commercialization of sports, and the elimination of the designated hitter: Give it up. You might as well kick back and enjoy the ads, the hype, and the fruits of Our National Heritage.
To help you get into the spirit, here’s a highly subjective listing of a few of the most entertaining sports-celeb commercials on the air recently. (All of them, coincidentally, promote either Nike or ESPN.)
♦ The Nike ads featuring a therapy group for the superswift, led by an ultrasmarmy Jan Hooks. Kenny Lofton jealously pouts and rolls his eyes while the even speedier Michael Johnson shares how hard it is to be so fast.
♦ The Nike homage to 007 in which Monica Seles exchanges wild tennis volleys with a carload of KGB types as they chase her through a European city.
♦ The ads for college basketball on ESPN with Robert Goulet cutting lounge-lizardy, hep-cattin’ musical game promos while the sound engineer raves, “I smell PLATINUM!”
♦ The “This is SportsCenter” ad with Grant Hill at piano, playing the ubiquitous three-note progression of “Let’s go, Mets!” to cheer up anchorguy Dan Patrick after a long, hard day.
♦ The most sharply observed spot of the bunch: an ad for ESPN’s 24-hour sports-news channel. Fine lot of good the new channel does him, grouses retired hockey star Cam Neely, now reduced to digging in his flowerbed. Had ESPN developed this idea a few years earlier, Neely grumbles, he might have received more exposure on which he could have capitalized financially. “Morons,” he carps, brandishing his hand spade. “Want to kick my dog too?”