Elegy for MJ

Steve Sailer

National Post of Canada

Thursday, January 14, 1999

As the stupendous career of Michael Jordan ends, it's easy to think of him as utterly unique and unexpected, like a comet suddenly appearing out of deep space. Yet, Jordan was not a singularity, not a rare prodigy like Tiger Woods, but the culmination of the African-American conquest of basketball. His coming was long foretold, both by skywalkers like Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving, and David Thompson, and by more earthbound talents like Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson.

Since Jackie Robinson, blacks have excelled in baseball; but they have revolutionized basketball. Blacks transformed a stodgy sport of set-piece plays into today's free-flowing, above-the-rim celebration of black manhood that's on track to overtake soccer within the next few decades as the world's most popular sport.

How did they do this? The usual explanation offered for public consumption is that being crowded into the inner city, impoverished blacks have turned to their one desperate chance at escape, basketball. Thus, the extraordinary black domination of the National Basketball Association (80% of rosters and probably 95% of stars) stems merely from blacks trying harder than whites. Yet Jordan came from a roomy Southern town and a solid two-parent home, and devoted more of his youth to baseball, his father's love, than basketball.

Further casting doubt on the politically pious theory is that it doesn't hold true for other minorities. Mexican immigrants suffer similar overcrowding and poverty. They appear to be even more desperate to advance through sports, as shown by their pervading the ranks of boxers in North America. (In contrast, blacks have largely lost interest in this brain-destroying sport, except for the heavyweight ranks where they rule unchallenged.) Yet, despite these similar social forces, players of Mexican descent are virtually unknown in the NBA. In summary, today's basketball-crazed black culture is more the effect than the cause of the black genius for the game.

Less superficial explanations probe mental and physical differences that exist, on average, between blacks and other races. It took Jordan's longevity (he was Most Valuable Player at an age when his physical peer but intellectual inferior, Dominique Wilkins, was skidding toward European exile) to get even a few whites to notice that much of black basketball success originates above the neck. White coaches long resisted their black players' ability to make it up as they went along. Yet, "playground jungle ball" eventually routed predictable white-style basketball. Obviously, the occasional Larry Bird or John Stockton show that some whites can master the black game. Still, whites seem less often able to meet modern basketball's demands for creative improvisation and on-the-fly interpersonal decision-making. As Thomas Sowell notes, "To be an outstanding basketball player means to out-think opponents consistently in these split-second decisions under stress." Beyond basketball, these black mental superiorities in "real time" responsiveness also contribute to black dominance in jazz, running with the football, rap, dance, trash talking, preaching, and oratory. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, improvised the immortal conclusion to his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Interestingly, while blacks tend to be more masculine in physique and personality than whites or East Asians, they are often better at typically feminine, more subjective cerebral skills like verbalization, emotional intuition and expression, sense of rhythm, sense of style, improvisation, situational awareness, and mental multi-tasking. Jordan's brain, for instance, enables him to anticipate his opponent's every move while simultaneously demoralizing his foe with nonstop trash-talking. (Try it. It's not easy.)

Compared to whites and, especially, East Asians, a relatively high percentage of individual black men achieve fame by possessing charismatically masculine looks and personalities, without the nerdishness that Dilbert-style male intellectual skills often induce. Pro sports make money largely by furnishing male fans with masculine role models, mighty warrior heroes with whom to identify, and Jordan is the ultimate anti-nerd, as shown by his earning more than a quarter billion U.S. dollars from endorsements.

As well as mental talents, Jordan epitomizes those physical advantages that West Africans tend to enjoy over other races in basketball. He is tall, with legs that are disproportionately long (giving him an exceptionally high centre of gravity, which is a boon for jumping), and has long arms and huge hands. Most striking, however, is his muscularity. When comparing young men in prime condition, Sub-Saharan Africans tend to display significantly lower body fat percentages. This black tendency toward "buffness" (highly defined musculature) is obvious to anybody who merely watches sports on TV or visits the beach. Further, West Africans (unlike the slender East African tribes that dominate Olympic distance running) can add tremendous amounts of solid muscle. In contrast, even hugely strong Northern Europeans like baseball slugger Mark McGwire are hard-pressed to eliminate the soft-edged bulkiness stemming from their more cold-resistant, marbleized muscularity. During the '80s, when Jordan leapt to fame, he was 6'-6" and 185 pounds, of which only 3% was fat. In the '90s, he began weightlifting and added 30 pounds, yet remained 97% fat-free. (This does not mean Jordan's "ripped" physique is perfect for all sports: he's never learned to swim, for example, because it's not much fun when you sink like a stone the moment you stop paddling.)

Intellectuals generally assume that muscularity differences are purely cosmetic, with no implications for personality or social outcomes. The major exception is Tom Wolfe, whose new novel A Man in Full obsessively details its characters' muscle and fat proportions. Wolfe believes muscularity correlates with competitiveness, masculine charisma, and need for dominance (all traits that Jordan possesses in abundance). Wolfe's theory is plausible, since muscle and fat are controlled by sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen. In fact, you can increase both muscularity and masculine personality traits by taking artificial testosterone, as seen in the steroid-fuelled transformation of sprinter Ben Johnson from a skinny, shy also-ran into a surly, egomaniacal Olympic 100m winner who could benchpress 396 pounds. The relation between sex hormones, personality, behaviour, social structure and racial differences is highly complex, and demands intense research. Unfortunately, it is seldom studied by scientists, who understandably fear persecution for political incorrectness.

Steve Sailer is a Chicago businessman and writer.

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