Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

NBA Makes Stars before They Shine

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

NBA Makes Stars before They Shine

Article excerpt

I watch the commercials that show Shaquille O'Neal destroying a backboard.

I watch his music video on television, images of Shaq getting down, the symbolic merger of sports and entertainment.

I read his book, the autobiography of someone who now should be a senior in college.

I watch more of his commercials on television.

It all has nothing to do with basketball.

There's little doubt that Shaq already is the most marketed athlete in professional sports, the successor to Michael Jordan. He was plugged into the American Fame Machine before he played an NBA game. In a little over a year in the NBA, he's on his way to becoming a cultural icon, one of the most recognizable athletes in the country.

But it has nothing to do with basketball.

It used to be that the true measure of greatness as a basketball player was how much you did to make your team win. That was the case with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. It was the reason Bill Russell was always considered better than Wilt Chamberlain, though Wilt's stats far surpassed Russell's.

It was the reason Jordan was considered little more than just a fabulous human highlight film come to life until he won his first championship. The thinking was that until he won a title, he somehow wasn't able to breathe the same rare air as Magic and Bird. That was why he was so grateful when he won, for he knew the final obstacle had been cleared.

Forget that some of this was unfair, for it dealt with supporting casts, coaches, other intangibles. Forget that it was always more complicated than that.

Winning was the standard. It determined how you were perceived by the public. It determined how much money you made. It determined everything.

No more. Now we have multi-millionaires before they play a game. We have players with endorsements before they sign a pro contract. Alonzo Mourning supposedly signed with Nike for over $20 million before he signed with the Charlotte Hornets.

Sound crazy to you? Stand in line.

Part of it is that the cult of personality is why the NBA has become so popular in the past decade. Magic. Bird. Jordan. And some Isiah and the Pistons, the "Bad Boys. …

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