New York master public works builder Robert Moses and basketball star Michael Jordan aren’t mentioned in the same breath very often. But both men ruthlessly branded their names on America’s landscape.
Their similar stories demonstrate our country’s need for remorseless individuals.
Both, surprisingly, lived with a chip on their shoulder from an early age. As a high school sophomore, Jordan didn’t make his varsity team, and Moses was forced off Yale’s swim team after daring to challenge legendary athletic director Walter Camp’s funding policy for minor sports.
They also ran into trouble early in their professional careers: Moses’ fight for meritocracy in New York government was soundly defeated and Jordan couldn’t shake off the Boston Celtics or the Detroit Pistons.
“Air Jordan” and “The Power Broker” certainly drew from influential predecessors who laid the groundwork. In the early 1900s, Daniel Burnham and Le Corbusier led the charge for designing cities that were beautiful on a grand scale. Moses ran wild with this idea through his countless public positions.
In a similar vein, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson primed the NBA as a superstar league during the 1980s. Jordan followed up by taking the league to unimaginable heights and becoming an international icon.
These two men — who dominated different spheres between 1924 and 1998 — may never be matched. Collectively, they amassed two back-to-back-to-back NBA championships streaks, 416 miles of parkway, five Most Valuable Player awards, 13 bridges, 14 All-Star games and 27,000 acres of parks. They also helped build the behemoths of Nike and New York’s countless public authorities.
How did these men become so successful? Well, it sure wasn’t because they read “How to Win Friends & Influence People.” It was because they refused to step down to anyone about anything.
During Jordan’s rookie year, his teammate David Corzine was the Bull’s best Pac-Man player — but not for long. Jordan bought a machine and played at his house until he dethroned Corzine. Moses, on the other hand, kept a dirt file for everyone he crossed paths with and had no qualms about pulling it out when necessary.
Both surrounded themselves with “yes men.” They scoffed at the idea of failure before embarrassing themselves respectively in a run for governor and a stint in minor league baseball.
Neither respected authority figures. Moses only referred to one of the seven governors he served under as “governor,” and Jordan nicknamed the Bull’s general manager “Crumbs.”
Finally, neither knew when or how to retire — Moses worked until his mid-70s and Jordan, tellingly, might still be considering another return.
These men were addicted to success and had egos that filled rooms. But their accomplishments and supreme talent more than made up for their tough exteriors. Moses is considered the greatest public works builder in American history and Jordan the best basketball player of all time.
Even when considering the negative side effects they caused, it’s difficult to disparage Moses and Jordan. Moses’ public works displaced thousands and didn’t have adequate capacity but New York never could have built much of its infrastructure without him. Jordan’s guard play led to a glut of immature imitators in the early 2000s, but the NBA needed him as its preeminent superstar.
Our generation doesn’t have anyone to pick up the mantle that Moses and Jordan carried. We yearn for a leader to combat the national political stranglehold and secretly wish for a dominant sports figure (word to LeBron James). However, no one with the moxie necessary has proven he or she can replicate the individualistic forces that Moses and Jordan were.
Perhaps we have simply built too many defenses for ruthlessly effective individuals to operate in our current environment. Either way, it’s our loss.
Wesley Vaughn is a first-year PennDesign graduate student from Birmingham, Ala. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Wes Side Story” appears every other Monday. Follow him @WesleyVaughn.
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