Anyone coming back to wear the four-five? A search for present-day heros.

By Patrick Burke

It would be inappropriate to label the 1998 NBA Finals a battle of good versus evil. The duo of collagen-deficient and proud point guard John Stockton and the monotone monster Karl Malone undoubtedly was anathema to everything pure and sacred about the most poetic, exhilarating, epic sport ever played. Notwithstanding, the rest of the Utah Jazz, particularly Frankenstein with a crew-cut, the center Greg Ostertag, and the choirboy with rage issues, Jeff Hornacek, are veritably more pitiful than demonic.

Consequently, the 1998 NBA Finals would be better categorized as a battle of beauty versus an uncompromising lack of style. The versatile Scottie Pippen, the silky smooth Tony Kukoc, the unguardable Ron Harper, and even the colorfully embattled Dennis Rodman outclassed and outshined the mechanical, lifeless, disgusting, hot pants-–wearing boys from Salt Lake in every aspect of the game. There was that charity case, too, some benchwarmer who crossed up Bryon Russell when the heat was around the corner (there was no push) and nailed a pristine twenty-footer. Michael Jordan was a hero with 5.2 seconds to go that day, having reigned as a god among men for the 13 years before this particular miracle.

Air Jordan was hardly the first hero in sports. A fast-talking heavyweight who put Zaire on the map for a day, an Achilles that hurled bullets from Steel Town’s right field, and the steak-flinging, hard-hitting inspiration for a Golden Age SNL skit earned such exalted status long before everyone wanted to be like Mike.

Even if Jordan wasn’t the first, though, could he have been the last? More importantly still, in this day and age do so-called heroes exist in any realm of American society? We currently have glorious cynics, such as the inimitable Jon Stewart. We have big name villains, namely the now unemployed Donald Rumsfeld. Kevin Federline represents the myriad high-profile burnouts who live in our midst. With Sacha Baron Cohen we even find ourselves worshipping illusive figures. Amidst all these alternative notables, however, where’s the Michael Jordan of the 21st century? On and off the court alike, he was impeccable and supernatural. He was, and still remains, a universal standard for excellence. What does such an egregious hero gap suggest or bode for American society?

Kobe Bryant was supposed to be the next Jordan, but then he got a little too rehabilitated in Denver. He also hated on arguably the most dominant player in the game’s history, and generally turned the Lakers into the Clippers. Beyond the peach basket though, Michael Vick will never be able to throw enough touchdowns to get the guys on Around the Horn to call him a pure quarterback. Peyton Manning will throw twice as many into the end zone as the lightning-quick former Hokie did and then exit the playoffs in the first round. An otherwise untouchable Dane Cook has a few more movies in him before he turns 40 and makes that mid-life-crisis-–induced, career-crushing decision to try out a dramatic role, perhaps in a little-seen, much-maligned Steven Soderbergh film. The golden boy Barack Obama is cursed with Howard Dean’s surely self-destructive agenda. To inject gender equality into my dismal catalogue, Danica Patrick has been in more Jay-Z commercials than winner’s circles.

Does America need another hero? It certainly would prevent improper imputations of grandeur. World Series of Poker winners, tired malcontent Senator Joe Biden, the nauseatingly efficient St. Louis Cardinals, and The OC’s Adam Brody would be the major benefactors of this phenomenon. Fiercely independent underground journalist Matt Lauer insightfully pointed out this morning that more Americans seemed concerned with the Spears-–K-Fed collapse than the elections. If collective, epidemic apathy serves as a watermark for unparalleled hegemony, may the Democrats guide new Rome into the sunrise of empire—with a more compassionate agenda, of course.