This is the third commentary in a series of articles analyzing ESPN's 10-part documentary, The Last Dance, a detailed look at the career of one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Michael Jordan, and the Chicago Bulls.
Does fame sound appealing to you?
In seventh grade my middle school played an educational tv news show each week. It featured, among other things, commercials hawking various products to teens and pre-teens, including a fairly popular drink called Gatorade.
"I want to become an athlete of influence!"
The first time the show aired, Gatorade’s Be Like Mike commercial was played. We all knew who Michael Jordan was and there were few who hadn’t seen the commercial. But it was the first time I saw so many of us – middle schoolers, no less – walk through the halls and belt out, with our voices cracking, who we all wanted to be like.
“LIKE MIKE!!! IF I COULD BE LIKE MIKE!!!”
It was innocent, borderline idol worship at it’s finest and the teachers waiting for us in third period were in for a long class.
At the same time middle schoolers and fans desired to be “like Mike,” Jordan was feeling the fatigue of fame.
“It’s funny, a lot of people say they want to be like Michael Jordan for a day or for a week. But let them try to be MJ for a year. See if they like it,” he said on set of the commercial shoot in a scene in the documentary.
Could the most recognizable athlete on earth truly not enjoy the life he was living?
Charles Barkley – also a key figure in The Last Dance and friend of Jordan’s during the Bulls title run – once famously stated in a Nike commercial, “I am not a role model.”
Both of them – along with some of their superstar peers – grew weary of what comes with being an intensely pursued commodity in the world of human idolatry. Jordan, Barkley and many others were not just role models; they were idols.
The Lord makes it clear about His views on idolatry. In Exodus 20, the first commandments are devoted to this.
“I am the Lord your God… You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them…”
In his book, “Counterfeit Gods,” Tim Keller describes an idol as anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, and anything that you seek to give you what only God can give.
The Lord didn’t – and still doesn’t – want any of His children treasuring anything more than Him. He’s God and wants to be the foundation of our lives.
But what happens when you become the idol?
We see in the Bible, where followers of the Lord are given glory. In Joshua 6:27, after the Israelites captured the city of Jericho, it says, “So the LORD was with Joshua, and his fame was in all the land.”
Joshua was given a role and a platform where an entire nation looked up to him. While you might not be leading an entire people group, there still might be a nation of fans who love you or your team and have placed you on a similar pedestal.
So what do you do up there?
The possibilities are almost limitless. Some are meaningful. Others are selfish. More than a few could be harmful to you. It’s understandable if those are temptations you’ve entertained more than a few times.
Throughout his life, Joshua refused to become an idol. He used what the Lord commissioned him to be, to point his people back to the one who fought for them and delivered them out of slavery and into their new home.
In Joshua 23:3 he said: “And you have seen all that the LORD your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the LORD your God who has fought for you.”
In other words, Joshua used his platform to ensure people remembered God.
This isn’t to say that you can’t be passionate about your sport. It also doesn’t mean that having someone you look up to is idolatry – nor is it idolatrous to be a role model to another. We need people like this in our lives to guide us and help us grow.
The late Kobe Bryant found a role model in Michael Jordan – a role Jordan fully embraced.
“What you get from me is from him. I don’t get five championships without him because he guided me so much and gave me so much great advice,” he said.
But being a replacement for God is not a role you were called to.
So what if you used your influence to point others to something or someone greater than what you’re doing in your sport?