What Elvis Presley’s swiveling hips did, what Joe Namath’s pantyhose advertisements did, what Michael Jordan did in remaining allergic to politics because “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” the Heat did to sports this past week.
They changed the landscape. They updated what matters to the YouTube generation.
Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh rewrote the unwritten rules for pro athletes, made every generation age overnight and turned a previously hip, funny, edgy voice like Charles Barkley sound in need of carbon dating.
Change happens. We get older. Look in the mirror.
Some of this you understand. Some might be hard to take. The way to present this is to line up the old and new rules against each other like HBO’s Bill Maher.
Old Rule: Bad blood exists between rivals.
New Rule: Everyone is a Facebook friend.
For years, Pat Riley’s handbook to players included a rule against fraternization. The rumor was anyone who lent a hand to a fallen opponent got a $1,000 fine.
“Put it this way, you knew not to do that,” one former player said.
Teams were gangs. The Pistons rallied around thug Bill Laimbeer. Larry Bird choked Julius Erving. Michael Jordan iced everyone.
Maybe it was the national AAU youth leagues that introduced everyone earlier. Maybe it’s the Olympics that turn rivals into teammates every summer. The first talk of a partnership among Wade, Bosh and LeBron was with Team USA during the World Championships.
Riley and Wade used these players’ friendships to forge this free-agent feeding. Riley, Mr. Old School, even met with James after the Heat-Cavaliers game this past season to talk with Jordan. Bonding with the enemy. A new concept.
Old Rule: Each team has an alpha dog.
New Rule: A constellation of stars wins.
Barkley lampooned LeBron for “piggybacking” on Wade and Bosh to chase a title. He said on NBA TV that “if I were 25 ... I’d make sure I was The Guy on the team.”
He did at 25, too. That idea of an alpha dog was an outgrowth of Jordan’s strength of talent and personality. He’s a media-created exception in some form, as even Jordan had two stars, Scottie Pippen and either Dennis Rodman or Horace Grant.
“Passing is overrated,” Jordan once told a young Wade.
Because it was Jordan, because he won, it wasn’t viewed as selfish. It was The Man, The Guy, the alpha dog — and it was celebrated.
The new rule actually is a retro rule. It gets to basketball’s roots. Look at the great teams before Jordan. The Celtics always had Bill Russell surrounded by a couple of Hall of Famers.
Riley sold Wade, Bosh and James on the idea that in 21 collective years of play apart, they had one title. They were sold on a team concept, not an alpha dog ideal.
Old Rule: You take every last dollar.
New Rule: You take a lot, give a little.
Barkley, again, spoke loudest for the old rules, saying Riley would “never get (the players) to take less money.” They took roughly $2 million a year less after lack of a Florida state tax figures into the equation.
Let’s not go overboard with this. They’re still making absurd money of more than $15 million a year. But they also allowed for something fans have asked of stars forever: put winning above money.
Old Rule: Image is everything.
New Rule: Brand is everything.
Image, as Andre Agassi defined it in his young rebel days, meant simply how you sold yourself to the public. “Brand” is the latest word in the sports dictionary.
Brand is more of an all-encompassing corporate package. To “sell the LeBron brand” was how one of James’ handlers was quoted as to why he made that awful, one-hour ESPN special on his decision.
That show damaged his brand. His image, too. But let’s remember Kobe’s brand was damaged once beyond repair. That changed when he started winning. As LeBron will. As the Heat will. When they do, their new rules will rule sports.