By Walter LaFeber

Norton. 191 pp. $22.95

The notion of Walter LaFeber writing about Michael Jordan takes a moment's getting used to. LaFeber is a distinguished and respected historian, specializing in international relations; Jordan is a distinguished and respected former basketball player, now specializing in multi-zillion-dollar product endorsements. That any common ground could be found for the two seems most unlikely, but LaFeber has found it, or a small patch of it.

Small, that is, because "Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism" is--or gives the impression of being--a magazine article stretched into a book. The observations LaFeber makes about Jordan as an international celebrity and marketing phenomenon are generally sound and sometimes astute, but they could be made in a 5,000-word piece. The rest of the book--some 30,000 words--is a once-over-lightly biography of Jordan that merely rehashes what is already near-universal common knowledge.

The book began, LaFeber writes, when a friend "asked for a contribution to a series of American biographies that might be used in classrooms." Perhaps this explains both the brevity of the book and the choice of Michael Jordan as the doorway through which to approach the rather forbidding subject of international economics; it is no particular insult to the young to surmise that many more of them are interested in Michael Jordan than in, say, George Soros, and that centering the book on Jordan was a clever way of enticing them inside.

What is to be found there is, as mentioned, a recounting of Jordan's life story from secondary sources and an explanation of why there is a lot more to Jordan than the best basketball player ever to set foot on a court. Jordan's significance, LaFeber argues, lies in his being a central figure of a world that "changed fundamentally in the 1970s and early 1980s," the world of "the information revolution, the new power of U.S. capital and transnational corporations to drive that revolution, and the reaction--sometimes violent--to that revolution."

What, you ask, does Michael Jordan have to do with all this? He has, as LaFeber says, a "profound" role in the "growing Americanization of global media," being perhaps the best-known American if not human being in the world, originally for his extraordinary skills on the basketball court but now for his preeminence as a pitchman for Nike and other products. As LaFeber writes:

"Jordan . . . remained an immensely profitable commodity in a society that, especially with the end of the Cold War, seemed to value profit, celebrity, and marketability above all else. He and Nike thus became post-Cold War symbols--indeed phenomena--of American culture, American globalization, American marketing, American wealth, American-headquartered media, American-based transnationals. Jordan and Nike were also becoming symbols for the sometime corruption of this Americanization, when its too often seamy underside contaminated its professed principles."

By the latter, LaFeber refers chiefly to two things: Jordan's penchant for gambling and associating with gamblers, and Nike's practice of "exploiting low-wage [foreign] labor to produce quality goods for American and European markets." The two reinforce each other, in that Nike has tended to soft-pedal Jordan's weakness for gambling and Jordan tends to be evasive when asked about Nike's labor practices. Obviously Jordan's problem has considerably smaller repercussions than Nike's--especially since there has never been a serious suggestion that his gambling ever had anything to do with his basketball performance--but both, LaFeber says, derive from the irony that in a media-centered culture, people who profit from the media's attention are also vulnerable to the media's exposure and ridicule.

Like others in this country and abroad, LaFeber is troubled by the Americanization of the planet. Like the French, he fears the homogenization of discrete cultures into a bland, lowest-common-denominator mass culture, and he believes that "the battlefields ahead . . . will revolve not around imperialism versus anti-imperialism, or civilization versus civilization, but capital versus culture." He quotes the aforementioned Soros as saying, "We can have a market economy, but we cannot have a market society," and he leaves little doubt that one in which Michael Jordan and Nike are the reigning deities is strictly a market society. Whether that serves the common good is, to say the least, debatable.