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A new novel crosses the line on Michael Jordan

By Shelly Ridenour

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  The world's most famous athlete, an African-American superstar and - with honors including NBA Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, All-Star MVP, an NCAA championship, multiple NBA championship rings and two Olympic gold medals - the "darling" of the Chicago Bulls, is facing the greatest challenge of his life. No fadeaway at the buzzer, no last-minute steal, no acrobatic slam can save him this time. His only daughter has been kidnapped.

Forget the NBA owners' lockout of the players, this scenario - which plays out in the pages of local author Jay Amberg's latest thriller, "Blackbird Singing" - is enough to turn Michael Jordan's hoop dreams into a waking nightmare.

Amberg, however, asserts that the character Robert "Sky" Walker is not modeled on one Michael "Air" Jordan. "It's set in Chicago because it made it easier for me to research. I wanted the character to be a famous athlete. And the psychology of Sky, to me, is closer to someone like Karl Malone. MJ's at ease with the media; Sky isn't."

As for why he made up some proper names (Sky, WLN-TV) and stuck with fact for others (CNN, the Bulls), Amberg explains, "I used both real space and composites. The town [North Ridge] is a composite of the northern suburbs. I can't really tell you why it's the Chicago Bulls rather than the Chicago something-else, other than the fact that I was trying to get in as many realistic details as possible."

Amberg's assertion seems like a bit of literary hot air, though, when the character traits make for such a one-on-one match with MJ (did we mention that Sky has a penchant for hand-tailored Italian suits?). Here's the really sticky part - and if you don't want at least part of the book's ending ruined for you, skip the next few sentences: the girl isn't kidnapped because her father is a celebrity, or because he can pay a whopper of a ransom. She is kidnapped, in fact, because of a plot twist involving her mother's identity as a highly-recognizable anchorwoman at Chicago's own "WLN."

Actually, the book really isn't about Sky Walker. Though he crops up, of course, you never get a sense of who the character is the way you do with the lead investigating cop, the kidnapper, the child victim, the out-of-control reporter on the trail, even Sky's wife.

"You're absolutely right. It's not about a basketball player as much as about the people solving this crime and the mind of the criminal," Amberg agrees.

Then why in the world is half of the red-and-black cover taken up by the in-action torso of a black man playing basketball?

"That's marketing," Amberg admits. "Was it my idea to put a basketball player on the cover? No. Do I think it was put there to sell books? Yes." "Basketball is an element," says Jennifer Marcus, Amberg's publicist at Forge Press, "and I suppose the marketing decisions were made based on book notes, author quotes, content. Many elements go into the packaging.

"Do you have any better ideas?"

As a matter of fact...the kidnapper is, by Amberg's own description, a computer hacker, or "cracker," with an impressive bank of cyber and video equipment, and a man who commits acts of terrorism via e-mail - how about a computer screen? How about something to symbolize the media frenzy surrounding the case? The mom's an anchorwoman, the daughter's a gymnast, the book's named for a Beatles song. Would a blackbird not be enough?

"It sounds like a problem with marketing decisions," confirms Dr. Elizabeth Kiss, director of the Kenan Ethics Institute at Duke University. "Fame has become such a hook, and marketers know that."

But denials and buck-passing aside, this is a story about authorial responsibility. After all, Michael Jordan's father was murdered after being abducted from a North Carolina highway rest-stop in 1993. How responsible is it to posit, even obliquely, and even in a fictional work, that Jordan's child could be kidnapped and possibly killed in a similar fashion? Amberg, who has two daughters, isn't exactly happy about the question, but he did invite it just as much as Dennis Rodman invites a flagrant-foul call when he head-butts an opponent under the hoop. Isn't it irresponsible to mess with another man's children like that, even under the guise of poetic license?

"I wanted someone with terrific fame, so much that if something tragic happened to them there would be a media frenzy," Amberg answers. "If I had written the book in 1986, maybe it would've been a Bear; if I wrote it now maybe it would be a baseball player."

"The ethical issue here goes beyond Michael Jordan's fame, and the fact that his father was murdered - even if the murderers didn't realize it was Michael Jordan's father - adds to that. This is a man who has already experienced real-life tragedy," says Kiss.

"His loved ones did not ask to be thrust into the limelight, even if this is in a curious and indirect way."

And what if, heaven forbid, Jordan's kids were put in danger sometime in the near future. Would Amberg feel responsible?

"I would be devastated, but especially surprised if it caused a copy cat," Amberg says. "What's in the book is probably less bizarre than what's out there already. There's someone out there with stranger ideas than [fictional kidnapper] James Robert Saville; the book is tame in comparison to what could happen."

"How would I feel if I was Michael Jordan and I knew this character was a reflection of my own child, put into a perilous situation?" asks Kiss. "I would feel quite violated. It's painful and disturbing. There are sick people out there who can get ideas."

Amberg does admit that he sees interesting parallels between the media frenzy portrayed in the book and the real-life ones that surrounded the O.J. Simpson court case and Princess Diana's death, as well as the character of James Robert Saville and real-life villain, convicted Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, though the book was written before any of those things came to light.

"And I don't necessarily feel good that the truth is mimicking fiction." "Blackbird Singing" is not without precedent in its attempt to exploit a what-if-bad-things-happened-to-famous-people scenario. Other works in this genre include everything from the big-budget film "Air Force One" down to the barely-noticed book "The Last Rock Star, Or Liz Phair: A Rant," in which the main character is hired to write a whatever-happened-to? bio about the fictitiously washed-up rock star. And how about the fact that shows like "The Practice" and "Homicide" consistently feature plots that are, as the commercials never let you forget, "ripped from the headlines"? When you have an episode about the youngest murder suspects ever, you have to wonder if the networks aren't only trading on fame - but how much we're feeding it.

Issues of legality were raised recently in Los Angeles, in an odd twist on the exploitation of fame and tragedy issue, and art imitating real life. Frank Sinatra Jr. is currently battling in court the men who kidnapped him for real in 1963. Sinatra, who was 19 at the time of the crime, was taken at gunpoint from the Las Vegas casino where he was performing and held captive for four days by a trio that included a onetime high school friend of his sister, Nancy. Three days after a ransom of nearly $250,000 was delivered and collected, the FBI nabbed the kidnappers, who were later convicted. (Ringleader Barry Keenan was given the heftiest sentence, seventy-five years, though he was released after serving only four-and-a-half.) Thirty-five years later, after a newspaper story stirred up current interest in the crime, the ex-convicts wrangled a deal to sell the movie rights for the tale to Columbia Pictures for an estimated sum of $750,000 to $1 million. However, justice prevails in the form of a 1986 California law which prevents felons from profiting from their criminal activity, and Sinatra Jr. has been able to obtain a court order restraining Columbia from making payment to the three. (Sinatra Jr. is not looking to halt the film's production, which would be a violation of the First Amendment.)

So where do you draw the line when you're not facing a legal issue, but one of morality and responsibility - and when does it just become tasteless?

"Given the issues of artistic freedom, we must ask ourselves if it is a matter of taste as well as ethics," says Kiss. "Sometimes taste just involves arbitrary customs, like which fork to use, but matters of taste can be infused with moral issues. This ['Blackbird Singing'] sounds like it gets into the whole realm of good taste and bad taste."

Outrage aside, there is a strong case to be made that these are, after all, celebrities who have relentlessly put themselves in the public eye and thus have to take the good, bad and even uncomfortable coverage as it comes. "Famous people can be harmed by fame, but you have to remember that they benefit from it," Kiss points out. And if anyone has reaped the spoils of celebrity, it's certainly Michael Jordan - and, doubtless, any publicity stirred up by this particular matter certainly won't hurt sales of Jordan's own book, "For the Love of the Game," a $50 autobiography with an initial print run of just under 500,000 copies.

And then there's the fact that, after all, Amberg's words are fiction. But if "Blackbird Singing" was a great work of modern fiction, rather than a pulp novel meant to be consumed quickly and passed along to a neighbor or used book store, the ethical issues raised by its existence would be a lot more troubling.

"It's a potentially confusing matter," Kiss agrees. "But we can say 'This is not a good idea' without calling for censorship."

Making the distinction legally might be troubling. But making the distinction critically is a natural function of the marketplace. In other words, if celebrity exploitation sells, authors and publishers and TV networks and film studios will churn out more of it, and the only direction in which to point any accusing fingers is right back at ourselves - and not just readers. After all, the inherent questions of ethics and moral responsibility certainly include the media: writers, reviewers, editors et al. But if "Blackbird Singing" and other dubious endeavors like it fail at the cash register, the incentive to trade on fame lessens.

"The theory of fandom spells disappointment for those anticipating their fifteen minutes of fame, implying as it does that if there is a moment for each of us in the limelight, it will only be a vicarious one," writes educator Jane Gaines, in her essay "Reincarnation as the Ring on Liz Taylor's Finger," collected in the book "Identities, Politics and Rights."

Kiss poses an interesting question for both the vicarious-thrill-seeking reader and the vicarious-scenario creator: "It all goes back to the Golden Rule: 'Are you treating others the way you want them to treat you?'"

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