On the first road trip of his N.B.A. career, in the fall of 2001, Etan Thomas looked out the window of the Washington Wizards’ team bus and was stunned by the massing crowd around the hotel.
He asked Christian Laettner, the veteran forward: “Is this how the N.B.A. is?”
Laettner laughed. “No, young fella,” he said. “This isn’t for us. They’re here for M.J.”
This was lesson No. 1 of Thomas’s two-year tour with Michael Jordan, who had returned to the league from a three-season absence following his last dance with the Chicago Bulls. Along with him came the deluge of lights, cameras, action.
The young, inquisitive Thomas couldn’t help but wonder: What about the activism? Why wasn’t Jordan doing more with his spotlight?
“I was thinking that Michael didn’t lend his voice to causes where he could have helped,” Thomas said in a recent interview, 20 years removed from his time with the man on whose shoulders the sport dramatically rose in popularity worldwide.
Jordan played his final N.B.A. game on April 16, 2003, scoring 15 points in a 20-point defeat in Philadelphia. That season, with him turning 40 in February and dealing with a knee that Thomas remembered could swell like a grapefruit, Jordan averaged a modest (for him) 20 points per game. He played 37 minutes a night and in all 82 games — part of a legacy that should admonish, if not embarrass, today’s load-managed N.B.A. elite.
Jordan retired as a six-time champion with many believing, and now still insisting, there was no one ever greater. Such conviction has only been heightened by the widespread appeal of “The Last Dance,” a 10-part ESPN series about Jordan’s Bulls that was broadcast in 2020, and the current feature film “Air,” starring Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Viola Davis.
The flip side of Jordan mania was the derision directed at him for appearing not to use his enormous popularity and platform as a premier Black athlete for the benefit of social or political change. For all the interviews he did, what arguably remains the most memorable quotation attributed to him — “Republicans buy shoes, too” — ostensibly rationalized his unwillingness to endorse Harvey Gantt, an African American Democratic candidate in a 1990 North Carolina Senate race against Jesse Helms, a white conservative known for racist policies.
On a broader scale, it reflected the narrative that followed Jordan into the 21st century: that he was a hardcore capitalist without a social conscience. Sam Smith, the author in whose 1995 book the quotation originally appeared, has many times called it an offhand remark during a casual conversation — more or less a joke — and said he regretted including it. In the ESPN series, Jordan said he made the comment “in jest.”
In recent tumultuous and polarizing years, Jordan has become more public with his philanthropy and occasional calls for racial justice. And given two decades to consider the precedents he set, the boardrooms he bounded into and how he ascended from transcendent player to principal owner of the Charlotte Hornets, the context has shifted enough to ask: Did he actually blaze a different or perhaps more impactful trail to meaningful societal change?
Thomas, who after his nine-season N.B.A. career has been an activist, author and media personality, said his reconsideration of the 1990s Jordan narrative began before Jordan retired for good.
He recalled sitting in the Wizards’ training room one day with Jordan and a member of his entourage when Jordan asked him about a book he had noticed Thomas reading. Thomas recalled it was likely Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice.”
“That got a conversation going and Michael’s guy started talking about the charitable things he did without publicity,” Thomas said. “He mentioned an event at an all-white golf club, where of course they let Michael play, but there were no Black members, and how Michael threatened at the last minute to back out if they didn’t change their policy.”
Thomas added: “I told Michael, ‘That’s something people should know and then maybe they wouldn’t be saying the things they do about you.’ He just said, ‘I don’t do that.’ And his guy said, ‘See what I mean?’ After that, I could never hold him up as the antithesis of the activist athlete, the opposite of Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell. It’s not that simple.”
In “Air,” Davis, powerfully portraying Jordan’s mother, Deloris Jordan, dramatically foresees momentous change benefiting African American families of modest means after she had engineered a groundbreaking deal with Nike upon Jordan’s 1984 entry into the N.B.A.
A screenwriter’s indulgent license, perhaps, but who can argue that Jordan didn’t actually do a total rewrite of the script in the allocation of corporate revenues to athletes? Or that the Nike deal, which guaranteed him a cut of every sneaker sold, doesn’t make him the godfather of the name, image and likeness revenues flowing into the pockets of college athletes today?
For these reasons, Harry Edwards, the sociologist and civil rights activist, said on the “Bakari Sellers Podcast” in February 2021 that Jordan should not be scolded for his sole focus on commercial brand-building across the 1980s and ’90s.
He called it “an era where the foundations of power were laid,” ultimately empowering Jordan’s super-wealthy descendants to affect communities — for example, in LeBron James’s staunch commitment to public education in his hometown, Akron, Ohio.
Len Elmore, the former N.B.A. center who retired from playing in 1984 to attend law school at Harvard, said he, like others who venerated Ali and 1960s activist icons, was once bewildered by Jordan’s reluctance to speak out on issues of equity. Those issues included sweatshop conditions abroad, where Jordan’s signature sneakers were produced to be sold at premium prices.
“Michael’s years didn’t have what the ’60s had — the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement,” said Elmore, a senior lecturer in Columbia University’s Sports Management Program. “There was more of a smoldering of race, but it wasn’t on fire.
He added: “I’m not defending Michael’s not taking a stand. But the reinterpretation of his legacy depends on what you saw then and what you see now.”
While Thomas wasn’t around the league during Jordan’s prime as a player and pitchman, his view of that era is based on interviews he has done for his books and his podcast, “The Rematch.” Those years, he learned, followed one strategic mandate: N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern’s preoccupation with marketing.
“He was 100 percent clear in those days — everything was about growing the game, the bottom line,” Thomas said. “He was dead set against anything that might turn off the fan base. Even when I came in and made antiwar comments, David told me, ‘Be careful.’ ”
Stern, who died in 2020, straddled a fine line between his mostly progressive politics and fear of alienating consumers. Jordan followed along as a polished yet cautious spokesman on controversies, such as the one that engulfed Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who in 1996 was suspended by the league for refusing to stand for the national anthem for religious reasons.
Was this approach the reflection of a man intrinsically averse to risk? Did Jordan share the vision attributed to his mother in this year’s film? Was he unaware that he might have been famous and leveraged enough to have had it both ways — to both speak out about social causes and remain a potent pitchman?
James and other more outspoken contemporary stars have adopted that approach — “changed the narrative,” Thomas said — and with the apparent support of Stern’s successor, Adam Silver.
It’s doubtful that Jordan, in his day, could have built what he did while doubling as a crusader, said Sonny Vaccaro, who played a crucial role in corralling Jordan for Nike.
“The league had to grow first,” said Vaccaro, who is played in “Air” by Damon. “Look, Michael had his troubles — with the Republicans quote, the gambling, with some of his teammates. But he opened the door. He changed the world — only no one knew how much he was changing the world until the next century.”
He added: “LeBron can only be the way he is today because Michael made it OK for corporations to put their money, huge amounts of money, on athletes, especially Black athletes. Over time their power and voice has grown.”
Some would add, for better or worse, that the pendulum has swung too far in the players’ favor. It is not — or should not be — about what stars earn, given the staggering sums that franchise stakeholders have been reaping in recent sales. (Jordan will likely be no exception if he secures a deal he’s reportedly been negotiating to cash out of the $275 million he invested in his 2010 purchase of his team.)
But Jordan-inspired superstar leverage has led to an era of chronic and chaotic team-hopping that, for older fans and some news media members, seems antithetical to their relished Jordan era. For all the disdain he had for Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ general manager during their championship years, Jordan worked with the players provided to him, mercilessly pushed them to succeed and ultimately reaped the rewards.
To emphasize that point, Jordan’s process, said David Falk, his longtime agent, was purer.
“Michael was part of a generation that went to college for a few years, identified with a program like North Carolina, instead of switching A.A.U. and high school teams whenever it suited you,” Falk said. “I asked Michael once if he ever thought about playing with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. He said: ‘Hell, no. I wanted to kick their butt every night.’ ”
Jordan created his own controversies, mostly related to high-stakes golf, including the case of a $57,000 debt he paid by check to a man who was later convicted of money laundering. But even his legendary casino preoccupation seems more quaint now given professional sports’ unapologetic marriage to the online gaming industry.
Jordan, at 60, deserves to be viewed through the lens of an evolved narrative, given how high he has raised the bar for athletes outside the lines, a legacy that will resonate far into the future.
Twenty years after his last professional jump shot, he is arguably still the most leveraged player in sports. If he were so inclined, he might even have the muscle, upon walking away from basketball, to make a competitive run for the seat once held by Helms. His pitch, of course, was always bipartisan.
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