After three decades of calculating a massive number of high-risk and no-risk decisions, Michael Jordan finally arrived four years ago at what public evidence still suggests was his ultimate destination:
Parts 5 and 6 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” which aired Sunday night, served as several reminders of what Jordan, as he piled on the dollars, was ready and unwilling to do at the height of his fame.
MJ arrived in the mid-1990s as perhaps the most recognizable face on the planet. He was paid millions by the Chicago Bulls, millions more from Nike, and a few scattered millions from many other products he endorsed. He was ubiquitous, showcasing products on television, on billboards, and in magazines. “Air Jordan” sneakers have transcended basketball. He had every reason to feel safe as a cultural icon. The world was his audience, his ear to his lips. Waiting for his voice.
And MJ didn’t even offer a whisper. Known for his willingness to take risks, his willingness to bet on high or low stakes, he would be a spectator in the eternal search for equality.
Jordan’s position is well understood by former President Barack Obama, a Bulls fan past and present, and also among those interviewed for “The Last Dance.”
“Any African-American in this society that is significantly successful has an added burden,” Obama said. “And often America is very quick to adopt a Michael Jordan or an Oprah Winfrey or a Barack Obama, as long as it’s understood that you don’t get too controversial about broader issues of social justice.”
While one of Jordan’s teammates, Craig Hodges — who twice led the league in 3-point shooting percentage — shone a light on the injustice, Jordan remained silent. When Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first black mayor, made his first effort to unseat avowed racist Jesse Helms in 1990, Helms prevailed (52.6% to 47.4), Jordan refused to endorse the either.
“For someone who, at the time, was preparing for a career in civil rights law and public life, and knowing what Jesse Helms stood for,” Obama said, “you would have wanted to see Michael push more strong on it.
“On the other hand, he was still trying to figure out, ‘How do I deal with this image that’s been created around me? And how can I be up to it? “
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Jordan’s image was shaped in large part by agent David Falk, who negotiated contracts and advised on business matters. “Be Like Mike” was a catchphrase because Falk and MJ approved.
“My mom asked to do a public service announcement for Harvey Gantt,” Jordan recalled. “And I said, ‘Look, mum, I’m not talking out of pocket about something I don’t know – but I’m going to send a contribution to support it. That’s what I did.
Originally from North Carolina, MJ had a favorite candidate but sought to keep it a secret. Perhaps a little too risky for a multi-millionaire pitchman willing to replace that “m” with a “b”.
As for the oft-referenced quote about Republicans buying shoes, Jordan doesn’t deny either and instead says he’ll live with it because it was said “jokingly.”
“I commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in,” said Jordan, whose wealth is valued at $1.9 billion. “But I never considered myself an activist. I considered myself a basketball player.
“I was not a politician. But I was doing my sport. I was focused on my job. Was it selfish? Probably. But it was my energy. That’s where my energy was.
Here’s why it’s disappointing. Would-be spokesmen Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, content to have saved the NBA, were fainting. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, ready to face injustice, had retired. Muhammad Ali’s profile was diminishing with the effects of Parkinson’s disease.
There was a void. MJ had an opening as a figurehead seeking equality, and he turned away.
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MJ had the floor, an audience of billions. He had legitimate clout, because the NBA belonged to him. Surely he was far too powerful to suffer the fate of Hodges, whose firm and unwavering commitment to fighting injustice led to his banishment from the league.
“Michael didn’t speak largely because he didn’t know what to say – not because he was a bad person,” Hodges told the US Guardian in 2017.
Hodges’ absence among the interviewees is rather notable but not surprising. He moves into a much different space than that occupied by Jordan, who had his reasons for doing it his own way.
It’s a question of priorities. Nike’s “Air Jordan” brand recorded its $1 billion first quarter of 2019. Shoes on souls.
“The way I go about my life is that I lead by example,” Jordan said. “If that inspires you, so much the better. I will continue to do so. If not, then maybe I’m not the person you should be following.
Here in 2020, it’s obvious that those gorgeous milestones were just mere scenery along the road to the 10-figure financial wealth that Jordan achieved in 2016.