After three decades during which he calculated a considerable number of high-risk and no-risk decisions, Michael Jordan four years ago finally arrived at what public evidence suggests always was his ultimate destination:
Parts 5 and 6 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” shown Sunday night, served up several reminders of what Jordan, as he stacked dollars, was willing and unwilling to do at the height of his fame.
MJ rolled into the mid-1990s as perhaps the most recognizable face on the planet. He was being paid millions by the Chicago Bulls, millions more from Nike and a few scattered millions from numerous other products he was endorsing. He was omnipresent, pitching products on TV and billboards and magazines. “Air Jordan” sneakers transcended basketball. He had every reason to feel secure as a cultural icon. The world was his audience, its ear turned toward his lips. Awaiting his voice.
And MJ didn’t offer so much as a whisper. Known for his willingness to take risks, his eagerness to gamble on stakes high or trivial, 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 then and now, and also among those interviewed for “The Last Dance.”
“Any African-American in this society that sees significant success has an added burden,” Obama said. “And a lot of times America is very quick to embrace a Michael Jordan or an Oprah Winfrey or a Barack Obama, so long as it’s understood that you don’t get too controversial around broader issues of social justice.”
While one of Jordan’s teammates, Craig Hodges -- who twice led the league in 3-point-shooting percentage -- was shining a light on injustice, Jordan kept quiet. When Harvey Gantt, the first black mayor of Charlotte, made his first effort to unseat avowed racist Jesse Helms in 1990, Helms prevailed (52.6 percent to 47.4), Jordan declined to endorse either.
“For somebody who was, at that time, preparing for a career in civil rights law and in public life, and knowing what Jesse Helms stood for,” Obama said, “you would have wanted to see Michael push harder on that.
“On the other hand, he was still trying to figure out, ‘How am I managing this image that has been created around me? And how do I live up to it?’ "
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Jordan’s image was crafted largely by agent David Falk, who negotiated contracts and advised on business matters. “Be Like Mike” was a catchphrase because Falk and MJ approved.
“My mother asked to do a PSA for Harvey Gantt,” Jordan recalled. “And I said, ‘Look, mom, I’m not speaking out of pocket about something I don’t know -- but I will send a contribution to support him. Which is what I did.”
A native North Carolinian, MJ had a preferred candidate but sought to keep it secret. Maybe a bit too much of a risk for a multimillionaire pitchman longing to replace that “m” with a “b.”
As for the oft-referenced quote about republicans buying shoes, too, Jordan offers no denial and instead says he’ll live with it because it was said “in jest.”
“I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in,” said Jordan, whose wealth is valued at $1.9 billion. “But I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player.
“I wasn’t a politician. But I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That’s where my energy was.”
Here is why this is disappointing. Potential spokesmen Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, satisfied with rescuing the NBA, were fading out. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, willing to confront 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 marquee figure seeking equality, and he turned away.
MJ had the floor, an audience of billions. He had legitimate clout, because the NBA belonged to him. He surely was far too powerful to suffer the fate of Hodges, whose strong and unwavering commitment to fighting injustice led to banishment from the league.
“Michael didn’t speak out largely because he didn’t know what to say -- not because he was a bad person,” Hodges told The Guardian US in 2017.
Hodges’ absence among interviewees is rather conspicuous but hardly surprising. He moves in a much different space than that occupied by Jordan, who had his reasons for doing it his way.
It’s a matter of priorities. Nike’s “Air Jordan” brand posted its first $1 billion quarter in 2019. Shoes over souls.
“The way that I go about my life is, I set examples,” Jordan said. “If it inspires you, great. I will continue to do that. If it doesn’t, then maybe I’m not the person that you should be following.”
Here in 2020, it’s apparent those magnificent milestones were mere scenery along the route to 10-figure financial mountaintop wealth Jordan reached in 2016.