Michael Jordan’s retirement from the NBA in January was not just a sports story but an international news event. His farewell press conference was carried live on CNN, his face graced the front page of The New York Times, and when a White House event overlapped with Jordan’s announcement, even Bill Clinton noted that “most of the cameras are somewhere else.”
Obviously, the hysteria had a lot to do with Jordan’s unrivaled mastery of the game. But the Jordan phenomenon is much bigger than his scoring titles and six championship rings. Jordan has transcended his on-court achievements to become something more: a ubiquitous corporate pitchman who hawks for giant companies like Coke, McDonald’s and Nike, an entertainer whose role in the movie “Space Jam” helped it gross $450 million—in sum, he is the world’s biggest celebrity.
But he is even more than a celebrity. He is something much rarer: a hero. Jordan is almost universally adored, not just as a great player but as a man of honorable character. In a recent survey of Chinese students Jordan tied with Zhou Enlai as “the world’s greatest man.” The old Gatorade slogan “Be Like Mike” may be out of circulation, but the sentiment remains: Jordan is the ultimate role model.
Yet it might be worth pausing, in the midst of all this adulation, to ask just what kind of hero we have chosen. Some sports legends—Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe—were respected as much for their personalities and ideals as for their athletic prowess. And while he can match and perhaps exceed the athletic accomplishments of men such as these, Jordan doesn’t even compete when it comes to having a lasting, noncommercial impact on society.
The truth is that Jordan’s is not an especially interesting personality. He tends to be bland, never spontaneous, sometimes petulant, and often arrogant. He is ruthlessly competitive, although not in the same comically endearing way as Ali. And Jordan has so far been utterly disinterested in discovering the potential that a man of his fame, wealth and stature possesses to make the world even a slightly better place.
Ultimately, what Jordan represents aren’t so much values as the capitalist principles of relentless competition and the bounty of total victory. He is a monument to the self. And with the stock market soaring and political participation plummeting, perhaps he is the icon of our time.
With virtually no dissent, the American media—and not just sportswriters—have unquestioningly accepted the Jordan mythology. Dozens of news commentators have proclaimed Jordan the greatest basketball player of all time, hands down, as if Wilt Chamberlain somehow doesn’t count because he played before the advent of ESPN. But the hagiography extends beyond the question and coverage of Jordan’s athletic abilities. It often seems that Jordan’s consistent ability to win has worked to inflate our estimation of his character.
Because Jordan was nearly perfect on the court, there seemed to be a desire to find perfection in his character as well. “What made Jordan special was his demanding code of personal excellence,” The New York Times declared. Even a writer as wise as David Halberstam, for instance, can’t resist calling Jordan the “most charismatic” player the game has seen—apparently ignoring the affable likes of Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, Walt Frazier and others, and embellishing Jordan’s bland persona.
When Jordan flashed a less amicable side—when he reportedly called New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy a “fucking hockey puck,” for instance—the press tended to chuckle and dismiss it. Critical assessments of Jordan seemed to be off-limits. And why was it that only Time magazine and one Milwaukee newspaper ran a story about a woman who filed a paternity suit against Jordan last year?
Admittedly, Jordan has taken his lumps in the media, most notably when stories emerged several years ago about his gambling habits. But it’s plainly evident that members of the media never really questioned whether Jordan is everything an American hero should be.
Looking Beneath Jordan’s Commercial Persona
Although he was deservedly praised as a decent guy with a common touch with lesser mortals, Jordan’s personality has always been rather bland. Far less colorful than several of his contemporaries, Jordan inevitably spoke in throwaway clichés and hollow jock jargon. At his brief retirement press conference, Jordan was his typically banal self, using variations of the word “challenge” 20 times. He may have illuminated our understanding of the sport with deeds, but never with words.
And although the NBA and his corporate patrons, including the Disney corporation, created a gentle, smiling and gracious persona for Jordan, this wasn’t always the case. Jordan was, undoubtedly, polite to the media and his fans, graceful and composed in public. But he had a darker side, one explored in Sam Smith’s 1992 book “The Jordan Rules” (Pocket Books). Smith depicted Jordan as selfish, arrogant, obsessed with statistics, and disparaging to his teammates, whom he once referred to as “my supporting cast.” Over the years he never hesitated to yell at teammates who failed to pass him the ball. As recently as a 1998 NBA Finals game, Jordan shouted at Bulls forward Scottie Pippen for not passing him the ball—after Pippen had drained a game-tying three-pointer.
His Airness is also a famously thin-skinned fellow. Criticism is often cause for massive retaliation, as Sports Illustrated learned after it published a 1993 article mocking his ill-fated stint as a baseball player. Jordan stopped talking to reporters from the magazine for years; some editors even believe that Jordan intentionally leaked word of his retirement just after that week’s edition of SI had gone to press.
Jordan’s sharp edges seem to grow from his intense competitive drive, which has been the object of much awed admiration. But it was often excessive by any standards. Never famous for sportsmanship, Jordan was one of the nastiest trash-talkers of his day, and he loved to humiliate his rivals. As his former coach Doug Collins once said, “He wants to cut your heart out andthen show it to you.” Nor was he gracious in losing. He was known to petulantly sweep the pieces off a board game when things weren’t going his way. Halberstam writes that in college Jordan frigidly refused to speak to an assistant coach who had beaten him repeatedly in pool and even cheated at golf. “If you challenge him,” Toronto Raptors coach and former player Darrell Walker told The Toronto Star last year, “he can be a very vindictive person.”
This apparent pathology may explain the taste for high-stakes gambling that is the one real blotch on Jordan’s sterling reputation. Jordan admitted in 1992 to paying $165,000 in poker and golf debts to a pair of unsavory characters, one of whom was later murdered. And a former golfing partner wrote a book claiming that Michael had lost $1.25 million on the links in 10 days. (A penitent Jordan admitted betting with the man but said the figures had been exaggerated.) Rumors still linger that Jordan’s debts were a factor in his startling first “retirement” in 1993—some suggest that the league insisted he lay low for a while.
Jordan’s obsession with victory—however meaningless, be it in golf or cards—is hailed as an inspiring example of his personal excellence. Yet even his father wondered about this side of Jordan. “My son doesn’t have a gambling problem,” James Jordan once said. “He has a competition problem.”
Keeping His Distance From Social Issues
Despite his ever-growing wealth and influence, Jordan has never shown much interest in shaping the world that lies at his feet. He carefully dodged any political issue that might have jeopardized his family-friendly image. When asked in 1992 about the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, for instance, Jordan lamely replied: “I need to know more about it.” He refused to take a side in the tight 1990 North Carolina Senate race in which Jesse Helms, despised by many blacks, was challenged by a black man, Harvey Gantt. Approached by Gantt’s campaign, Jordan declined to get involved, reportedly offering this explanation: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
That statement is quintessential Jordan. Jordan has remained devoutly apolitical. He has never used his platform to pursue social or political change; indeed, he’s gone out of his way to play it safe. This is, of course, precisely how the corporations he endorses want it. Politics and successful marketing don’t mix. (Jordan has recently been quietly supporting Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley, but that appears to be a favor to Jordan’s former coach and Bradley pal Phil Jackson.)
Informed punditry may be too much to expect of pro athletes. Yet Jordan has also dodged matters over which he has a more direct influence. As inner-city leaders decried the $150 price tag on his Nike Air Jordan sneakers, which are targeted at the kids who can least afford them, Jordan never spoke up. By contrast, in 1996 NBA forward Chris Webber publicly feuded with Nike about the cost of shoes it sold in his name.
Better known is Jordan’s shoulder-shrug over Nike’s allegedly exploitative labor practices in Southeast Asia. Jordan first said it wasn’t his problem, but later said he would travel to Asia, explaining that “if it’s an issue of slavery or sweatshops, [Nike executives] have to revise the situation.” Yet even after acknowledging the specter of “slavery,” Jordan never made the trip.
Yes, he has done his share of good works. Jordan has donated millions to charity and to his alma mater, the University of North Carolina. Every year he visits with dozens of dying children whose last wish it is to meet him. If there’s a heaven, he will surely be rewarded there. But there are still places of hell on Earth and much more Jordan could do with his money and power. Yet he has made no deeper effort to take advantage of his unique cultural pedestal.
Jordan’s avoidance of social issues hasn’t escaped criticism. Several well-known pro athletes—including such black champions as Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown and Hank Aaron—have knocked Jordan for being politically aloof. “He’s more interested in his image for his shoe deals than he is in helping his own people,” Brown said of Jordan in 1992.
Asked in January whether he would become more politically active now that he’s retired, Jordan answered: “I can’t save the world by no means.” But there’s plenty of room between saving the planet and doing nothing. Jordan might, as Brown has, insist on more blacks in sports management. Or, as Jesse Jackson does, he could press for more corporate hiring and investment in black communities. Or he could sponsor ads reminding kids that school is a safer route to success than basketball. Or he could speak out against handguns with the moral authority of a man whose father was killed by one.
In fairness, Jordan is no exception among his contemporaries. His equivalents in other sports—Tiger Woods, Ken Griffey, Jr., Mark McGwire—aren’t known for their political engagement, either. But it’s not unheard-of for modern-day athletes to take political stands. His outspoken Bulls teammate Craig Hodges once showed up at a White House ceremony in a dashiki with a letter for George Bush on the plight of the inner cities. “I can’t go and just be in an Armani suit and not say shit,” Hodges later told The Village Voice.
In 1993, NBA forward Olden Polynice staged a hunger strike to protest U.S. policy toward his native Haiti. Though they were second-tier players, both Hodges and Polynice drew national media coverage nevertheless. Imagine what Michael Jordan could do with a single television ad or press conference! As Jesse Jackson told The Washington Post in 1996: “If [sports stars] can sell these wares with the power of their personas, they also can sell civic responsibility with the power of their personas.”
And the fact remains that Jordan is not the same as Tiger Woods or Mark McGwire. No one else has achieved his global stature, his corporate clout.
In the end, perhaps Michael Jordan simply reflects our times in much the way that Muhammad Ali epitomized the values of the 1960’s. Just as Ali was a symbol for the social and political energy of his day, so Jordan stands for the apathy and commercialism of our times. Ali was a rebel. Jordan is a brand name. After all, a recorded message at Jordan’s personal office informs callers that “the majority of Michael Jordan fan mail and autograph requests will be acknowledged by Nike, Inc.”
So perhaps in worshipping Michael Jordan we are celebrating nothing less than capitalism itself. The winner takes all, and we cheer wildly. Perhaps society will never idolize underpaid idealists and clumsy altruists the way it elevates sports titans like Michael Jordan. But whatever happened to the old maxim that winning isn’t everything?
Michael Crowley is a reporter for The Boston Globe.