By Drew Stevens (@lookwhatdrewdid)
What if I told you that for every fashionably lax pair of shorts, every tongue poked out in forewarning of a devastating offensive maneuver or for every sleekly designed athletic product gone global, Michael Jordan’s most lasting impression on the National Basketball Association and its players has only recently begun to take shape.
When the 2019-2020 season was shoved to the edge of cancellation for the second time in five months — this time as a result of the league-wide boycott set in motion by the Milwaukee Bucks in response to the police shooting of another unarmed Black man, and not the Coronavirus pandemic — to the extent that the two prohibitively favored teams from Tinseltown were prepared to make a dramatic exit from the Walt Disney World Resort on the night of the historic demonstration, it was Jordan who took the initiative to help rescue the teeter-tottering campaign from an otherwise devastating outcome.
As only the second ever Black majority owner in the NBA — having succeeded the first, Robert Johnson, nearly a decade ago in taking over the then-Charlotte Bobcats — Jordan acted as the conduit through which National Basketball Players Association president, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard and Jordan Brand sponsoree Chris Paul relayed his contemporaries concerns about, and ambitions for, a return to action. Players’ fury with the unconscionable police shooting of another unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, ignited feelings of righteous anger that most of the league took into the bubble play but they had to be paired with feelings of helplessness to influence change or soothe the mounting tension that enveloped their otherwise tranquil surroundings.
With a list of accolades as long as one of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s triple jump-like strides toward the rim, plus his ownership of an iconic clothing brand endorsed by the likes of phenoms Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans and Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks, and a reputation as the greatest to ever play the sport in every circle free from ignorantly blissful LeBron James fans (sorry, Rihanna), Jordan is a tailor-made go-between, really the only person who can completely relate to both elements of power that the NBA’s success is based on.
Of course, Jordan wasn’t single-handedly responsible for the players’ retreat from the season-ending ledge but he did something valuable and that can’t be overstated in encouraging his fellow franchise proprietors to lend their ears to the players before offering solutions that from their older, mostly white alignment could be seen as out of touch or overbearing.
Jordan’s recent activity — in May following the murder of George Floyd Jordan said “we have had enough” in part of a statement released by the Hornets, and in July he and his Nike subsidiary pledged to disperse $100 million over the next 10 years to organizations nationwide that are “dedicated to ensuring racial equality, social justice and greater access to education” — is a reconciliation of sorts with his voluntary exclusion from socio-political affairs in the past.
Criticism regarding Jordan’s supposed distance from matters of social importance has clouded his legacy ever since he infamously joked that “Republicans buy sneakers, too” in response to his refusal to endorse Black Democrat Harvey Gantt in the 1990 U.S. senate race in his home state of North Carolina.
In his memoir Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter, Jordan’s former Chicago Bulls teammate and renowned social activist Craig Hodges said Jordan called him crazy for suggesting they and the Los Angeles Lakers boycott Game 1 of the 1991 Finals following the brutal beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department officers earlier that year.
“I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player,” Jordan explained in the 10-part ESPN documentary The Last Dance that premiered in April and chronicled his career up and through his final season with the Bulls. “I wasn’t a politician. I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft.”
That kind of tunnel vision helped fuel one of the more decorated careers in all of sports but it also stoked criticism, especially from a couple of legendary athletes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown, who were also supreme athletes while also being willing battlers of the toxic elements of the social climate of their hey-day.
“He took commerce over conscience,” Abdul-Jabbar said of Jordan to National Public Radio in 2015.
Brown, who organized the Cleveland Summit, a meeting of top Black athletes — including Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) — in support of the late Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam more than a half-century ago told Sports Illustrated, “Money has changed today’s black athletes. Those who have the ability as African men to bring a change in a community that so desperately needs it are concentrating only on their own careers, some charities and how much money they can make.”
At a time when everyone is zeroed in on the racial inequities of this country, leading to a plummet in the price to be paid for social activism, Jordan has often bought low into the cycle of financial ramification and public ridicule.
Nevertheless, Jordan’s efforts led to the owner’s unanimous support of the players, renewal of the season and creation of several initiatives aimed toward voting access, social injustice and racial inequality, and police reform.
That athletes have taken up the mantle of representing their communities to government officials is both an inspiration for fans and an indictment of the complacency that’s befallen our politicians. Neither Jordan nor the NBA nor its players have the capacity to change laws and they shouldn’t be tasked to try — that’s supposed to be the job of our elected legislators.
What Jordan, the NBA and its players have tapped into, however, is the enormity of the platform at their separate disposal and the grand possibilities of their cohesion when put towards efforts of direct action.
With the number of Black head coaches in the league having dwindled to five after the firings of Nate McMillan and Alvin Gentry in August, perhaps Jordan, who serves as the NBA Labor Relations Committee chairman, can also help reconstruct the sidelines to more closely resemble the competitors within the lines of play.
During his potshot laden hall-of-fame induction speech in 2009, Jordan hinted at a comeback.
The context then was Jordan taking one more shot at athletic glory. Who knew his actual comeback would be as the NBA’s highest-profile torch-bearer for justice?
Drew Stevens is a writer based in Chicago