Air Show

What the rise of an NBA superstar tells us about ourselves

A mural of Michael Jordan, by JC Ro, in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo (Unsplash)
A mural of Michael Jordan, by JC Ro, in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo (Unsplash)

Jumpman: The Making and Meaning of Michael Jordan, by Johnny Smith; Basic Books, 336 pp., $30

A quarter century has passed since Michael Jordan won his last NBA championship with the Chicago Bulls, a quarter century since his tongue-wagging dominance culminated in champagne-doused glory, and we’re still busy dissecting his legacy. In 2013, Wright Thompson’s masterly profile of Jordan as he turned 50 captured the human side of his uneasy transition into retirement. During the pandemic, The Last Dance, ESPN’s 10-part series about Jordan’s final championship season, burnished the legend yet again, inspiring an endless succession of memes about his ability to channel any perceived slight—an ambiguous quote, a public cold shoulder—into fuel for his competitive drive: “It became personal.” And earlier this year, Air, starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, gave cinematic play to the creation of the Air Jordan, the sneaker that helped launch his multibillion-dollar brand.

How did a kid from Wilmington, North Carolina, the grandson of sharecroppers, transform himself into a global icon, “an idol of personal and collective fantasy”? That’s the question posed by Johnny Smith, an associate professor of history at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in Jumpman, yet another contribution to the wealth of Jordan scholarship. That Nike executives and other corporate pitchmen turned Jordan into a paragon of American exceptionalism in order to hawk sugar water and the Swoosh is no revelation: ESPN’s Howard Bryant has dubbed such race-neutral marketing of Black athletes like Jordan and Tiger Woods “greenwashing.” Smith’s contribution is to go behind the creation of that image and reveal how Jordan chafed under the impossible burden of maintaining his mythical façade. His was a double life: off camera, the “downest brother,” on camera, “the whitest bread,” as David Breskin quipped in GQ. Or, as Smith writes: Jordan “understood that the less real that he seemed, that the more he buried his politics and his past battles with racism, he would appear more likeable to people living under the illusion that the nation had solved its racial dilemmas.”

Jordan harbored no such illusion himself. In the late 1970s, after watching Roots, the miniseries based on Alex Haley’s novel, he began fighting back—sometimes with his fists—against the racial abuse he endured at his Wilmington high school, his anger fueling his rise on the basketball court. Even after making the NBA, he bristled at the plantation-style dynamics of the league, at the way white ownership treated him as “a piece of meat”: Jerry Krause, Chicago’s general manager, famously said, “You’re Bulls property now, and we’ll tell you what to do.” As for the public at large, Jordan was keenly aware of America’s fickle acceptance of a Black athlete so long as that athlete didn’t dare transgress middle-class suburban sensibilities.

Might he lose everything if his secrets were exposed? Like how he got his first wife, Juanita Vanoy, pregnant out of wedlock and married her only after a private investigator turned up evidence of his sleeping with a half-dozen other women at the time; his subsequent affair with and hush money payout to Karla Knafel, then an aspiring singer; his gambling losses, some at the hands of James “Slim” Bouler, a convicted cocaine dealer. Recall that the unmasking of Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, and Tiger remained in the distant future; the gulf between the heroic, mythologized image and the underlying human reality of our sporting heroes was not yet understood to be so vast.

To this day, so many of my generation defend him as they would a family member, a certain manufactured intimacy still hardwired into our fandom.

Politically, Jordan’s infamous “Republicans buy sneakers, too” line—his stated reason for refusing to endorse the first Black mayor of Charlotte, Harvey Gantt, in his North Carolina Senate race against noted segregationist Jesse Helms—endures. But as Smith chronicles, there were many refusals: his refusal to condemn police brutality following the Rodney King beating, for instance, or his refusal to lay a wreath on Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave on MLK Day in 1991, a ceremonial honor he delegated to his teammate Craig Hodges: “This is your thing, not mine.”

I grasped little of this political and personal backstory during Jordan’s aerial heyday, which happened to coincide with my own coming of age. Never had I witnessed an athlete who generated such a feeling of inevitability, who delivered with such singular swagger. There was immense pleasure in witnessing his dominance, his surreal intensity part of the cultural and sporting Zeitgeist of my youth. Which helps explain why, to this day, so many of my generation defend him as they would a family member, a certain manufactured intimacy still hardwired into our fandom.

Now, of course, we know that Jordan’s dominance came with a cost, that he could be a “breathtaking asshole,” as Thompson dubbed him in his profile—punching teammates, belittling them, struggling to find avenues for his rage. In retirement, as Smith notes, Jordan has engineered a subtle political shift: pledging $100 million to organizations promoting social justice, hiring people of color into executive positions during his tenure as the principal owner of the Charlotte Hornets, condemning police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death, even as he made sure not to offend supporters of law enforcement.

Smith contextualizes Jordan’s politics: how he came of age after the civil rights movement, in an era when Black activism had receded, and how he subscribed to the theory of racial uplift: that his advancement, material and otherwise, would help break down racial barriers. No matter the context, he chose empire over revolution; he became “the non-military extension of the post–Cold War American Empire,” as Howard Bryant wrote in his ESPN The Magazine review of The Last Dance: “Jordan spread American consumerism and cultural influence of underwear and soft drink, sneaker and hamburger sellers to the world without providing a voice at home for the Black people, his people, who largely and painfully comprise the empire’s underclass.”

This past summer, after selling his majority stake in the Hornets, Jordan became the first professional athlete to make the Forbes 400 list, his net worth now estimated at $3 billion. We can never know what was lost in the bargain of his empire building. Only Jordan himself can calculate the personal cost. Gatorade once implored us to “be like Mike.” But the line no longer lands the way it did three decades ago. The promise of globalism has waned, the inevitable march of progress is no longer as certain, and our former heroes no longer shine with the same spotless intensity.

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Eric Wills has written about history, sports, and design for Smithsonian, The Washington Post, GQ, the Scholar, and other publications. He was formerly a senior editor at Architect magazine.


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