We knew it was coming, we just didn’t know when.
And on Sunday night, ESPN’s “The Last Dance” gave us the context to everything that went into making Michael Jordan … Michael Jordan Brand.
It’s easy to see athletes as global stars and ambassadors for their sports now, but that level of celebrity didn’t exist until Jordan in the ’90s.
Jordan was everywhere, and still is to a certain degree. And a lot of that has to do with shoes. It’s easy to look at athletes like Maya Moore, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Jayson Tatum, Zion Williamson, and even Derek Jeter, that have been a part of Brand Jordan over the years, but Sunday night showed us how the marriage between Jordan and the brand almost didn’t happen.
With a basketball roster that included Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre and Bernard King, Converse just didn’t have the bandwidth at the time to add anybody else.
But as always, “Mom knows best,” and after forcing her son to take a meeting with a company that specialized in track shoes, Deloris Jordan wound up being the person that put her son and Nike together, forever.
According to Forbes, Nike has paid Jordan at least $1.3 billion since 1984, as he earned an estimated $130 million from Nike in 2019. His Jordan Brand pulled in $3.1 billion during the fiscal year that ended in May of 2019.
Like Mars Blackmon said, “It’s gotta be the shoes.”
Ironically, Adidas was the company that Jordan originally wanted to sign with, but they couldn’t get a deal done. And after missing out on Jordan, the German apparel company didn’t learn their lesson when they missed out on LeBron James, the man who is the current face of Nike and has a lifetime contract with the Swoosh that’s worth more than a billion dollars.
“I said then, I’ll say until I die, the biggest mistake ever made in corporate America on this sort of a thing, was when Adidas backed out of signing LeBron James. [If] they sign LeBron James, the world changes,” former sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro told The Ringer in 2016. Vaccaro was the middleman in the deal and had advised Adidas to offer James $100 million. But when the official offer came in, it was $30 million lower.
“Nike was No. 1 before LeBron. Nike had great players. They always will. They were always No. 1 with the greatest personalities in sports. There’s no question about that. I don’t think that will ever change. My point to you is, [Adidas] could’ve changed the landscape.”
And while the never-before-seen footage of Jordan discussing how he was going to cover up the Reebok logo on his warm-up jacket days before the Dream Team even took the podium in Barcelona to receive their gold medals during the 1992 Olympics proved just how important his commercial success was to him. This is the part of the documentary that delved into why Jordan wasn’t big on speaking out about social issues, and was the most polarizing portion of an episode that dealt with the first globally marketable black athlete.
“I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player,” Jordan said.
Jordan’s infamous “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” line is more jarring now than it was in 1990. And despite years of suggestions from many that he never uttered the words, Jordan came clean, admitting he did say them, but in jest on a team bus with Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. And the quote came at a time in which Harvey Gantt was trying to become the first black Senator in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina, facing a flagrant racist like Jesse Helms as his Republican opponent. This was a man who was against the idea of having African-American History museums and observing MLK Day as a holiday.
Jordan admitted that his refusal to publicly endorse Gantt was selfish, although he did say he monetarily supported the campaign.
“Any African-American that sees significant success has an added burden. America is very quick to embrace a Jordan, an Oprah, or a Barack Obama, so long as it’s understood you don’t get too controversial around broader issues of social justice,” said President Barack Obama during the documentary.
Fair or unfair, black athletes, and people, have always dealt with the expectations of doing more for their people once they reach a certain level. It’s the penalty of being the first of your kind to achieve such heights. And some 30 years later, Jordan finally conveyed just how heavy that burden weighed at times.
“If I had a chance to do it all over again I wouldn’t want to be a role model. It’s like the game is stacked against me,” he said.
It was a harsh reality that while everybody may want to be like Mike, it’s not always fun … to be Mike.