I was talking to my son about the failure of Michael Jordan to speak out about issues that were important to Black people and human beings in general. My son pointed out that had Jordan spoken out it might not have mattered anyway. He also pointed out that Larry Bird, who once described Jordan as “god” in a basketball uniform, would have been more effective if he had spoken out on racism. Possibly. But the truth is, considering Jordan’s almost god-like stature, it would have mattered.
Not only did Bird refer to Jordan as god, but religious references were made about him throughout his shallow biopic “The Last Dance.” When he retired from basketball the first time in 1993, one writer said the press conference in which he made the announcement was like “The Last Supper.” At another time, Jordan himself seemed to suggest that he was a god.
Imagine that, Jordan as a god, who came to a people who longed for one so much that they worshiped other peoples’ gods and when they got one, all he did was play basketball, focus exclusively on himself, sell basketball shoes and peddle THE MAN’s goods and services.
And Black people made no demands of this “god,” defending him because they were satisfied—as they too often are—with symbolism. They were satisfied with sharing in the vicarious thrill of a Black man basking in the world’s spotlight, yet it yielded them no concrete returns.
Unfortunately, our would-be god was shaped and formed and molded in the image of neo- liberal capitalism, corporate America and Wall Street and he adopted their values which emphasize: greed and selfishness; profit over people; the individual over the community; competition rather than cooperation; and which frowns upon kindness, compassion and empathy.
And he answered to them, not us!
However, the problem is not that Jordan did not speak out on issues affecting the Black community, rather the issue is that he made a point of not speaking out! Craig Hodges, his former Chicago Bull teammate who was quite outspoken, and was eventually unofficially banned Kaepernick-like from the NBA, said that Jordan didn’t speak out because “he didn’t know what to say.”
But that is inaccurate; Jordan knew exactly what to say and what not to say. Bill Russell once said of athletes like Jordan who refuse to speak up and speak out, “I’m disappointed in them. They are politicians in the sense of saying the right things all the time.”
Jordan was political. He was active only if he was actively taking the side of capitalism, corporate America and Wall Street. In other words, he took the side that paid best. And he was PAID. He sold everything from soft drinks, to Gatorade, to shoes, to cars, to underwear, to cereal: he damned near sold his own soul!
When asked why he didn’t support Harvey Gant’s run in 1990 for the North Carolina senate against Jesse Helms, one of the remaining hardcore racist politicians in the U.S. at the time, Jordan said, “Republicans buy shoes too.”
As Kareem Abdul Jabbar said about Jordan, “he chose commerce over conscience.” And it would have made a difference if Jordan had endorsed Gant. Jordan was from North Carolina; he grew up in Wilmington, a town in which Whites in 1898 rose up against the primarily Black city leadership, terrorizing and killing them in a coup that one does not read about in the history books.
Jordan in “The Last Dance” claimed he did not support Gant because he didn’t know him, but he knew the bigoted Helms and his racist agenda. While Jordan said he didn’t know Gant, his mother asked him to support him. Usually deities, or the sons of deities, do what their mothers ask. Jesus hurried up and made more wine for the party when his mamma Mary asked.
While the riots were raging in L.A. in response to the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King within an inch of his life in 1992, reporters asked Jordan to comment on the injustice. Jordan looked the press and Black folk in the face and in the eye and lied, saying he didn’t know enough about the situation.
Jordan knew exactly what to say to make sure his own personal gravy train would continue unabated. Besides, he owed no allegiance to those from whence he came, and he knew they would require nothing of him but to continue making jump shots.
Consequently, this would-be god “came into his own” and his own embraced him and adored him, even defended him, but he embraced, adored and defended them not.
And for those who say he has changed, all one has to do is examine what he actually said when he finally spoke out against police violence—which many believe he did to help his brand stay relevant. When he called out police violence, he also called for supporting the police, thus taking both sides.
And yes, he should be applauded for making charitable contributions and for his hiring a predominantly Black front office while in Charlotte. But with his out-sized influence he could have done so much more. Cynics would suggest that Jordan didn’t so much change his act in later years but rather he “polished it up.”
“The Last Dance” revealed that over 25 years after the fact, Jordan said he still hates the Detroit Pistons and actually calls Isaiah Thomas an a–hole. One cannot help but ask who is a bigger a–hole than Jordan, who throughout his biopic complains about imagined slights and is shown bullying teammates, being extremely selfish, mean-spirited, vindictive and just downright petty.
He complains that people called him a tyrant and that they don’t understand because “they never won anything.” Well, what exactly did he win? Basketball titles? In the arena in which things really count, the man who “would be god” threw up an air ball.
We needed a hero, a god—well at least an advocate—on the court and off. But while he was winning in the 1980s and 90s the Black community took quite a few Ls: Rodney King was beaten to an inch of his life as police violence raged on; cheap crack cocaine and easy access to guns undermined entire Black communities; mass incarceration including, three-strike laws, mandatory sentencing laws, juveniles tried as adults guaranteed that large swaths of the Black community would be imprisoned; racist violence raged on as James Byrd was dragged to his death; redlining, gentrification, unemployment and underemployment, poverty and poor housing and discrimination continued to plague us.
But Jordan opened not his mouth!