NBA: How Michael Jordan Killed Basketball
LeBron James creates a Twitter account and the whole world comes to a screeching halt. It won’t be long until @KingJames is using his new account for marketing purposes.
Heck, Twitter might as well put a multimillion dollar contract together and officially endorse James.
Odds are, it wouldn’t even put a dent in the sum of James’ annual intake from his various endorsements.
In what has become one of the most historic summer free agency periods of all time, money has been sharing the spotlight with success in the three-ring circus of free agents’ interests.
The game of basketball didn’t always revolve around max-contracts and million-dollar endorsements. In fact, once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away, there was an NBA filled with players who focused more on winning than earning.
So while some say money ruined basketball, and players aren’t focused enough on winning, but rather monetary success, I say it was Michael Jordan.
They say Michael Jordan was the best basketball player ever, and that’s probably true. But what never gets mentioned is how, in 1985, he killed the purity of basketball forever.
The Early Years
Michael Jordan wasn’t always the basketball demigod and cultural icon he turned out to be.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, he was raised in North Carolina, and after eventually earning All-American honors—after previously being cut from his varsity team for not being good or big enough—he went to school at UNC-Chapel Hill.
His college career only hinted at his potential success on the hardwood. Jordan averaged 17.7 points and five rebounds per game in his three years at UNC.
His defining moment in college—and self-proclaimed turning point of his career—came in his freshman year when he hit the game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA Championship game.
He was eventually drafted by the Chicago Bulls third overall in the June 1984 NBA Draft. His rookie contract earned him $630,000, but that wasn’t the deal that would eventually change the landscape of basketball forever.
That deal came later in the year, when Jordan’s agent, David Falk, negotiated a shoe contract with Nike.
Falk, by this point, was no stranger to working with elite NBA players, and completing milestone contracts for his clients. His most notable contract was James Worthy’s eight-year, $1.2 million shoe deal with New Balance in 1982 (the first million-dollar shoe contract).
The deal he concocted between Jordan and Nike, however, would mark the start of a new era in basketball, one that revolutionized superstar egos and featured personal images over things like team success.
“I think (the deal) transformed the game of basketball. I think it showed that a basketball player could have impact way, way, beyond the game,” says Brian Sheehan, an associate professor of advertising at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
“All of a sudden, people were wearing Air Jordan shoes, and they’ve never even seen a game of basketball. Everybody’s into Michael Jordan, even if you didn’t like basketball. All of a sudden, Michael Jordan’s doing movies with Bugs Bunny. This was the sort of thing you never saw before.”
Jordan’s $500,000 contract with Nike was unique for several reasons, but most importantly because it was the first time an athlete was going to share the royalties of the deal.
The deal also included a stipulation stating Jordan would receive his own shoe line.
One of the most notable parts surrounding the deal, however, was simply that Jordan was set to earn a major endorsement deal in a time when it was believed African Americans were hard to market.
In his rookie season with the Bulls, Jordan averaged roughly 28 points, six assists, and six rebounds per game en route to winning the 1985 NBA Rookie of the Year award.
His sneaker, the (original) Air Jordan earned Nike $130 million.
Michael Jordan’s popularity was skyrocketing, and so was his super-stardom and marketability.
In his recently released book The Bald Truth: Secrets of Success from the Locker Room to the Boardroom, Falk outlines what made him a triumphant sports agent.
“Don’t try to run a democracy,” Falk writes. “Treat everyone fairly but don’t treat everyone equally.”
Looking back on it, it’s evident this ploy by Falk was quite successful.
The Transition Years
From the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, emerging stars in the NBA were beginning to stand out more. Still, though, the main emphasis of ‘the game’ was around the teams.
Off the court, individual player endorsements, popularity, and recognition grew, but it had not yet dwarfed the league as a whole.
The greatest example of this was the all-time great match up between the Boston Celtics’ Larry Bird and the L.A. Lakers’ Magic Johnson.
For years, the two had been linked together; their games featured as ‘Larry versus Magic.’
The two rivals faced off in three NBA championships, and at least one appeared in every championship series from 1980-1989.
This was the premiere match up of the era, and although it featured the two future Hall of Famers, the series and rivalry was still about the two teams.
The biggest part of the transition from team sport to an individual one in the NBA was the success Michael Jordan was having on the court.
Away from the physical game of basketball, Air Jordans, and virtually anything Jordan became a part of, was highly marketable, and successful to boot.
The biggest knock on Jordan early in his career was, despite being one of the most prolific scorers the game of basketball had ever seen, he couldn’t win a championship.
That changed in 1991 when he won the first of three consecutive titles.
The combination of fame, popularity, and success launched Jordan into another stratosphere from any other athlete to play basketball.
(Perhaps LeBron James will endure similar success if and when he wins a championship, or three.)
As if Jordan wasn’t marketable enough, a championship only inflated Jordan’s stardom.
In 1991, Gatorade aided in the transformation of basketball players, becoming celebrities with its “Like Mike” campaign, in which little children sang a song about wanting to be “Like Mike.”
The television commercial was one of the final actions that sealed the deal on Jordan’s fate as being larger than the game itself.
Michael Jordan epitomized his legacy, and the eventual image of basketball players, when he returned to basketball in 1995 after briefly retiring for a season and a half in 1993-94.
His press conference was short and sweet; his only statement being: “I’m back.”
(Although today, Jordan probably could have spared the press conference and simply Tweeted his message to the world. Maybe LeBron will do the same.)
It was clear at that point Jordan was larger than the sport he played, the team he played for, and the league he played in.
It was all about him, and later in the decade, this trend would begin to spread rapidly through the NBA.
The Decisive Years
During the late 1990s, the NBA watched as the careers of some of its greatest players of all time began to wind down, opening the door for a new generation and breed of basketball player.
Patrick Ewing, Gary Payton, David Robinson, and Karl Malone were among the superstars, and future Hall of Famers who were ushering in the new crop of larger-than-life talent.
Among the stars, only Robinson has ever won a championship, as the others highlight a fraternity of the best players to never win a ring.
Overlapped between old school and new school players however was Shaquille O’Neal, who entered the league in 1992 and hit his prime from 1996-2002.
He was more than a basketball player; he was a personality off the court as well.
“Looking back at a guy like Patrick Ewing, he was good, but he didn’t have what it takes to market,” says Sheehan.
“Marketers now look for the kind of players who they can build a brand around; the kind of personality-and-game combination. Shaq had a lot to do with this. Shaq really sees himself as an entertainer.”
Jordan was the kind of player companies could brand. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are also players who can be branded, and whose personal image casts a shadow over the NBA as a whole.
Some of the more marketable players to enter the league during this time period were Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Garnett, who all skipped college to go directly to the NBA.
McGrady was even given a six-year, $12 million shoe deal from Adidas before he was even drafted, which dwarfed the deal Jordan signed just eleven years prior.
But in comparison, LeBron James, just seven years later, signed a seven-year, $90 million shoe contract with Nike before he was drafted in 2003.
This deal signified the tipping point in the evolution of NBA superstardom. By this point, the superstar mentality completed its transformation from team success to personal gain.
The game of basketball is no longer a team sport, and athletes’ demeanor on and off the court reflects this notion.
The NBA has become a league of superstars who try and one-up each other on a nightly basis.
A Thursday night showdown between Cleveland and Los Angeles was being marketed as ‘LeBron’s Cavaliers against Kobe’s Lakers,’ not as Cleveland versus Los Angeles.
Michael Jordan may have transcended the game of basketball on the court, becoming indisputably the greatest player ever, but his greatest impact on the future of the game may have been his initial shoe deal with Nike.
That contract was the first domino to fall in a long row of endorsements and self-promotion, eventually leading to the mutilation of the sport.
“This all started, really, when Jordan got so big, basketball became marketing; it became marketing first, game second,” says Sheehan.
“And actually (NBA commissioner) David Stern was behind that, too. He was trying to make it a global game, and he was actually very, very, very successful in making this game work internationally.
“It was all about promoting the image, the vibe, and the cool, and actually still is, now more than ever.”
The Summer of Self-Promotion
For over two years now, NBA fans have waited for the ‘Summer of 2010,’ arguably the most highly-anticipated free agent class in any sport in recent memory.
In fact, just the prospect of this summer’s crop of contract-less superstars has been the center of attention for some fans for the past two years.
Forget about the meaningless regular season games, or the dragged-out postseason (which takes two months to complete), fans have been licking their lips in anticipation, hope, and excitement for this free agency period.
It’s no secret the New York Knicks are going to make a play for at least two, if not three of the 2010 headliners.
Having already come to terms with Amare Stoudemire, perhaps LeBron James will follow.
The Chicago Bulls, New Jersey Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, and Miami Heat will certainly be active in the market as well, whether it’s Dwyane Wade, Carlos Boozer, or someone else.
It’s both a testament and an embarrassment to the game of basketball that the 2010 class of free agents has been more hyped up—and probably followed with more scrutiny—than the entire regular season.
So who’s to blame for all this selfishness and greed? Is it Nike? Jordan? Or Falk?