How Michael Jordan Became the First Modern African-American Superstar Athlete

Doug Merlino@dougmerlinoGuest ColumnistMay 20, 2011

The following is an excerpt from the e-book The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James.

Sometime this summer, if the production sticks to its announced schedule, we’ll be treated to Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard debuting in Amazing, a movie sponsored by the NBA, filmed in China, made by a Chinese director and starring Chinese and South Korean actors. 

Though it hardly sounds destined to be an Oscar contender—the scant details so far only reveal that NBA commissioner David Stern came up with the name of the film, which is about “young people achieving their dreams through hard work”—it does show how far the NBA has advanced as a global brand as recognizable in Seoul as it is in Chicago.

In this mix, NBA players have become multinational icons of cool: swift, gifted giants on the court; personable, charming and rich off of it, the subjects of hip-hop songs and global brand campaigns.

No longer just celebrated athletes, players such as Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal are worldwide celebrities, such that a visit by Kobe Bryant to China can incite mass hysteria.

This transformation of the NBA from a national sports league to a world-spanning brand, as normal as it now seems, has only occurred during the last two decades. It’s mostly attributable to Michael Jordan.

Jordan was the right player at the right time, soaring onto TV exactly as the NBA’s image was ready to be remade and sold across the globe. At the same time, he helped to forge a new African-American image.

Jordan hugs his first championship trophy in 1991.
Jordan hugs his first championship trophy in 1991.

Of course, Jordan didn’t start out as a global brand. At first, he was simply an exceptionally gifted basketball player. The icon had to be constructed.

For many American basketball fans, Jordan shot onto the radar during the 1981-82 basketball season, when he started as a freshman on a great North Carolina team that included future NBA stars Sam Perkins and James Worthy.

Jordan capped the team’s tremendous season when he nailed the last shot to beat Georgetown in the NCAA Finals.

He was an All-America pick his next two seasons, and won the Naismith and Wooden awards his junior year, after which he decided to enter the 1984 draft.

Hardly anyone could tell how exceptional he would become, as evidenced when Chicago picked Jordan third, after Houston grabbed Hakeem Olajuwon with the top pick and Portland took Sam Bowie with the second (the unfortunate Bowie is now mostly remembered as the answer to the trivia question: “What player was chosen in the 1984 draft right before Michael Jordan?”).

At the time, basketball pundits primarily compared Jordan to David Thompson, an explosive, high-flying shooting guard during his prime with the Denver Nuggets. While Thompson electrified games with his drives and jams, as a shooting guard he was seen as unable to carry a team on his shoulders.

Jordan, of course, would change that. But his career on the court, from the start, was matched by shrewd positioning off of it.

Before his first NBA season, Jordan’s agent, David Falk, began looking for a shoe contract. In those days, shoe deals bore no resemblance to the mammoth windfalls they are now—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for example, was said to get $100,000 a year to wear Converse shoes, a fortune at the time.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were thought to get around $70,000 each, which probably wouldn’t even rouse Dwyane Wade from bed today.

Falk had other ideas. When he spoke with shoe companies, he said he didn’t just want his client to wear the shoes. He talked about building a brand by showcasing Jordan’s personality.

He wanted to build a new line of shoes around Jordan, complete with a backing advertising blitz.

A black athlete had never been marketed so heavily, but Falk thought the country was changing and would be receptive. Converse and Adidas—Jordan’s favorite shoe brand at the time—weren't as optimistic.

That left one main option, a Portland-based company then known primarily for the strength of its running shoes.

Nike CEO Phil Knight understood Falk, and Nike made a special presentation to sell Jordan, featuring a line of red and black shoes and clothing.

When Jordan saw it, he said: “I can’t wear that shoe. Those are the devil’s colors.”

They were also the colors of the Chicago Bulls, and Nike ended up signing Jordan to an unprecedented five-year, $2.5 million contract. Jordan, essentially, was going to be the face of the company.

Cosby, Oprah, Jordan

The first Air Jordans, released in 1985, epitomized cool—all black with a red Nike swoosh. Until then, basketball shoes had been mostly white. The NBA reacted by banning the renegade shoes.

Jordan kept wearing them, though, and Nike simply paid the $5,000 fine the NBA assessed each game, surely one of the greatest marketing bargains ever.

This outlaw factor played in with the fact that Jordan, on the court, was a badass. He wagged his tongue before a drive, sported a gold chain, trash-talked and blasted to the hoop for detonating jams.

Playing golf in 1989.
Playing golf in 1989.

I was in middle school at the time, and when the first Jordans came out, I begged my mom until she bought me a pair. But the first time I wore them to school, one of my friends mocked me, accusing me of trying to “act black.”

There are a whole lot of assumptions about what is “white” and what is “black” in that phrase—more than my 13-year-old mind could unpack—but the general thrust seemed to be that, as an ungraceful white kid, I could never appropriate Jordan’s swagger for myself. To even try was to become a joke.

The ridicule embarrassed me. I retired the shoes to my closet and only took them out to shoot around on the hoop in front of our garage, if only to justify for my mom the expense of buying them.

Within a few years, though, no one would accuse a kid wearing Jordans of trying to act like anything other than someone with enough money to buy a very expensive pair of shoes.

This was part of the changing times, which Jordan himself helped to push along.

In 1978, the African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson published a controversial book called The Declining Significance of Race. In it, Wilson wrote that for nearly all of American history, an African-American’s economic mobility had been limited by the color of his skin—if you were black, you were only going to get so far before discrimination stopped you.

With Scottie Pippen in 1997.
With Scottie Pippen in 1997.

But after the Civil Rights movement, Wilson argued, some blacks were finding opportunities to advance and move ahead. This, he wrote, was going to create a class division among African-Americans that would see widening disparities among blacks themselves—some would advance into the mainstream while others would remain economically stranded.

Wilson didn’t argue that discrimination had vanished, but that its influence was diminishing such that some African-Americans would have opportunities that had never before been afforded to black people.

In the post-Civil Rights 1970s and '80s, numbers of African-Americans did advance into universities and white-collar professional work. These changes were reflected in the culture, especially on television with The Cosby Show and Oprah Winfrey’s nationwide premier in 1986, shows that presented upper-middle-class African-Americans that many whites felt comfortable with.

Michael Jordan and the creative and business team around him grasped this. As Jordan broke out as a star on the court, Nike’s advertising agency teamed him up with an emerging black director.

The resulting television ads featured Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon—a character he played in his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It—a Jordan maniac who goofs around with the star and exclaims, “It’s gotta be the shoes!”

The ads worked because they made Jordan look humorous and debonair as Lee extolled his virtues. They personalized Jordan, developed his image and laid a foundation.

Jordan in his final year, with the Washington Wizards in 2003.
Jordan in his final year, with the Washington Wizards in 2003.

Before long, other brands came calling—Jordan would rep McDonald’s, Hanes, Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, MCI and Wheaties, among others.

Gatorade even built a campaign around Jordan based on kids singing that they wanted to “Be Like Mike.” Twenty years earlier, it would have been unheard of to run a commercial with a bunch of white kids wishing they could emulate a black man.

This came in part because Jordan seemed to be his own category. As his agent, David Falk, said: “We think he transcends race.”

Image Maintenance

On the court, Jordan’s performance was unmatched. Not only were there the six championships in the 1990s, but amazing moments such as the “flu game,” Game 5 of the 1997 Finals against the Utah Jazz, in which a desperately-ill Jordan scored 38 points and led the Bulls to the win.

Off the court, Jordan played a different role than earlier black athletic superstars such as Jack Johnson, Arthur Ashe, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell—all of them had, due to their prominence, been made into racial symbols.

They had often responded by speaking their minds—there certainly wasn’t a lot of corporate-sponsorship money to lose.

Watching the Ryder Cup in 2006.
Watching the Ryder Cup in 2006.

But with so much cash on the line, Jordan stayed quiet. In 1990, Jordan was asked if he would endorse a black Senate candidate and civil rights activist running against segregationist Jesse Helms in his home state of North Carolina. Jordan said he would not: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

In this sense, Jordan simply acted like white athletic superstars: After all, we don’t look for political endorsements from Brett Favre or Tim Lincecum. But it did indicate a separation of the black superstar athlete from the politics of black advancement: Jordan safeguarded his economic interests.

While earlier black star athletes had been blocked from cashing in on their fame through commercial work, Jordan succeeded as the embodiment of the businessman, packaging and selling his image as efficiently as Starbucks moves lattes.

The desire not to offend went perfectly with David Stern’s mission to turn the league into a world-spanning marketing juggernaut on par with entertainment corporations such as Disney, of which he said: “They have theme parks, and we have theme parks. Only we call them arenas. They have characters: Mickey and Goofy. Our characters are named Magic and Michael.”

This focus on selling individual personalities had started with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, but went entirely beyond with Jordan, who had the creative minds at companies such as Nike and McDonald’s at his back.

Jordan and Spike Lee, whose Nike commercials helped Jordan gain worldwide fame, visit in 2008.
Jordan and Spike Lee, whose Nike commercials helped Jordan gain worldwide fame, visit in 2008.

Pushing superstars made the game easy to grasp, but also made the league dependent on generating compelling personalities to maintain interest.

It also diminished the fact that it’s still a team game: Bird needed Kevin McHale and Robert Parish; Magic teamed with James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; and Jordan only won when he had backup from teammates such as Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman.

One wonders how the marketing affected Jordan, who became more and more isolated from his teammates as his fame increased and he had to worry that any private thoughts he shared would end up in the media.

But this star-focus is essentially the model we have today, one in which players are expected to flash easy smiles and sand down the rough edges. The biggest threats to the league are fiascos such as the 2004 Pacers-Pistons brawl, which led to racially coded accusations that the players are “thugs.” (Why has that label never been stuck on Ben Roethlisberger?)

Even Michael Jordan, with his gambling habit and ultra-competitive, combustible personality, could only live up to the image when certain of his traits were ignored.

In essence, Jordan had to be reduced to his simplest aspects for the marketing to work, his image boiled down and sugared-up to appeal across the globe.

This hit me in 1997, when I was in Dakar, Senegal. It was the first time I had been overseas and away from all things “American.”

Jordan in 2010
Jordan in 2010

One day, making my way through the city, I was shocked to turn a corner and encounter a massive billboard right in the middle of Dakar: There was Michael Jordan, soaring past Sam Perkins of the Seattle SuperSonics, freeze-framed at the height of his ascent, the ball palmed in his hand. A Nike swoosh adorned the bottom right-hand corner of the image.

What interest, I wondered, could Michael Jordan possibly be to people in Senegal, a country without a basketball tradition and one in which the vast majority of the population has nowhere near the income to buy Air Jordans if they wanted them?

Gazing up, it was as if Jordan had indeed soared beyond basketball. He was a symbol of mastery, not only of a game but a whole global system, his shoes produced in factories across Asia, his product sold in showcase boutiques in world capitals, his image made ubiquitous by satellites and advertising.

Far beyond the worries of the people below breathing in the hot, polluted air, he was rising above us, ready to jam it down.

It was no wonder the whole world wanted to Be Like Mike.

To learn about Doug Merlino's e-book, The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James, click here.

Further Reading:

David Halberstam’s Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made is a thoroughly reported look at Jordan’s basketball career and business interests.

Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, by Walter LeFeber, makes the case for Jordan as a point man for globalization.

 Michael Jordan, Inc.: Corporate Sport, Media Culture, and Late Modern America, edited by David L. Andrews, has some interesting essays if you can get past the academic jargon.

Doug Merlino is the author of The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White. Visit his blog. Follow him on   Twitter. This is the last of eight parts. Read Part 1,  Part 2 and Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6, Part 7 and Merlino’s interview with Earl Lloyd, the NBA’s first black player.