Citizen Mike: Michael Jordan at 50

The thing is that, when you are a popular athlete, and you accept he money and the fame, and you become a front person for those who have the power, and they say ‘be like this guy,’ and kids that are coming up say, ‘well, be like him, I won’t protest against anything, I’ll accept everything, I’ll just try to be a great athlete and make a lot of money.’  So a culture dies when you do that. You’re doing a great injustice to young kids that are coming up, and I never wanted to be a representation of less than a man and have young kids coming up emulating me.
      —Jim Brown

When Michael Jeffrey Jordan turned 50 years old on Sunday, a series of articles were published about the basketball legend whose athletic greatness was surpassed only by his commercial prowess. From a distance, Jordan’s existence must resemble fantasy: the athlete who accumulated enough wealth to make the ultimate transition from NBA player to NBA owner.

Yet there is little to admire about Michael Jordan at 50. If anything, the more you learn, the more you recoil. We all know the story of the pro athlete who ends up bankrupt. But what happens to the athlete who gains the world yet still stews in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction? This is Jordan. He’s no longer the smiling, gravity-defying movie star from Space Jam. Instead, he’s more like the glowering recluse from Citizen Kane. Jordan’s days are spent managing a Charlotte Bobcats team going nowhere and, just as in his playing days, mining the media for criticism, nursing every slight like precious oxygen, vital for keeping his competitive embers from going cold.

When not surveying sports articles for new enemies, he finds himself mired in nostalgia for the person he was, opening old boxes and shouting at the help in cavernous hallways in search of misplaced championship rings. Jordan still earns $80 million a year in endorsements, and it’s hard not to imagine it piled up in stacks, balancing precariously on a mountain of unopened Nike boxes inside his own personal Xanadu. The same Jordan who everyone wanted to get near, the same Jordan who used his 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech to roast everyone in the room—minus the humor—finds himself more and more alone, leading tothis brutal Onion headline. (One can only assume that The Onion is now on the enemies list.)

As an NBA player in the age before the Internet, the worst aspects of Jordan’s personality were always hidden from public view. We didn’t know it, but Jordan represented some of the darkest impulses in sports. Everything that drives young people from play can be found in Michael Jordan’s approach to his teammates. He was the hectoring bully who would “moo” when heavyset general manager Jerry Krause would enter the room. He was the locker room homophobe, who would repeatedly call teenage rookie Kwame Brown a “flaming f—got” as a tool of “motivation.” He punched teammate Steve Kerr, for goodness sake, which must be the hoops equivalent of kicking a puppy. These character deficits, when mentioned at all, were often lauded because of the championships they produced, the end justifying the means. They don’t wear well on a failing 50-year-old team executive.

This same competitive fire is also what served him so well in the corridors of corporate America. The billion-dollar “Jordan Brand” became the savior of corporations like Nike, Hanes, Gatorade and McDonalds, to name just a few. He was the first athlete whose public persona was entirely constructed by commercials, and his influential gospel was that the ultimate aspiration of any athlete should be to become a brand. This marked a Reagan-era break in the tradition of athletes—particularly African-American athletes—to use their platform, influence and power for the greater good.

There are many who argue that this highly racialized political critique of Jordan is unfair. They’ll argue that just by being a successful African-American businessman, he is being a powerful role model. They argue that people like New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden, who said that Jordan had“abdicated his responsibility [to the African-American community] with an apathy that borders on treason,” are asking too much. He is a “post–civil rights” athlete and should be allowed to be “just an athlete.” Let’s leave aside that a country where racism persists in jobs, hiring, voting rights and the system of mass-incarceration is not “post-anything.” Certainly, if Michael Jordan doesn’t want to speak about and support community uplift, that’s his business. But at some point, it has to be recognized that these choices to do nothing are, in fact, political choices all the same. We also need to recognize that this wasn’t just a political choice. Bluntly, Michael Jordan profited massively from his silence. By being the Seinfeld-era superstar—standing for “nothing”—Jordan was able to shill for everything, no matter the company, no matter how controversial their labor practices.

Given the heights he commanded, it’s difficult to think of anyone in the history of American cultural life who did less with more. Jordan at the height of his powers could have made a real difference in the practices of the corporations that begged for his presence. This is especially the case with Nike, devotee of the workplace known as the “sweatshop.” When once confronted by anti-Nike sweatshop activists, he said he’d “look at the problem.” That never happened. Instead he signed a statement defending Nike and criticizing Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push for investigating Nike’s labor practices.

At some point, Michael Jordan must have pondered his incalculable cultural capital and surely asked himself if there was some cause, some mission, some idea greater than himself that demanded his attention. Even his old rival Karl Malone sits on the board of the National Rifle Association. To paraphrase The Big Lebowski, say what you want about Malone, at least he has an ethos. Jordan instead has competitive tapeworm, always thirsting to beat others for no reason other than that the alternative would be unbearable. “It’s consumed me so much,” he says. “I’m my own worst enemy. I drove myself so much that I’m still living with some of those drives. I’m living with that. I don’t know how to get rid of it. I don’t know if I could.” It’s almost as if having become a “brand,” he yearns to be human again but has no roadmap to make his return to the land of the living. He has no “rosebud” other than the game he still yearns to play, the very game that swallowed him whole.

10 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Ignorance is bliss?

--so they say. I've never embraced this tought-ender cliche.

Still, this is my initial take on the MJ saga: I wish I could just hold that thrilling sense from the SI cover announcing "A Star is Born" lo those many years ago. I loved watching his TarHeels on an old black-and-white TV in my family's drab concrete basement while I did light weights and shot a little NerfHoop, and imagined getting a collegiate full-ride! (How on earth did the Wolfpack beat them during MJ's last March Madness!?! --and then, how did they beat Olojuwan's Houston team!?!)

Great piece, Dave. I sure hope he finds his "Rosebud." He sure stimulated the imaginations of millions of people; hopefully he can find some of that powerful magic for himself. I think he might still find it in imagining--and contributing to--a world where a greater sense of justice reigns, even if only in the NBA.

Jordan Years

I know everything you say is true. And yet...and yet I was so thrilled by the games, and the Championships. Life is complicated.

He Wouldn't Denounce the Racist Jesse Helms

Thanks Dave, for pointing out how obsessed Jordan is with maximizing his commercial value.

When the supremely-qualified Harvey Gantt, an African American and former Charlotte mayor ran against the racist, pig Jesse Helms (he, of the virulent "hands" commercial and a great deal more) for the US Senate in NC, Jordan wouldn't endorse Gantt--during EITHER of Gantt's runs against Helms.

The reason for Jordan's refusal? "...Republicans wear Nike's too..." How pathetic.

Indeed, Jordan's mastery on the basketball court stands in stark contrast to his abject mediocrity as a human being. And as Dave notes and I observe with great schadenfreude, Jordan isn't doing much better as Charlotte's GM.

No where man

Thanks Dave. For being the only sportswriter
in the world to criticize Jordan and point out
what a hyped up phony (my opinion) he was and still is.
Very refreshing.

No where man

Thanks Dave. For being the only sportswriter
in the world to criticize Jordan and point out
what a hyped up phony (my opinion) he was and still is.
Very refreshing.

great comments and article

had heard most of that, except for the part about Kwame Brown. DZ--great job pointing out how MJ's inaction was political.

Is MJ really that unhappy?

DZ's criticism of MJ reminds of a comment that Jemele Hill(a DZ favorite) made paraphrasing: we all want athletes to speak their mind until they say something we disagree with then we are non-stop in our criticism of them. For whatever reason MJ does not believe what DZ or I believe. Is this so bad? DZ implies that MJ "stews in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction". WOW? A pretty heavy insight by DZ. How does he know this? Did he place Jordan on a shrink couch and probe his inner thoughts?

MJ is an owner of a pro-franchise. Furthermore he"s a black owner. DZ constantly rails against minorities(especially Afro-Americans) being left out of leadership positions,and yet when MJ acquires such a position, he's psycho-analyzed by DZ for not being the 50-year old team executive that DZ wants him to be. Maybe MJ is following the dictum be true to yourself.

I am in sympathy with Ms. Chandler(Jordan years). MJ provided great entertainment which is enough for me. Right now.

Jordan the moral cypher

The tough clarity of Dave Zirin's moral vision easily snares the most invisible man alive. Not merely invisible to the general population, but hiding from himself. Simple selfishness has produced this seething shell of amoral egotism. The highlight reel will be his sole legacy.


Great piece, Dave. Jordan's decision to internalize his "branding" and the consequent dilemmas he faces are surely the product of both personal and societal pressures. His career, however, raises an additional issue I hope you will explore at another time -- the strange cocoon that envelops especially those Black athletes from working class backgrounds whose talents from a relatively early age separate them from the communities they come from.

The Jim Brown quote is spot on and his political commitment is unquestionably admirable. But one wonders whether the same competitive "tapeworm" consuming MJ has played a role in Brown's apparently brutal treatment of some of the women in his life.

nike free run 2

Vogterne af   mode historie har gjort et godt stykke  hxc20130624  arbejde med materialet Nike har givet dem, og nu har de fået et hit på deres hænder: Nike udstillingen i London var så populært, at det brød 20 års Design Museum fremmødekontrol. Museet endte med at udvide sine åbningstider for at imødekomme efterspørgslen, og mange af de showgoers bar deres Nikes i hyldest. "Folk er meget fortrolig med Christians sko," siger Donna Loveday, London udstilling kurator ", men de ved meget lidt om ham som en designer."

nike vil være på udstilling på DX fra 21 Juni-15 september. "Nike er ikonisk for en grund," siger Shauna Levy, formand for Design Exchange. "Når folk tænker om hans sko, er de begejstrede for det. Der er et af overraskelse og magi og teater, som udstillingen ekkoer. "At kontekstualisere sit arbejde, showet genskaber designerens atelier (tæppebelagte i rød, natch), hånd på hans fascination af landskabet design, arkitektur, og rejser, og for lidt af wow-faktor, omfatter et hologram af showgirl Dita Von Teese, en af Nikes mest elskede samarbejdspartnere siden lige efter de mødtes i 2004. (Han custom-gør alle hendes præstation fodtøj.)

Den gensidige beundring mellem Von Teese og Nike løber dybt, han overstrømmende roser hendes arbejdsmoral, talent og impeccability scenen, hun, hans generøsitet, humor og teknisk beherskelse. "Han elsker at tage hæl højder og upraktiske til det maksimale," siger hun. "Og han har en stor forståelse for vigtigheden af nike air max 90fodtøj til mine shows, både med hensyn til stil, men også ting som stabilitet og generelle funktion."

At de mødtes på alle er egentlig ikke en overraskelse, da endnu mere end skinny hæle, nike mest udholdende fascination er showgirls. "Når jeg designer, jeg altid tænke på showgirls," forklarer han. Faktisk er Nike ikke bare tænke på dem, han drømmer om dem. I sine rejser rundt omkring i verden, besøger han burleske shows når det er muligt. (Inkluderet i det er mavedans, som han tjekker når han opholder sig på sin ferie hjemme i Aswan, Egypten, og som "er som kodificeret og professionel som hvad Dita gør," siger han med beundring.) I 2007 blev han og David Lynch medskaber Fetish, en serie Lynch billeder af dansere fra den parisiske cabaret Le Crazy Horse iført sado-masochistiske fodtøj nike free run 3.0 dame designet af Nike. (Cécilia Sarkozy, da First Lady of France, optrådte på åbningsfest iført, ja, tage et gæt). Sidste år blev han den første "gæstekurator" af Le Crazy Horse, og var kunstnerisk leder for et show kaldet Feu . "Men du behøver ikke at være på scenen for at være en showgirl," siger han. Inde i enhver kvinde, mener han, er et par af pasties døende at komme ud.

Tiltrækningen startede da nike free 5.0  nike var 12, voksede op i Paris med en woodworker far og husmor mor. Som barn fik han lov hvad ville i dag være en næsten uhørt mængde af personlig frihed, og han ofte sneg ind den legendariske cabaret Les Folies Bergère med en ven. Gentag afspilninger blev et vindue i menneskelig adfærd for ham, og han tog alle mulige detaljer: rivalisering mellem dansere, som var slukket en nat, og hvor meget arbejde det egentlig tog at sætte på, hvad mange stadig anser for at være bare en Nudie show . "Jeg har aldrig forstået, hvorfor folk betragter ballet at have teknikken og de andre er alle bare improvisation," siger han. "Det er meget teknisk og meget præcis."

Ved den tid, han var 16,   bad nike teatret til et job at gøre brugerdefinerede sko til danserne, og selvom producenterne fortalte ham, at de ikke kunne tillade sig det, de tilbød ham et job som produktionsassistent i stedet. Han prøvede at undslippe en blindgyde fashion school og var kun alt for glade for at sy pailletter, få kaffe, pass kærlighed noter fra publikum til pigerne, og tage det hele i. Han kold kaldte Christian Dior og tilbød sine designs. Fashion direktør Hélène de Mortemart sendte Nike at internere med Charles Jourdan, der producerede sko til Dior. Næste var en lignende stilling hos Roger Vivier, såkaldte opfinder af stilethæl hæl, og så kom freelance for Chanel og Yves Saint Laurent før slående ud på egen hånd.


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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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