Michael Jordan addressed one of the most famous quotes of his career — “Republicans buy sneakers, too” — in the fifth episode of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” on Sunday.
Jordan, who has largely stayed away from any political commentary throughout his public life, didn’t back away from the statement — which came during the 1990 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina between incumbent Republican Jesse Helms and Democrat challenger Harvey Gantt — in the documentary, saying it was made in jest.
Jordan went on to say that he has never seen himself as a role model.
“I don’t think that statement needs to be corrected because I said it in jest on a bus with Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen,” Jordan said. “It was thrown off the cuff. My mother asked to do a PSA for Harvey Gantt, and I said, ‘Look, Mom, I’m not speaking out of pocket about someone that I don’t know. But I will send a contribution to support him.’ Which is what I did.
“I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in. But I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player.
“I wasn’t a politician when I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That’s where my energy was.”
In one of several appearances former President Barack Obama has made in the documentary, Obama discussed Jordan’s comment, saying that as a young activist, he wished Jordan had said more on the subject, but it isn’t always that simple.
“I’ll be honest, when it was reported that Michael said, ‘Republicans buy sneakers, too’ — for somebody who was at that time preparing for a career in civil rights law and knowing what Jesse Helms stood for, you would’ve wanted to see Michael push harder on that,” Obama said. “On the other hand, he was still trying to figure out, ‘How am I managing this image that has been created around me, and how do I live up to it?'”
Jordan then doubled down on his position.
“It’s never going to be enough for everybody, and I know that,” he said. “I realize that. Because everybody has a preconceived idea for what I should do and what I shouldn’t do.
“The way I go about my life is I set examples. If it inspires you? Great, I will continue to do that. If it doesn’t? Then maybe I’m not the person you should be following.”
Jordan: ‘I never bet on games. I only bet on myself’
Jordan’s longtime penchant for gambling had a prominent place in Sunday night’s episodes.
There was his trip to Atlantic City with his father the night before the Bulls lost Game 2 of the 1993 Eastern Conference finals against the New York Knicks. There was his involvement with James “Slim” Bouler, a golf hustler who wound up in court on drug charges, and Jordan — having written a $57,000 check to Bouler — was called to testify. There was the general strain all of that put on Jordan — to the point that he decided to stop talking to the media for two weeks during the 1993 playoffs because of the sheer volume of questions.
“I never bet on games. I only bet on myself, and that was golf,” Jordan said. “Do I like to play blackjack? Yeah, I like playing blackjack. There’s no laws with that. The league did call me, and they asked me questions about it, and I told them exactly what was happening.”
That led to an appearance by the late David Stern, the former NBA commissioner who presided over Jordan’s career. Stern reiterated in the documentary what he previously said publicly: that he never saw any reason to suspect anything untoward about Jordan’s love for playing golf and cards.
“Michael was betting on his golf game — larger numbers than you or I might bet if we played golf together,” Stern said with a smile. “But given his earnings and the like, it just never reached epic, crisis levels in my view.”
Jordan calls Isiah Thomas second-best point guard
Jordan has never hidden his dislike for Isiah Thomas.
But that didn’t stop him from paying Thomas quite the compliment in the discussion of why Thomas was famously left off the Dream Team for the 1992 Olympics.
“I respect Isiah Thomas’ talent,” Jordan said. “To me, if the best point guard of all time is Magic Johnson, and right behind him is Isiah Thomas. No matter how much I hate him, I respect his game.”
Jordan respected Thomas’ talent, but the two superstar guards had little love for each other after their years of matchups in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
For years, Jordan has been singled out as the reason Thomas wasn’t selected to the team. Jordan, though, said that wasn’t the case.
“Before the Olympics, [selection committee chairman] Rod Thorn calls me and says we would love for you to be on the Dream Team,” Jordan said. “I said, ‘Who’s all playing?’
“He said, ‘What’s that mean?’ I said, ‘Who’s all playing?’ He says, ‘Well, the guy you are talking about and you are thinking about is not going to be playing.’ It was insinuated I was asking about him, but I never threw his name in there.
“You want to attribute it to me, go ahead. Be my guest. But it wasn’t me.”
But while Jordan said he didn’t play a direct role in keeping Thomas off the team, he had no problem saying that the team got along far better without Thomas than it would have if Thomas had been part of it.
“The Dream Team, based on the environment and the camaraderie that happened on that team, it was the best harmony,” Jordan said. “Would Isiah have made a different feeling on that team? Yes.”
For his part, when asked about it, Thomas had a short answer.
“I don’t know what went into that process,” he said. “I met the criteria to be selected … but I wasn’t.”
Jordan preferred Adidas to Nike
Jordan admitted in the documentary that he never wanted to sign with Nike.
“Adidas,” a young Jordan said with a smile when asked what shoe company he wanted to sign with.
After Converse told Jordan that it had too many big-name players — including Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — to make Jordan a front man for the company, the choice came down to Adidas or Nike.
Adidas wasn’t willing to give Jordan his own shoe, but Nike was. There was just one problem: Jordan didn’t want to meet with the shoe company to discuss it.
“I couldn’t even get him to get on the damn plane and go visit the campus,” Jordan’s agent, David Falk, said.
Eventually, Jordan agreed — but only after Falk called Jordan’s mother, Deloris, who in turn called her son and told him that he would be making the trip to Oregon.
“My mother said, ‘You’re gonna go listen. You may not like it, but you’re gonna go listen,” Jordan said. “She made me get on that plane and go listen.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Jordan was blown away by Nike’s pitch, he signed with the company, and the Air Jordan became the most popular shoe in the world.
“Go into that meeting not wanting to be there, and Nike made this big pitch,” Jordan said. “My father said, ‘You’d have to be a fool not taking this deal. This is the best deal.'”