The 1980s had its share of Black stars – like Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey -who transcended racial barriers to become mainstream American fixtures. But perhaps the greatest “crossover” figure of the late 20th Century was Michael Jordan, the basketball player of almost supernatural ability, who ascended to the level of true all-American hero and regularly appeared in Gallup’s annual “Most Admired” polls. As such, Michael Jordan set a real cultural precedent for Barack Obama, who amassed a similar mainstream following that eventually propelled him to the presidency of the United States.
Up until the 1990’s, even a sport as progressive as basketball had still not produced an athlete bigger than the game itself. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Jerry West and Bill Russell were all great players. But none of them changed the game the way Michael Jordan did. His career changed the way young kids played basketball, the way professional athletes carried themselves, and even the manner in which many executives did business. Jordan’s seeming ability to soar to the basket earned him the nickname “Air Jordan,” which changed from a nickname to a tradename, as he built the world’s most embraced line of endorsed athletic apparel in history. But on the court, and even after slam-dunk contests, Jordan solidified his mark on basketball by opening it to a new audience. It was Jordan’s presence that inspired cities to demand teams of their own, international players to desire the NBA, and eventually, the globalization of basketball. The fact that Jordan could become not just another entertainer, but the face of global brand. Michael Jordan was not just the world’s foremost Black athlete, he was the greatest athlete, period, with no qualification.
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1963, Jordan was raised in Wilmington, North Carolina. After a standout high school career, Jordan helped lead the University of North Carolina to national championship in his freshman year. In 1984, Jordan entered the NBA with much fanfare. In his first season, Jordan averaged 28.2 points per game and was the Rookie of the Year. From that point on, everyone wanted to watch him play. Within five seasons of Jordan’s NBA debut, four cities got new teams. And in 1992, when Jordan led the USA Dream Team to a dominating Gold Medal victory, Jordan popularized the game in places that had never even heard of basketball. Jordan’s six championships in eight years changed everything about the sport. Kids began to stick their tongues out like Jordan and tried to mimic his aggressiveness and high-flying moves to the basket. His domination inspired movies, commercials, and brands. Eventually, Jordan’s domination on the court would lead to his domination off of it. Nike‘s Air Jordan shoe was, in part, responsible for changing the game of basketball and the marketability of black athletes to a white population.
Jordan had a huge impact on American business. First, Jordan was in one of the most successful Superbowl commercials of all-time. That commercial’s success inspired the movie “Space Jam,” in which Jordan starred, and the hit theme, “I Believe I Can Fly.” The studio bet $80,000,000 on an athlete with no acting experience, which turned out to be a bargain when the movie grossed $230,418,342 worldwide. One study found that Jordan’s first NBA comeback resulted in more than a $1 billion increase in the market capitalization of the firms for which Jordan was a spokesperson.
Jordan retired for the third and final time in 2003. A two time Gold Medalist, six-time NBA champion, and five-time MVP award winner, Michael Jordan is arguably the best basketball player in history, and certainly the most influential. Jordan continues as the face of the Jordan Brand and as partial owner of the Charlotte Bobcats.
In the end, Michael Jordan and Barack Obama share the same ability to inspire awe. Both have proven that people really can fly.