Michael Jordan: One Mike

SLAM owes Michael Jordan money. 

The problem with saying that publicly is that—knowing MJ—he’ll find the SLAM offices, go there (or send someone) and collect. But the money—the direct money—we owe has been spent. Gone like Republican candidates not named Trump. IOW: He’ll never get it. Unless he wants to buy this magazine out and put SLAM in his billion-dollar portfolio. 

Just a thought.

The reason behind us owing Jordan money stems from the fact that five months after this magazine got the green light, he decided to retire after his first threepeat. The screams from the publisher’s office could be heard from the old SLAM Dome in the Flatiron all the way to 125th Street. And it wasn’t until Issue 6—the infamous “MIKE!” cover, featuring an interview by yours truly—that SLAM was fully established in the game as a journalistic force…and profit center. 

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A few years later, the initial start-up capital used to launch this mag turned into a sale in the millions. Hella return on a then-risky, idealist investment. Venture capitalism. Thanks, Mike.

But here’s the beauty of that: We ain’t ever been alone in owing Jordan money! The NBA owes him money. Nike owes him money. The Bulls really owe him money. NBC, TNT, ESPN, CBS-Fox (Come Fly With Me) and Warner Brothers (Space Jam) owe him money. UNC will forever owe him money. Kobe owes him money. LeBron owes him money. 

We all to some degree, in some way, shape, form, fashion or hustle are still making money and living out sections of our dreams by living off him. 

And don’t think he doesn’t know this, that he’s not fully aware. The reality is very much the opposite. So much that he could make it Part 2 of his Hall of Fame speech if given the chance. 

Michael Jordan is just not into knocking anyone’s hustle, even if he’s the reason that hustle exists. Which says something about who he really is. Because a lesser God would have collected a very long time ago. He knows we all owe. But that’s not Mike.

1995. 12,888* scores and 22 years ago. The emancipation of his return. All praises due. The Final Call.

Through him we saw heaven. He made us realize it wasn’t on a playground as we all believed prior to him. His career—everything about him as a basketball player—can be simplified to one line in that famous/infamous speech: “I tried to make it hard for Phil [Jackson] to take me out of games.” 

Want proof? From Issue 12 (July 1996) right before the beginning of the Playoffs that ignited the Bulls’ second triple:

SLAM It’s crunch time now—aren’t you getting tired? I mean, this is your first full season back in a couple. Wassup? You’re making it hard for Phil to give you some rest.

MJ You should know me by now—I haven’t changed. This is the most challenging part of the season, and I thrive on it, on this type of competitiveness. I just try to elevate my game and everyone else’s game surrounding me. To some degree, that’s the type of thing I thrive on; I enjoy it. I want to make it tough for Phil to take me out, because I enjoy playing in these types of circumstances. Hey Dog, I’m getting old, and I may not get these thrills too often anymore [laughs].

The ’95 date is not just important for MJ’s career but to the life of what you are reading now and why you are reading it. His comeback gave us a story to tell. He gave us a foundation to build a franchise around much the same way Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause did. 

The “making it hard for Phil” was a creed, damn near his Tao. He needed something simple but of that magnitude to function at a level he knew he couldn’t without. It gave him incentive. Operated as his higher power. While we thought he was battling the Knicks and Pacers for crowns; Hakeem and Shaq for supremacy and dominance; his father’s death and his own personal demons; his own place in the game’s history; what he was actually battling was a false narrative that he’d put in his head that his enemy was the person who had the power to control when he played and when he didn’t. 

And for Jordan that creed was perfect because it was one he could—and did—use every game. It was constant. Never changed. Rote. Let him have one of those bad shooting nights that we now pretend never happened. One of those 5-22, 12-point games going into the fourth with the Bulls down double digits and he’s on the bench to begin the quarter. The whispering was internal. “When I get back in I’ma make it impossible for this muthafucka to take me out.” Fifteen in a row. Twenty-two for the quarter. On some Steph Curry shit long before Steph Curry shit existed. Bulls win by 5. He doesn’t leave the court until Freddie Mercury was on the sound system or the visiting arena is a morgue.

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And that muthafucka? His name just happened to be Phil. Coulda been anybody. Anybody that Jordan felt had the power to control or stop his ability to do him vs anybody.

Mind control is a muthafucka.

“The deeper Michael got in his career, the harder he worked. [He] took everything to another level only he has known,” says TV talking head Skip Bayless. “I’ve often felt sorry for Kobe Bryant and LeBron James as they’ve attempted to live up to Michael’s legacy. He set the bar unfairly high. Lord help the ‘Next Jordan’ and ‘The Next’ and ‘The Next’ after.”

And while Jordan did things after his first retirement that only added to the lore he’d built during his first phase, he found a way to humanize himself while at the same time expand the myth we were all beginning to believe: That he actually was a God among us. Kevin Garnett confirmed it, when in initial talks with Nike he asked to be excused from the meeting because he needed to “talk with God.” “Oh, you need to go pray? That’s fine,” someone said. “No,” KG responded.

“I mean I need to call Mike.”

Melissa Isaacson, now with ESPN, covered the MJ-era Bulls for the Chicago Tribune and wrote the 1994 book, Transition Game: An Inside Look at Life with The Chicago Bulls, about the year after MJ retired. She shares her POV on MJ once he came back. “There was always a softness to Michael along with the guy who bullied his teammates in practice and taunted his opponents,” she said. “He seemed to thoroughly enjoy being back. He missed it. He relished instilling more of a fierceness in his team. And personally, while I generally found him to be warm and friendly, he was now almost big-brotherly in his treatment of me as a pregnant woman. 

“I noticed that with all of [media]. He missed us. He missed the familiar faces at practice and games. And make no mistake, he definitely missed the ovations that had always been part of his work day and now were again. He knew what he gave up and he would never say he regretted it. And though he probably needed it to affirm how much he loved basketball, he seemed genuinely grateful to be back and in no hurry to leave again.”

And this is important because it helps shape part of the nature of what he brought back with him when he decided to make basketball—not baseball or golf—the center of his life again. 

In the “What Does Jordan Mean To You?” video put out by the Brand last year, Howard White—the brand’s VP, the Alfred to Jordan’s Dark Knight—put all of the ideology and how it is applied to life into perspective for everyone looking at Jordan as their source of inspiration. He answered the question by saying, “How much one can believe in the possibility that they can overcome any obstacle that hold most people down.” In context H.White was speaking about Jordan, but he could as easily have been speaking about life. Not just his, all of ours.

The overcome. The adversity. The ego and arrogance necessary to overcome adversity. The work pedigree that becomes the work ethos and ethics needed to render adversity irrelevant. The power of supreme belief.

It seemed as if those attributes existed in Jordan in a way they didn’t in anyone else. At least when it came to basketball. That “front row seat to greatness” with him literally took on a different meaning than the greatness that seemed to be coming from other athletes at that time. And it was like once he got there, to that level, once he’d slayed all in his way to that throne he created, he became more determined to defend and redefine the throne than he did trying to create it.

Dr. Todd Boyd, from Detroit, had a front row seat to see Jordan deal with, fight his way through and refuse to concede to that adversity. “MJ is the greatest player in NBA history, yet there is no greatness without adversity,” the Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts said. “Like that OG Will Shakes (William Shakespeare) once said, ‘Sweet are the uses of adversity, which like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head.’ Between ’88 and ’91, the Pistons and Bulls met in the Playoffs every year, with the Pistons winning three of those series. For three straight years the Pistons didn’t simply beat MJ, they whupped his ass! So, when Jordan said, ‘I have failed over and over and over again in my life, that is why I succeed,’ he was basically saying that he had ‘paid the cost to be the Boss.’ His legacy is now legend and his legend is Boss.”

So boss that even in an era of suffocating data analysis, sabermetrics, FiveThirtyEight, spacing and player-efficiency that frown so hard at the “isolation” form of basketball and so many other anal retentive theories that now gauge a player’s greatness on algorithms that weren’t in existence when Jordan played, none can find a way to diminish his eminence and effectiveness when he’s the exact type of “volume” player they are trying to convince future players to not be like.

But still the game searches and fiends for the next him desperately.

Earl Woods once went on a rant about the future greatness of his son: “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity…More than any of them because he’s more charismatic, more educated, more prepared for this than anyone…He is the Chosen One. He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.”

The question is, had Jordan never existed, never set a stage and platform that transcended so many areas of life, lifestyle and livelihood, would someone like Woods had ever felt that his son—an athlete, mind you—had the possibility to impact the world the way he felt his son had the potential to do?

The honest answer: Hell no.

So while we may all owe Michael Jordan money, Jordan owes Tiger Woods an apology for instilling in his father the belief that it was even possible for his son to reach that level.

“By midseason it became clear to me that it wasn’t competition per se that was driving the team; it was simply the joy of the game itself. This dance was ours, and the only team that could compete against us was ourselves.”

—Phil Jackson in Eleven Rings, about the ’95-96 Chicago Bulls.

I asked someone who’d know.

SCOOP JACKSON: If you all had to face that (’96) Bulls team? If you all had to play them?

ANDRE IGUODALA: We wouldn’t be able to do anything with MJ. Nobody would be able to guard him.

As we just saw Golden State put part of his legacy in the hyperbolic hype cycle during their historic 73-win regular season, what Iguodala—a member of the new “best ever”—said speaks as witness to just how peerless MJ literally was. Is.

If asked the same question, Jordan would have simply responded: “We wouldn’ta lost to OKC at home in the first game of the Conference Finals.” And left it at that. Said nothing more.

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Which is the way he does things when it comes to leveraging his legacy and greatness against others. If asked about LeBron’s greatness and place in history next to his, Jordan’s response, to make you understand the question should have never been broached, would be: “I never lost in the Finals.” And left it at that.

It goes so deep that one time when talking to him about whose free-throw line dunk was more iconic, his or Julius Erving’s original, Jordan specifically distinguished the rating of his by first asking, “Do you know the difference between my dunk and his?” Then saying, “I dribbled the ball. He didn’t.” Cementing authenticity and basically letting me know that if he wanted to, he could do that shit in a game. Dr J couldn’t. Again, he left it at that.

And that is one of the eccentricities in Jordan that makes his heir so rare. He’s created this space over the course of 12 years (from the jump shot at UNC to win the National Championship to holding up three fingers while on the floor in his white “Three-Peat” cap outside the locker room, the Championship basketball still in hand) that evolved into an empyrean. And by the time he came back to the game to finish his career, the only thing left to do was make it impossible for that space to ever be invaded by anyone else.

Or as his one-time assistant coach/sensei Johnny Bach once said: “He’s a genius who constantly wants to upgrade his genius.”

The flipside circles around what he’s been able to do once the ball was no longer in his hands. In how over the years he has evolved and devolved. The “perfect” superstar we got sold on has taken hits. A public divorce, the failed Wizards experience, his initial run as GM of the Hornets, imperfection can do that. And to be acutely honest, he’s lost some of the cool that helped make him him. 

But on the other end of that superficial spectrum of how we judge people is the evolution of Jordan and Jordan Inc. as a business model and cultural inspiration of black and minority enterprise. Becoming one of only two members of the black American billionaires club (Oprah is the other) far exceeds the fact that diamond hoop earrings are no longer in fashion.

Outside of Roger Penske (Penske Racing, Penske Automotive, Penske Truck Rental) no American athlete has accomplished in retirement what MJ has, especially in such short time. It’s a damn shame Time has yet to honor him as one of their “100 Most Influential People” and The Atlantic failed to include him in their “100 Most Influential Figures in American History.”

This is the global and cultural weight of Jordan’s post-’95 life that cannot be overlooked when examining a life’s arch. As I wrote in a 2014 ESPN.com column on Jordan’s business influence: “Black Power means more than a t-shirt.”

Which doesn’t mean that a t-shirt with his image in the form of a logo on the front doesn’t indicate power. It does. More power and influence than this country will ever acknowledge “someone” like him ever having.

In Sam Smith’s book, There Is No Next: NBA Legends on the Legacy of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson tells an insightful story that in some way gives a glimpse into who Jordan might really be, as well as giving some understanding to the power he holds.

“When I talked to him after I announced [having the HIV virus in 1991], I called him and he was right there. He was right there to write a check. He was the first one to write a check to the foundation and be a part of it. Embracing me at the 1992 All-Star Game and signaling it was OK to embrace those with the disease. Because it was his league. Everything was centered around Michael and what Michael thought, what Michael did. When he came over, that just relaxed everybody else. He opened the door for the world to accept. Not just those guys, but that was a worldwide thing because Michael Jordan was the biggest thing in the world.”

The question is legit: Is he still the “biggest thing in the world?” After watching the world’s reaction to the deaths of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, David Bowie and Prince, it’s not hard to think the world will have a similar, unconditional reaction to Jordan when his time ends. That’s the power of influence, of what certain people have been able to do with the gifts they’ve been given and how those gifts impact our daily lives. To most, there wasn’t and has not been a day that goes by without hearing something from the aforementioned above. With Jordan? It’s different. 

We see it and are reminded of him every time we watch a game. With every argument of is LeBron greater, with every mention of Curry’s transcending place in the game. With Kobe’s retiring. With someone else getting six rings, five MVPs and six Finals MVPs seeming like the single thing in basketball we will never see again. With AI and Shaq entering the Hall. As influential and larger-than-life as both are, they still wane in comparison. Subliminally—even without Mike being present or a part of their inductions—we are reminded of that.

Jordan is the benchmark other GOATs (Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Floyd Mayweather Jr, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, etc.) use as their thresholds. He remains in our daily lives. There is not a day where you don’t see someone in a pair of Js on the streets.

All day. All connected to him.

All extensions of the man. To the point that when his time does come, when his life’s run finds its end, he should just leave us with two words: “God’s out.”

Scoop Jackson is a senior writer for ESPN and author of the forthcoming book The Game Is Not A Game (Haymarket Books).