December 3, 2002

Great Salesman But Not Much Else

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Amidst the smorgasbord of sports this past weekend, one seemingly innocuous announcement stole all the headlines. Last Friday, as people across the country raced to malls to get a jump start on holiday shopping, Washington Wizards’ forward Michael Jordan announced to the media that he would retire for the third and final time when his two-year contract runs out at the end of this season.

Now, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Jordan will turn 40 in February, and following his return last season, he has been nowhere near the dominant force he once was.

Yet, this announcement still drew massive attention from the national sports media. Maybe I’m missing something, but a player in the twilight of his career reasserting the fact that the contract he had declared upon signing would be his last is not newsworthy. But then again, this is Michael Jordan, and with Michael Jordan comes inordinate and usually unwarranted media hype.

I would never dispute Jordan’s impact during his 15-year NBA career. What I do question, though, is why so much praise is heaped upon an athlete who, while dominant, was, well, ordinary in what he did for basketball both on and off the court.

Jordan was never a controversial figure. While there is a lot that can be said about that, the reason Jordan stayed far from controversy was because he never was much involved in anything off the court. You’d think that a person of his celebrity would use his name for some cause. But with the exception of Nike, this was not so for Jordan.

Not coincidentally, Jordan, a most prolific pitchman, received tremendous acclaim as the greatest basketball player ever throughout the 1990s. And leading a team to six championships in eight years is nothing to sneeze at. Bear in mind, though, that Jordan’s NBA career began in 1984. His best seasons statistically all came before 1990, and he didn’t win a championship until teamed with Scottie Pippen and coached by Phil Jackson.

Yet through the 1980s, Jordan was never regarded as more than a member of the trifecta of greats which also included Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. It seems a little counterintuitive that Jordan suddenly became “the greatest” when his production began to decline later in his career.

Most disturbingly, though, is the fact that Jordan is regarded in some quarters as the best athlete ever. While there’s an argument to be made that Jordan is the best basketball player ever, athlete? Society collectively forgets Jordan’s laughable foray into minor league baseball in 1994. He couldn’t hit a fastball. Thus, Jordan joins a long and illustrious list of star athletes who couldn’t cut it in baseball, including Danny Ainge, Dave DeBusschere, and Deion Sanders.

Even aside from Jordan’s athletic futility off the basketball court, is what he did really as transcendent as a Jackie Robinson (who not only broke the professional sports color barrier but is a hall-of-famer in probably his fifth best sport) or a Babe Ruth (who saved baseball and professional sports in general) or a Muhammad Ali (who revolutionized the concept of the athlete-activist)? I think not.

There’s no denying the impact that Jordan had on the basketball court. However, as great a player as he was, his image was magnified even more by what he was off the court — a tremendous pitchman who benefited from the greatest marketing machine ever.

And the marketing of Michael Jordan is not yet over. By restating his intent to play out his contract and retire in November, Jordan ensured himself of the longest farewell tour possible and one final shot to make money as sports’ greatest salesman.

Archived article by Owen Bochner