Net Worth: How the greatest player in the history of basketball became the greatest brand in the history of sports

Here is an excerpt from a “classic” article by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. that appeared in the May 25, 1998, issue of The New Yorker. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Illustration Credit: Mark Zingarelli

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When do you know for sure? Basketball fans still talk about “the shot”—the sixteen-footer that a University of North Carolina freshman named Michael Jordan sank in 1982. With seconds left on the clock, Jordan scored the decisive basket against Georgetown, secured the N.C.A.A. crown, and put himself, in his own words, “on the basketball map.” David Falk, whom one would be tempted to call the Michael Jordan of sports agents if he weren’t Michael Jordan’s sports agent, tells about witnessing a similarly prophetic moment in Jordan’s career. In 1985, Jordan, a coltish twenty-two, was holding a press conference in Chicago to announce an endorsement deal he’d signed with the Coca-Cola Company. But those were not ordinary times, for New Coke had recently been introduced and a cola Kulturkampf was seething. “Which Coke do you like—New Coke or regular Coke?” a reporter threw at him.

Even now, in the recounting, Falk wants to make sure I get the full picture: an inexperienced young player, the cameras, the microphones, the blazing lights—and his future as a pitchman in the balance. “And Michael instantly responded, ‘Coke is Coke. They both taste great.’ ” As the sportscasters say, nothing but net.

No one could have faulted Jordan had he made a different play—had he pimped for New Coke, and tried to justify the choice without slighting its precursor. “I mean, for me, I would have probably picked one and tried to explain why,” Falk says intently. You can tell that the moment is part of his own personal highlights reel: the lights, the cameras, the question, the sudden clutch in his gut, and, finally, Jordan’s soaring, effortless dunk. “What a great answer!” Falk exclaims. “He just has amazing instincts.” If you’re Falk, that’s when you know.

Après Coke, le déluge. Edible cake decorations, golf-club covers, shower curtains, pot holders, aprons, rulers, kitchen towels, sleeping bags, canteens, insulated travel mugs, napkins, tablecloths, popcorn tins, foam furniture, first-aid kits, gift wrap, memo pads, book bags, pencil sharpeners, erasers, buttons, key chains, wallet cards, magnets, ring binders, tissue holders, diaries, address books, envelopes, flashlights, kites, toothbrush holders, wastebaskets, Sony and Sega play stations, pinball games, soap dishes, walkie-talkies, curtains, acrylic juice cups, gum, cookies, bandages, and comforters: this isn’t a list of all the commodities that Jordan has endorsed, but it’s the beginning of such a list. The economist Tyler Cowen, who has compiled a far longer list than this one, has approvingly noted that these endorsements represent a very simple form of mutualism: “It helps sell their product, and it makes Michael Jordan more famous.”

Two forces contend for the soul of contemporary America, playing out a sociohistorical version of King Kong versus Godzilla, only with better special effects. On the one hand, there’s the growth of what has been termed “winner-take-all” markets, visible in every economic and cultural realm but epitomized by the star system of the N.B.A. On the other hand, there’s the growth of market micro-segmentation—the fragmentation of culture into ever narrower niches, from the proliferation of cable channels to the supposed balkanization of the canon. For at least the past decade, the struggle has been ceaseless, dug-in, brutal. Corporate behemoths meet and merge; then, buffeted by shareholder capitalism, spin off divisions like whirling nebulae. Twenty thousand new consumer products were introduced in this country last year; ninety per cent of them will fail. And so the battle continues. A bulletin from the front: Michael Jordan—the ultimate winner-take-all celebrity—is gaining the upper hand.

“Forget the endorsements and the swoosh and the dollar sign,” Steve Wulf wrote in Time last year. “They just get in the way, like some beaded curtain that keeps us from truly appreciating what we have” —to wit, “the greatest athlete in the history of American sports.” An uplifting sentiment, but you might just as fairly stand it on its head. The man’s grandeur on the court—the dunks, the jump shots, the steals, the midair acrobatics—has tended to obscure another historic achievement: Michael Jordan has become the greatest corporate pitchman of all time. As a twentieth-century sports hero, he has plausible competition from Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali; as an agent of brand equity; he is without peer.

The first thing you notice when you sit down with Michael Jordan is how very much like Michael Jordan he is. The resemblance is uncanny, and not incidental to his success. He’s handsome and dark-skinned, with those three horizontal creases in his forehead which really become visible when he’s at the free-throw line, glistening with sweat and glowering at the basket. His baritone is the one you’ve heard on a thousand commercials. But, more than that, the manner—direct and artless—is familiar. (“He can’t really act,” Falk was quoted as saying shortly before the Jordan vehicle “Space Jam” had its theatrical release, and it occurs to me only now that Falk was reassuring us, not warning us.) Jordan, who is self-aware without being self-conscious, recognizes that the alchemy of image requires realness, which in turn requires exposure, albeit controlled exposure.

“I know that it’s got some coloring to it, and you are only going to see certain portions that they want you to see,” Jordan says of his public persona. “But still, when I come in contact with people, I think they see me being a genuine person. And I get along with everybody: I’m a people person, yet I understand the game of corporate America and what they try to project.”

We’re sitting quietly in his private suite off the second-floor dining room of an establishment called Michael Jordan’s Restaurant, on North LaSalle Street, in downtown Chicago. The most noticeable object here is an eleven-by-fourteen-inch photograph of his father, the late James Jordan. Otherwise, the suite is sedate and muted, with cream-colored walls, a couple of tan leather sofas, and a marble dining table. Michael Jordan is across from me, sipping a cup of coffee, nibbling on fruit salad, and occasionally lifting up a piece of flatware, tilting it this way and that.

Jordan was exaggerating when he said he got along with everybody. He minces few words as he speaks about two of his previous coaches at Chicago: Stan Albeck, who he feels was tolerant of mediocrity (“very laid-back—do your job and then go out and party”), and Doug Collins, who was loyal to management but not to his players (“ ‘Fuck Doug Collins’ was the conversation on the court”). Still, when it comes to elements that affect his and his team’s performance, you wouldn’t expect the most competitive member of the N.B.A. to display an attitude of live-and-let-live. Jordan has been equally acerbic toward teammates who he feels have not pulled their weight. The person who continues to elicit Jordan’s special loathing, though, is Jerry Krause, the general manager of the Chicago Bulls and thus Jordan’s putative boss.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Henry Louis (“Skip” Gates Jr.) is an American literary critic, professor, historian, and filmmaker who serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

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