Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, and Hank Aaron were among the trailblazers who paved the way for generations of African American athletes.
Through steely determination and resilience, they helped lay the groundwork for black excellence in professional sports. If they had not trudged through a minefield of racism, segregation, and good old-fashioned bullshit, who knows where we’d be?
Michael Jordan, who celebrates his 58th birthday today, grabbed hold of the torch they lit (and the enormous groundwork they laid) and invented the black athlete turned filthy rich business mogul.
It’s likely his most important accomplishment and is the foremost reason why today’s top athletes enjoy extreme control over their career and brand.
A Grand Entrance into Pro Sports
MJ entered the NBA in 1984 following an impressive college career and a spectacular showing at the summer Olympics. But as highly touted as he was coming into the league as a rookie, no one expected the impact he would make on the court.
From the beginning, he was a masterpiece to behold as he steadily piled up highlights, statistics, awards, and eventually, championships.
But in 1985, his cultural influence began to skyrocket with the debut of his Air Jordan sneakers. It was a groundbreaking event, as Nike gambled on the young superstar by giving him his own brand.
NBA royalty at the time — Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving, and Isiah Thomas all endorsed Converse Weapon sneakers. But the only characteristic of those kicks that linked them to the players was the color scheme.
Magic’s Converse was dressed in the purple and gold of the LA Lakers, Bird’s were coated in the Celtics’ green and white, and so on. For Jordan, the first edition of his sneakers bore his name at its ankle.
The Revolution Takes Flight
No sneaker company had built a multi-million dollar marketing campaign around a single player who played team sports. Sure, guys such as John McEnroe and Arthur Ashe wore their personal branded sneakers, but they were tennis players.
As Michael’s game continued to garner rave reviews from the media and fans, the popularity of the Air Jordan expanded. He soon became a high-profile endorser of McDonald’s, Chevy, Wilson Sporting Goods, and Coca-Cola.
By the time Jordan hosted NBC’s Saturday Night Live in September 1991, he was set to enter his eighth NBA season. More importantly, he had long since surpassed the mere status of “pro athlete” and had become a celebrity, and based on the infectious and fawning “Be Like Mike” Gatorade ad, a cultural icon.
He led his Chicago Bulls to their first-ever league championship in June that year, and his Air Jordan sneakers were globally obsessed over. Nike’s sales of the AJ footwear and apparel reached into the billions.
MJ’s image was bolstered by highly popular television ads featuring filmmaker Spike Lee alongside the hoops legend. This was all unprecedented territory for a black athlete and it helped Jordan to achieve massive crossover appeal.
A Multi-Billion Dollar Juggernaut
By the time he ended his career with the Bulls with a sixth NBA championship in 1998, Michael had become the CEO of the Jordan Brand. Nike spun off his sneaker and apparel line into a separate entity for Michael, given the colossal success he earned for the company.
That year, Forbes magazine estimated that Jordan’s presence in the NBA and his significant influence on the culture was responsible for $10 billion dollars!
When he retired for good in 2003 (after a two-year stint with the garbage Washington Wizards), Jordan’s massive influence and his cultural cache were etched in stone.
Jordan the Influencer
Other superstar athletes had been following in his footsteps for years and a few tried to copy his blueprint. In the NBA, guys like Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, and Shaquille O’Neal assembled incredible personal brands.
Kobe Bryant, who closely mimicked MJ in competitiveness, mannerisms, and skill, built an incredible empire. LeBron James has loomed largest of anyone since Jordan, as the Akron, Ohio native has allowed his youthful idolatry of Mike to fuel his enormous brand.
The historic rise of Tiger Woods in the late 1990s was possible in part, by “The Jordan Effect.” Previous iconic African American athletes probably never dreamed of having such control and global ubiquity that continues to exist for Jordan, now almost two decades removed from playing, or James.
A Peerless Legacy
The earth-shattering love affair that has existed for Michael Jordan for 30 years and counting has created the ultimate domino effect for gifted black athletes.
Venus and Serena Williams have also become huge benefactors of it, and now they have carved out their own legacies in the business of sports. Gymnast Simone Biles is also traversing her path towards the same ultimate outcome.
I love Michael Jordan for a ton of reasons. But his invention of the modern “filthy rich” black athlete turned business mogul ranks as his most stunning achievement.
And his most important.