KAREEM ON MJ’S (LACK OF) ACTIVISM “He took commerce over conscience.”

Part of the reason he remained popular is that he never did anything to piss anybody off.” That’s how Roy S. Johnson explained Jordan’s popularity in Episode 5 of ‘The Last Dance.’ That was an intro to MJ’s most infamous sentence. “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Since the quote became, public MJ had to repeat this explanation multiple times. 

“I don’t think that statement needs to be corrected because I said it in jest on a bus with Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen. It was thrown off the cuff. My mother asked to do a PSA for Harvey Gantt, and I said, ‘Look, Mom, I’m not speaking out of pocket about someone that I don’t know. But I will send a contribution to support him.’ Which is what I did.”

Michael Jordan, The Last Dance

The sentence followed Jordan ever since he said it, as a symbol of the perception that Jordan was always very corporate. He carefully crafted a public image that would make him appealing to customers around the USA and the world. So, was Jordan a sellout? Here’s how the man himself thinks about the issue. 

“I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in. But I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player. I wasn’t a politician when I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That’s where my energy was.”

Michael Jordan, The Last Dance

This is an entirely legitimate position. Just because someone is a public figure, doesn’t mean they have an obligation to speak up on political issues. If the documentary showed us one thing so far, it was that Jordan had a singular focus on basketball. It seems MJ understands he could’ve done more for a lot of communities just by speaking up on issues. He even acknowledges that there was a selfish element to it. Decent PR: he addressed the criticism, demonstrated he understands the point, and offered an explanation – “I was an athlete, not a politician.”

You don’t have to be a politician to be political; most of us aren’t. Living in a  democracy, you are guaranteed to have opinions on issues, and that makes you a political being. We even have confirmation MJ was like that – he said it himself, “But, I will send a contribution to support him.” This lets us know that Jordan was political (had political views, opinions, etc.) and supported Gantt. If he was good enough to support financially, why wasn’t Gantt good enough to support publically? Because Jordan didn’t want us to know he supported Gantt. 

Is it possible there were reasons MJ didn’t want us to know what his politics were outside of shoe sales? Absolutely. But I’m struggling to see how making a PSA for Gantt was different from making a Nike or Gatorade commercial – how does the former influence “focusing on my craft” differently than the latter. The most logical conclusion is that, as it often does, an off the cuff joke revealed what MJ honestly thought. 

“You can’t be afraid of losing shoe sales if you’re worried about your civil and human rights. He took commerce over conscience. It’s unfortunate for him, but he’s gotta live with it.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, HuffPost

Kareem was very open on this topic and added that “You can’t pick or choose [when you take a stand]. When something happens, it doesn’t matter if it’s convenient or not.” If you know anything about Kareem and his biography, you are not surprised by this statement. He famously stood up for equality with Muhamad Ali, Bill Rusell, and Jim Brown, when it had a much higher cost than a decrease in shoe sales. 

Here’s where I stand on this. Would I respect Jordan more if he had taken a public stand and supported Gantt? Yes, but that’s just because I believe we all must speak up and get involved in social issues of our time. On the other hand, I understand and accept there are legitimate reasons for some people not to. I can’t judge Jordan for not doing it, but I can appreciate Kareem, Bill Russel, or LeBron for speaking up. 

All this made me appreciate LeBron more. If we take MJ’s point, that putting yourself in the political limelight is an extra burden for any athlete, then that’s another aspect we have to take into account when talking about career achievements. MJ said he wasn’t a politician or an activist, but a basketball player. LeBron said he is more than an athlete. Both have the right to do so, but in my book, those are significant points for LeBron. 

What does all this mean? Yeah, Jordan may be the best basketball player ever. But would he crack my top 10 most important basketball players ever? Like the ‘valuable’ in MVP, we all have to define ‘important’ in our own way. For me, it’s what you do with the power that comes with being successful at throwing a ball through a hoop (an action that has no intrinsic value in itself.) There I find Jordan wanting.