Michael Jordan's path to greatness was shaped by race, politics, and the consequences of fame. To become the most revered basketball player in America, it wasn't enough for Michael Jordan to merely excel on the court. He also had to become something he never intended: a hero. In this episode, Peter and Orlando delve into a conversation about His Airness with author and Georgia Tech professor, Johnny Smith. 

Jumpman: The Making and Meaning of Michael Jordan

Jumpman: The Making and Meaning of Michael Jordan

Credit: MahoganyBooks


Peter Biello: Coming up in this episode.

Orlando Montoya: You're always talking sports. Whenever you talk about sports, I'm like, That's Peter.

Johnny Smith: Because the suggestion was that Black kids would kill other Black kids for Air Jordans, but white kids would not.

Peter Biello: When Gant asked for an endorsement, Jordan declined. And he said famously, "Republicans buy shoes, too."

Orlando Montoya: This podcast from Georgia Public Broadcasting highlights books with Georgia connections hosted by two of your favorite public radio book nerds, who also happen to be your hosts of All Things Considered on GPB Radio. I'm Orlando Montoya.

Peter Biello: And I'm Peter Biello. Thanks for joining us as we introduce you to authors, their writings, and the insights behind the stories mixed with our own thoughts and ideas on just what gives these works the Narrative Edge.

Orlando Montoya: All right. We are back again. Peter, what book are we talking about today?

Peter Biello: Today we're talking about Jumpman: The Making and Meaning of Michael Jordan by Johnny Smith, who is the J.C. Bud Shaw Professor of Sports History and associate professor of history at Georgia Tech. You knew I was going to get a sports book in this podcast at some point.

Orlando Montoya: Yeah, we've had it before, haven't we?

Peter Biello: Did we? What was the last sports one we did?

Orlando Montoya: I don't know. But you're always talking sports. So, whenever you talk about sports. I'm like, "That's Peter." 

Peter Biello: Well, the nice thing about this book is it's not necessarily a sports book. It does involve sports, though. Jumpman is about Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player who ever lived. LeBron fans, don't at me. But this is about a lot more than basketball. I'm not a huge basketball fan in general. I found this fascinating because it's about American culture and race and how Michael Jordan made himself out to be, quote-unquote, "the great American endorser." Because let me ask you this. Besides basketball, what do you think of when you think of Michael Jordan?

Orlando Montoya: Nikes right?

Peter Biello: Nikes. Yes, of course. Nikes. Anything else?

Orlando Montoya: Um, I don't know. Maybe he sponsored a hamburger, too.

Peter Biello: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. McDonald's, for sure. So, yeah, in — in Jumpman, we're not getting a biography of Jordan. We're not following the dramatic details that took him from Wilmington, N.C., where he was born, to the Chicago Bills — Chicago Bills? Chicago Bulls. It's the Bills at Buffalo — the Buffalo Mafia is going to come at me now, next. So in Jumpman, what we're getting is a detailed unpacking of how Michael Jordan crafted his public image.

Johnny Smith: He played the role of the hero, someone that kids could look up to, someone that parents could admire. And so this is very intentional for a young bBack man who comes to the NBA and gains these incredible endorsement deals. And he talked about this in an interview that stood out to me in 1989 with a reporter from GQ where he basically says to him that he has to be very careful about what he says and does because if he makes some misstep, if he got caught up in some scandal or some controversy, that it would destroy everything he had built as the great American endorser.

Peter Biello: The great American endorser. So in Johnny Smith's telling, Jordan didn't want the white buyers of products that he endorsed, like the Nike Air Jordans, Coca-Cola, Chevy didn't want to make those people look at him and say, "Oh, he's just another misbehaving Black man," which in the 1980s and '90s was a common narrative among the white reporters writing about the NBA.

Orlando Montoya: I just — I just Googled five biggest scandals of Michael Jordan's career.

Peter Biello: Okay.

Orlando Montoya: There were scandals.

Peter Biello: Oh, there were. Yeah. He just avoided them as best as he could anyway.

Orlando Montoya: So is this a book about how Michael Jordan found a way to thrive in a racist environment?

Peter Biello: It is. It absolutely is. And we just heard Johnny Smith use the word "controversy." It's not just drugs or alcohol or illegal behavior. Controversy also meant avoiding any public statements about racism. Let's take, for example, the Nike Air Jordans. You know, Nike associated with Michael Jordan, as you've mentioned. Do you remember those commercials with Michael Jordan and Spike Lee playing that character, Mars Blackmon from the movie She's Got to Have It?

Orlando Montoya:  Not ringing a bell.

Peter Biello: You don't remember that?

Orlando Montoya: Not ringing a bell.

Peter Biello: I might be a little too young for those commercials. But I had to look them up because I had to hear what this commercial sounded like.

Nike Commercial: Yo, Mars Blackmon here with my main man, Michael Jordan. Yo, Mike, what makes you the best player in the universe? Is it the vicious dunks? No, Mars. Is it the haircut? No, Mars. Is it the shoes? No, Mars. Is it an extra long shorts? No, Mars. Its the shoes then, right? Nah. Is it the short socks? No, Mars. Money, it's got to be the shoes. Shoes. Shoes. Shoes. You sure it's not the shoes? I'm sure, Mars. What about the shoes? No, Mars. Money, it's gotta be the shoes.

Peter Biello: Got to be the shoes, Orlando. Got to be the shoes.

Orlando Montoya: That — that is a cringe worthy ad. That is very cringey.

Peter Biello: I bet you anything they are teaching that ad in marketing school because it was — it was one of the first ads that was kind of like an ongoing series, right? Where there was there was a storyline within the commercials. And this was this was late '80s, early '90s. It was new for the time. And this was kind of as close as Michael Jordan would get to someone who's controversial because, of course, Spike Lee, actor and director, known for stories about Black Americans and explorations of urban life. This was at a time when Jordan was pretty adamant that he wanted to be recognized not as a Black athlete, but just as a human. "Look at me as a human" is what he wanted.

Orlando Montoya: O.J. Simpson had been kind of the same way. I mean, he famously said, "I'm not Black, I'm O.J."

Peter Biello: Yeah, but for — for obvious reasons, any comparison to O.J. Simpson becomes problematic in a hurry. But, but if you remember those commercials, the hype about Air Jordans, even if you don't remember those commercials, you might also remember news reports about kids being killed for Nike Air Jordans. Do you remember any of that?

Orlando Montoya: Oh, now that I remember, you know that the — the fights, the in — the stores the Christmas Black Friday. Horrible.

Peter Biello: Yeah. Black Friday stuff still kind of happens about any product. But what I remember is specifically about these shoes and I would have been like 8, 9, 10 years old like casually overhearing these news reports on TV about, you know, it's a scary thing now, if you get Nike Air Jordans, you might be killed for them. What Johnny Smith talks about in this book is that those reports really exaggerated. This wasn't happening all the time. There were cases that the press did point to, and they asked Michael Jordan to respond to these things. But there was there was really no thorough analysis of, of how much this was happening, how bad the problem was. And Michael Jordan was asked about what he personally could do to stop these crimes.

Johnny Smith: Because the suggestion was that Black kids would kill other Black kids for Air Jordans, but white kids would not. Of course, no one was investigating whether or not there was any bullying or crimes being committed in white communities, in white schools, over Air Jordan sneakers or sneakers of any kind. And Jordan, even, you know, without explicitly talking about how he felt he was targeted and race was part of this story, he did say, you know, why isn't anyone asking Larry Bird and Joe Montana, two major white sports stars at the time, about what kind of example they're setting and what they can do about this problem? So I think, you know, Jordan was defensive, but ultimately, there's a pattern that begins in this moment, and that is he retreats.

Peter Biello: And so Jordan concludes that it's not in his best interest to call out the obvious racism that's essentially pinning an imaginary problem on a famous, wealthy Black man because he doesn't want to jeopardize his endorsement deals and he prefers to take the path where he's going to be an example. He's going to be a good example to — to kids with his behavior.

Orlando Montoya: So is the whole book about Jordan and race?

Peter Biello: Johnny Smith does spend some time on the way the Bulls played entering the 1990s, but even that doesn't get too far from race and culture. The Bulls won six championships in the 1990s, three in a row, '91, '92, '93, with Jordan playing huge parts in those wins. The chase for the championship is a big thing for Jordan, who is quite a competitor. You know, he starts with the Bulls in 1984 and goes a long time without winning a championship. He just feels like he has to win all the time. That's just the kind of guy he is. And he would often berate his teammates if he thought they were playing badly. He was a tough guy to work with in that sense. Jordan was also something of a ball hog and had mandates on — like, he wouldn't, he would say, for example, like, "Don't give the ball to this guy in the last minute or whatever it is because he just can't handle it." And then they get a new coach, Phil Jackson. And Jackson's a white guy, a former hippie whose appreciation of Native American cultures kind of leads him to appropriate some of that culture for the purported benefit of the team. It's a little cringey. You can read about that in the book. Jackson essentially made the Bulls play more as a team and less as Michael Jordan, plus a few other guys. And as a result, the Bulls started winning. But that's — that's like about as down in the weeds as this book gets in basketball strategy, which I'll say again, I like sports, but I'm not a huge basketball guy. So when they started talking about strategy, like the triangle offense, that kind of went over my head. But that wasn't the primary interest for me in the book.

Orlando Montoya: Well, in the time that you were talking there, I did a Google about Jordan speaking about racism in 2014.

Peter Biello: Yes, he did speak about it in 2014. He denounced — in that year, he denounced comments by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who in a secretly made recording, said that he viewed his franchise as a plantation and that his players owed him gratitude. He also said that he didn't want Black fans at Clippers games. Jordan publicly called those comments sickening and offensive and said in a league where the majority of players are African-American, we cannot and must not tolerate discrimination at any level. So this came four years after Jordan had purchased a majority stake in the Charlotte Hornets, becoming the first Black owner in league history. So essentially, by the time he does start speaking out about this stuff, he's in a very comfortable position. But remember, this is the same Michael Jordan, who in 1990 declined to endorse Black Democratic Senate candidate Harvey Gantt over Republican Jesse Helms. Jesse Helms was using racist ads to stoke fears of white voters. When Gantt asked for an endorsement, Jordan declined. And he said, famously, "Republicans buy shoes, too."

Orlando Montoya: And then there were athletes years later, like Colin Kaepernick, who had a lot to lose and did, in fact, lose when they took stands against racism.

Peter Biello: Yeah. I asked Smith how he thinks about players like Kaepernick, who came later, but also the athletes that came before Michael Jordan, people like Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who didn't wait until they had reached a comfortable perch before taking a stand.

Johnny Smith: I try to think in terms of generations. Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, those are athletes who were who came of age during the 1960s. And they were also shaped by the Black power movement and the civil rights movement. Protest was clearly linked to their identities in ways that Jordan rejects. Now, I think part of that is that when Jordan comes of age in the late '70s and into the '80s, there is no social movement, unified social movement in Black America that speaks to him. What's interesting, I think about Jordan is that he really arrives in the national scene in a much more conservative time in this country. You know, Ronald Reagan is president in 1984 when when Jordan comes to the Bulls and increasingly over Jordan's career, we see how Americans are retreating from community affairs. They're less engaged, civically. Voting turnout is down. I think by 1996, when Jordan wins his fourth title with the Bulls, less than half the country participated in the presidential election. And so Jordan is, I think, a reflection of his times as much as Ali and Kareem were a reflection of their times.

Orlando Montoya: I mean, this was the time, I think, when I'm thinking about this time, I'm thinking of Oprah Winfrey, Toni Morrison, Michael Jordan, all of these sort of people fit in to that.

Peter Biello: Yeah. And in that generation, too, I think — I don't know how Johnny Smith would feel about this, but he was talking essentially about these people, their way of, of fighting the system, so to speak, is to prove that individual Black people can be successful. And of course, all the people that you just mentioned, tremendously successful, but that was how their generation played it, according to Johnny Smith.

Orlando Montoya: So we've got generation issues. We've got his personal story, we've got his sports and we've got society. This is what gives the book the Narrative Edge, in your opinion?

Peter Biello: I would say it is. The book is a cultural analysis and a history that involves sports, but it's not a sports analysis book that accidentally offers a history lesson. You'll see Michael Jordan on the cover and you might think it's just for sports junkies, but it's really not. And Smith's an intelligent writer. He's passionate about this. He's written several books about sports figures, and he grew up in the Chicago area. He's just a few years older than I am. So we were both kids when Michael Jordan was marketing to kids. It was also important for Smith to pay close attention to race here because it's such an important force. As we know, It leaves nothing untouched, not even someone who is as deified as Michael Jordan.

Orlando Montoya: And nothing about Space Jam?

Peter Biello: You know, I'm surprised you didn't mention that earlier. I was 12 when Space Jam came out and I saw it. My friends were excited to see it. But no, this book does not. No Space Jam in this.

Orlando Montoya: There's a lot — well, there's a lot to Michael Jordan. Would you recommend the book as a general biography or is the or is this book like if you know nothing about Michael Jordan and you want to know his life, is this sort of a general biography or is this more on the race and Jordan?

Peter Biello:  This is, I would say, more about race and Jordan. Like we don't go into Wilmington, N.C., describing his his hardscrabble upbringing. You know, I remember reading in college, once, like a biography — like a giant biography of Franz Kafka. Right? Not comparing Michael Jordan to Franz Kafka, but biographies, right? Like and the biography was something like "Representative Man," like, here is how this guy sort of embodied the the zeitgeist of the — of the period and Michael Jordan's playing days 1980s, 1990s. There's almost like nothing that would better capture the spirit of — of those days whether it's culturally, racially, politically. Like he's he's a great figure if you want to understand the 1980s and '90s.

Orlando Montoya: Well, Peter, we got you to go to the Hawks game a few weeks ago.

Peter Biello: Yes! Yes. For listeners, Orlando and I went to the Hawks game. A Hawks game. It was my first game. Was it your first game, too?

Orlando Montoya: It was my first basketball game ever. Professional.

Peter Biello: Yeah. And we got some nosebleed seats, But, you know, it was entertaining. I enjoyed it. The Hawks lost.

Orlando Montoya: So we got it to a Hawks game. We got you reading a basketball book. I think we got you on a roll.

Peter Biello: I'm going to, I want to learn more about the sport. I think it's I think it's going somewhere.

Orlando Montoya: All right. All right. The book is Jumpman: The Making and Meaning of Michael Jordan by Georgia Tech professor Johnny Smith. Peter, thanks for telling me about it.

Peter Biello: Happy to do it.

Orlando Montoya: Thanks for listening to Narrative Edge. We'll be back in two weeks with a brand-new episode. This podcast is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Find us online at GPB.org/NarrativeEdge.

Peter Biello: You can also catch us on the daily GPB News podcast Georgia Today for a concise update on the latest news in Georgia. For more on that and all of our podcasts, go to GPB.org/Podcasts.