Dreams Money Can’t Buy

When I saw an article in Forbes last week that detailed how Michael Jordan made $60 million over the past year, primarily from endorsements, I had to laugh. I was on my couch at the time, wearing Jordan basketball shorts. A pair of Air Jordan retros sat next to me where I had kicked them off, a framed poster of a Jordan ad campaign hung on my wall and an empty bottle of Gatorade sat on my coffee table.

My apartment itself is a testament to Michael Jordan’s earning power, which becomes more amazing when you consider how relevant his personal brand remains long after his playing career has ended.

Jordan’s high-water mark came at exactly the right time. The ad world had grown exponentially – in no small part due to Jordan himself – but the information age had not yet hit its full stride. I’ve long wondered how much less public malign LeBron James would have had to deal with had he played in an era without Twitter, the Internet and a fully evolved ESPN to chronicle stray examples of avarice or entitlement.

Conversely, Jordan didn’t have to deal with YouTube clips portraying him losing six figures in a casino or on a golf course. There was no TMZ to sensationalize missteps in his personal life, no breathless tweets about him ripping into teammates in practice. If you paid close attention – and/or read The Jordan Rules – it was all there. But it wasn’t splashed all over the Internet, so the Jordan mystique was grandfathered into this new era and left pristine.

The main reason Jordan is the second-highest earning athlete in America even today is undoubtedly his connection to Nike and Wieden+Kennedy, whose ad wizardry – in Jordan’s own words – “[turned] me into a dream.” Congenial and handsome, Jordan supplemented his on-court brilliance with an innate sense of the smooth demeanor that played best in Middle America living rooms.

Jordan’s 71 percent market share in basketball sneakers seems way too high, but a cursory glance at the line for J.Cole‘s record signing last Tuesday showed me no fewer than a dozen Air Jordans in my immediate line of sight, worn by both genders, every nationality and age group. The retros sell themselves via word of mouth and buzz, improbably resonating with young people after all these years while luring nostalgic longtime patrons back into the fold, or keeping them there.

With a vast selection of Jordans regarded as classics, one gets the feeling that if this trend was going to run its course, it surely would have by now. It’s a continuing cash cow for Nike and an enduring source of income for Michael Jordan.

The interesting part about Jordan’s modern-day financial success is that for someone who was once quite hands-on – he originally balked at having his first sneaker released in red and black since those are “the devil’s colors” – it doesn’t seem like he has to do a whole lot anymore, since the groundwork was so capably laid years ago.

For Hanes, he occasionally makes those ads where he sits on a plane. (In coach!) I can’t remember any recent Gatorade commercials with Mike, but The Jingle still pops into my head at times. (I can’t be the only one who misses drinking out of glass bottles, right?) His image goes on the front of a video game that he probably doesn’t play, and he does a commercial with – somewhat incongruously – Drake.

After so many years of engraining the Jordan Brand in the American mentality, the man himself has become a true figurehead, almost superfluous in that his extensive legacy is pretty much all that’s required of him. His presence wasn’t necessary for a gala launch of sneakers designed for Jordan-sponsored stars Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. More than ever, Jordan’s brand has become a self-sustaining capitalist machine.

Jordan does, of course, own a majority slice of the Charlotte Bobcats – probably the most nondescript NBA team, but a professional sports franchise nonetheless. It’s an investment that will likely pay off handsomely at some point, especially if the league institutes more revenue sharing as Forbes speculates it could. (Jordan has made his position clear.)

But the Jordan personality trait that most drew my respect when he played was his desire to seek out new challenges, to invent them in his own head if none existed. That’s why his post-Bulls career has honestly seemed sort of an anticlimax. The closest we saw to his famed competitive spirit was his Hall of Fame speech, when he took aim at a room full of ghosts.

We want to picture Jordan as he was in that Nike ad that cartoonishly depicted him as a CEO, dynamic and powerful. We wear Jordans to feel indomitable, but it’d be great if Michael himself actually continued to project that aura, and not just financially. That said, it never appeared as if he wanted to put the work in to compete as a talent evaluator and basketball executive.

The version of Michael Jordan that became synonymous with mainstream American success constantly sought new challenges to overcome, new goals to pursue, even sometimes to his detriment. The annual $60 million payoff is great, but it’s all about his logo and rarely about the man. We see Magic Johnson front and center, as visible now as when he was playing. Same with Charles Barkley. Am I wrong for wanting Jordan to have ended up the same?

Jay-Z wrote in Decoded, “When you get the things you think you’ve always wanted, it doesn’t stop the voice in your head’s interrogation. If anything, it gets more insistent.” Jay often draws parallels between himself and Jordan – so what does the voice in Jordan’s head tell him?

That said, perhaps I’m holding even Jordan to too high a standard. Jordan owns a team, makes $60 million a year, has a thriving personal brand that branches down from the NBA to the grassroots level, dabbles in motorsports and he might be engaged again. He does have a lot of business interests, and who’s to say this isn’t what he wants at this stage, a relatively lower personal profile while he continues to reap the benefits of his capital with the American public?

A part of me wanted Jordan to continue to rule his post-basketball career the way he did on the court, with unparalleled magnitude and presence, just because everything seems right with the world when it’s like that. Perhaps a set-for-life Jordan is past the point where he feels he needs to construct elaborate hurdles for himself. The things he’s done, he’s done so well that he no longer has to actually do very much to be an enormous success. It’s probably not for me to judge him on how he spends his time and energy.

But when it comes down to it, there’s still a part of me that has to wonder if Jordan ever looks around and wonders where, if ever, his next challenge is going to come from.

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