NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - Only one athlete can say his former opponents still wear shoes bearing his silhouette: basketball legend Michael Jordan. “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part documentary on the Chicago Bulls’ 1990s dynasty, highlights the five-time most valuable player’s incredible work ethic and drive. But it also shows him to be a hyper-competitive bully with a win-at-all-costs mentality. In short, he personified American capitalism at a time when the case for the country’s never-ending dominance seemed like a slam dunk.
Jordan helped define the 1990s. In the boom years following the fall of the Soviet Union, Jordan’s uncontested spot atop the National Basketball Association mirrored the country’s image of itself. He could do the seemingly impossible, like hitting six three-point shots in a half. Likewise, after the early 1990s recession, the U.S. economy began enjoying what had only recently seemed unimaginable: low inflation, solid economic growth and a budget surplus.
MJ, as he was known, became the face of this America. In 1984, Nike offered him a five-year deal worth $2.5 million in cash, an unheard of sum. But they recouped their investment: His Air Jordan sneakers brought in over $100 million the first year. He appeared in ads for iconic names like McDonald’s, Wheaties, Hanes and Gatorade, pulling in around $30 million a year in the early 1990s, according to Sports Illustrated. He became a brand, and, like other iconic American brands, he was able to charge a premium.
He also helped elevate the NBA to its current status – melding sports and entertainment. When his Chicago Bulls were purchased in 1985, the sticker price was around $16 million, or the equivalent of almost $40 million today. The team is now worth around $3.2 billion, according to Forbes. Jordan’s popularity helped extend the game’s global reach – especially with the so-called Dream Team, a group of NBA stars who won gold at the 1992 Olympics. The NBA is now one of the world’s most popular sports leagues.
But Jordan’s success came with a host of downsides. For one, “The Last Dance” shows he was so competitive that he would embarrass opposing players he thought had slighted him. He would even bully his own teammates. He argued that that if they couldn’t put up with him, they wouldn’t be able to take on the league’s top talent. He punched his teammate Steve Kerr in the face during practice – only slightly more extreme than tales of chief executives hurling chairs.
One of his most infamous quotes is also his most capitalist. When asked in 1990 why he wouldn’t endorse an African American candidate running for a North Carolina Senate seat against a long-time opponent of civil rights legislation, he quipped, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
His unreasonable demands for perfection are reminiscent of the era’s icons, like Steve Jobs, who even obsessed about finding the correct shade of beige for a computer case. As with the Apple co-founder, it’s hard to argue with Jordan’s success. He won three NBA championships in a row – twice – and set many records. Jordan was certainly surrounded by all-stars, including teammates Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, like Jobs had co-founder Steve Wozniak and product designer Jony Ive. But just as Apple underperformed after Jobs was pushed out in 1985, the Bulls missed the finals during Jordan’s almost 18-month baseball-playing hiatus.
Since Jordan left the Bulls in January 1999, the team has never won another championship. America, too, has stumbled. The Iraq war following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and President Donald’s Trump’s chaotic tenure have hurt the country’s global standing. And China’s rise is threatening its hegemony.
Also, U.S. capitalism – a system the made Jordan a billionaire – no longer looks unassailable. In a Gallup poll last year, its popularity among younger Americans had fallen by around 15 percentage points since 2010, and that was when unemployment was near 50-year lows. That’s partly because the wealth gap between the country’s richest and poorest households has more than doubled since 1989, according to the Pew Research Center. So the country still has Silicon Valley, the world’s deepest and most liquid capital markets and the almighty dollar. But the Jordan-era invincibility is gone.
“The Last Dance” scored an average of 5.6 million same-day viewers per episode across ESPN and ESPN2, based on initial Nielsen reporting, making it the network’s most popular documentary. It helped fill the sports-programming void Covid-19 created. But – with the country on the ropes – it’s probably also resonating because the story of the end of an era hits close to home. Analysts are predicting the U.S. economy will start improving this year – but some believe it will be a short bottoming out followed by a long, slow rise. It’s being dubbed – fittingly – a Nike-swoosh-shaped recovery.
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