For years, there has been a stain on Michael Jordan’s carefully curated image in the form of four words: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
That quote paints a picture of Jordan as someone willing to choose “commerce over conscience.” His intense focus on the court and marketability as “Air Jordan” combined with his aversion to political issues only helped solidify that reputation.
But did Jordan actually utter that infamous phrase? Is the criticism fair? Episode 5 of ESPN’s documentary series “The Last Dance” addressed the controversy in surprising detail considering Jordan’s production company was a partner in the project.
Before digging into Jordan’s most recent thoughts on the subject, it’s important to understand the context of the quote itself.
When did Michael Jordan say “Republicans buy sneakers, too”?
The remark first appeared in Sam Smith’s 1995 book “Second Coming,” which chronicled Jordan’s journey from minor league baseball back to the NBA. Smith referenced the 1990 Senate race between North Carolina Democrat Harvey Gantt and incumbent Republican Jesse Helms and noted Jordan had no interest in endorsing Gantt despite what it could have meant for his efforts to push out Helms.
He was approached by U.S. Senate hopeful Harvey Gantt, a black politician who was running against Jesse Helms in North Carolina, Jordan’s home state. Gantt had hoped that Jordan’s name would help him defeat Helms, widely regarded as a virulent racist. But Jordan declined. He wasn’t into politics, he explained, didn’t really know the issues. And, as he later told a friend, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
Smith’s original account spread throughout the national media. Some version of the phrase — it included either “shoes” or “sneakers” depending on the publication — was attached to Jordan, who had become a global icon by never doing anything to “piss anybody off,” according to Roy S. Johnson, the writer of a 1998 piece for Fortune magazine entitled “The Jordan Effect.”
“Michael did lose some credibility with the African-American audience, and people were disappointed because he did not come out and support Gantt,” Johnson said during his interview for Episode 5.
But when it comes to the quote, context is key.
More than two decades later, Smith, now a writer for Bulls.com, admitted Jordan wasn’t having a serious conversation when he said “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” (Yes, even the original author’s choice of words changed over time.)
Here is the key excerpt from Smith’s recent piece on the team site:
So I’m making my case about Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt and even though Jordan knew this wasn’t a topic that was best for his league, he still delighted in the last word. Because after all that meant you won.
It didn’t matter if it was a game, a bet, the first to get dressed or taped, the first bag down the conveyor belt at the airport which he’d, by the way, arranged with a ten for the baggage handler. Conversation and can-you-top-this was a competitive event to Jordan. There were more skilled players, but no one with that manic, never drained reservoir of competitive energy and desire. It’s why he worked harder, also. Not necessary to be better. But not to lose to anyone at anything.
So he shot me the last word.
“Republicans,” he said with a smile, “buy sneakers, too.”
Jordan shared a similar account during one of his interviews for “The Last Dance,” saying he was joking around on the team bus. (He didn’t specifically mention Smith’s presence.)
“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,” Jordan said. “My mother asked [me] 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.”
For better or worse, Michael Jordan stayed true to his “energy.”
While it appears the quote that created a seemingly endless amount of headlines wasn’t more than an impromptu comment meant to elicit a few laughs, Jordan’s lack of public support for Gantt and opposition to a blatantly racist candidate disappointed plenty of his fans, including former President Barack Obama.
“For somebody who was, at that time, preparing for a career in civil rights law and in public life, knowing what Jesse Helms stood for, you would’ve wanted to see Michael push harder on that,” Obama said during Episode 5. “On the other hand, he was still trying to figure out, ‘How am I managing this image that has been created around me, and how do I live up to it?'”
At the time, Jordan was compared unfavorably to athletes like Muhammad Ali. For better or worse, he remained consistent in his apolitical stance.
“I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player,” Jordan said. “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.”
Jordan has rarely voiced his opinions on political or racial issues even in his post-playing career, though he did share a strong statement on former Clippers owner Donald Sterling in 2014. He has also quietly donated to and worked with politicians over the years, including Obama, and his history of philanthropic work rivals the list of accolades from his days with the Bulls.
“It’s never gonna be enough for everybody. I know that. I realize that,” Jordan said. “Because everybody has a preconceived idea in terms of what they think I should do and what I shouldn’t do. The way that I go about my life is I set examples.
“If it inspires you, great, I will continue to do that. If it doesn’t, then maybe I’m not the person that you should be following.”