[Consequence of Sound, Warner Bros.]
A guide to MJ’s off-the-court wins in pop culture
It’s been over 20 years since Michael Jordan won his final championship. A Basketball Hall-of-Famer, six-time MVP, and the leader of two three-peats, Jordan remains a larger than life figure from the way he soared to his superstar status. To imagine a world in which the icon never existed is to wonder what would have happened if Bugs Bunny finally did take that left to Albuquerque. With the airing of ESPN’s 10-part docuseries The Last Dance—which recounts the Chicago Bulls’ final title run with MJ—fans have been reminded of the basketball-great’s importance and brilliance on the court. However, another enthralling component to the weekly event is his Airness’ significance as a global icon off-the-court
Need proof? Log onto Twitter while The Last Dance is airing. The only trending topics on Sunday nights are almost all Bulls-related. It’s creating new memes and soundbites, and a new understanding of the ’90s and celebrity. While the nationwide quarantine has kept many inside, and has helped with ratings, ESPN has been hyping this series for years. Why? Because Jordan sells. His establishment as a global brand and spokesman — valued at a net worth of 2.1 billion dollars — has changed fashion, begun catchphrases and memes now inseparably weaved into the fabric of pop culture, and influenced music, food, and movies. No sports figure in the last 40 years has altered the landscape more than MJ.
To these ends, we’ve assembled a guide of classic commercials and restaurants, collaborations with luminaries such as Spike Lee and Michael Jackson, all to show why we still want to “be like Mike” — even decades later in 2020.
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Jordan’s best off-the-court work often occurred in his commercials. His first major breakthrough would forever change everyday fashion. ‘Takeoff,’ which featured the basketball superstar wearing his Air Jordan-1’s, showed MJ leaping while the sound of a jet fires in the background. His slow motion walk in the sky—using his soon-legendary athleticism—launched one of the most successful shoe lines in history. “The Jordan brand, on a wholesale equivalent basis, just earned its first $1 billion quarter,” Nike CEO Mark Parker said on a call with investors December of 2019. Filmed in 1985, the commercial and footwear began Jordan’s ascent into a global brand.
Nike’s “It’s Gotta Be the Shoes”
If “Takeoff” sent Air Jordans skyward, then “Is it the Shoes?” sent MJ’s brand into another orbit. In 1986, Spike Lee played Mars Blackmon in his debut feature She’s Gotta Have It. There, the cocky gold-chain wearing character brandished a pair of Air 1’s. In 1988, Lee reprised the character to promote Nike’s Air Jordan III. The partnership would last through 1995. Often, these commercials saw the repetitive speaking Blackmon asking Jordan ad nauseam what made the icon so special. Though Jordan would reply with, “no,” Blackmon would repeatedly surmise: “It’s gotta be da shoes.” The ads would forever link Lee—a die-hard Knicks fan—to Jordan and elevate the player worldwide, too.
Ultra Star Hair Products
Though Jordan’s visage would soon conquer the world, by 1988 that future wasn’t yet assured. The Ultra Star Hair commercial isn’t particularly important on its face. Featuring a bald, barely-in-key MJ singing the product’s theme song, the now-dated and dorky Coming to America-esque ad is a mere retro joke. However, it’s more than that. Because today, if his Airness appears in a commercial, it’s typically for a global brand whose consumers aren’t defined by race. But here’s Jordan promoting a product clearly geared toward African Americans. Considering the NBA icon once infamously quipped “Republicans buy sneakers, too” when asked to support the Black North Carolina Senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt — and rarely speaks on race (though he did officially support the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016)—seeing Jordan in the proudly Black Ultra Star Hair ad is a rare view of an allusively uncontroversial clolorblind spokesman before he was such.
Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike”
“Sometimes I dream that he is me… I dream I move; dream I groove. Like Mike. If I could ‘Be Like Mike.’” Gatorade advertising exec Bernie Pitzel wrote those lyrics in 1992 on a napkin, inspired by the 1967 Jungle Book song “I Wan’na Be Like You”, in a bid to save his fledgling commercial. Composed of a highlight reel of the NBA superstar dunking and dribbling, the ad initially proved unsatisfactory to Ptizel. However, rather than use the aforementioned Disney song, he asked the jingle team of Ira Antelis and Steve Shafer to generate their own tune set to those napkin lyrics. The one-minute ad featuring Jordan playing with children hammers home how idolized the basketball-great was and still is. And though the commercial did little to improve Gatorade’s sales, it actualized a truism kids and grown-ups alike felt and spawned one of the era’s most iconic catchphrases, “Be like Mike.”
McDonald’s “The Showdown”
The Larry Bird vs. Michael Jordan McDonald’s commercial—helmed by future Space Jam director Joe Pytka—is fairly simple. Here, on-court rivals Jordan and Bird meet at an empty gym. MJ brings his Big Mac and fries while the Celtics legend practices. Upon seeing Jordan’s meal, Bird challenges him for his food with only one rule: “No dunking.” The two competitive players push one another to hit outlandish shot after outlandish shot: from one knee, to full court, from the rafters, through a window, and even from the John Hancock Tower. Airing during the Super Bowl in 1993, it made the line “nothing but net” inseparable from pop culture. And though McDonald’s tried several times to replicate the success of Bird and Jordan—with future ads starring Charles Barkley in 1994 and Dwight Howard with LeBron James in 2010— they never did equal it.
Michael Jackson’s “Jam”
By the early ’90s, his Airness occupied a perch as one of the world’s most recognizable figures. Few have come close to matching his broad appeal. It would only stand that he’d soon turn to music. Except, he wouldn’t be singing. Instead, he’d team with Michael Jackson for the King of Pop’s newest music video “Jam”, a single from the artist’s 1992 album Dangerous.
The filming of “Jam” is notable not just because of its participants, which also included Heavy D and Kris Kross, but its production design, too. As producer Phil Rose related to ESPN: “I think it was the South Side of Chicago. It was pretty depressed, so there weren’t many industrial warehouses there that had a ceiling high enough. Then we noticed that there was this bombed-out old armory, and we just came in and had a look around, and it was perfect. It has a huge open space I guess for drilling at one point. It was a dump and the production designer, Rob Pearson, put in a full-sized basketball court. I mean, it was surreal to just be in this sort of completely old building and have this gorgeous basketball floor set up there.
The nearly-eight minute video demonstrated the King of Pop’s flair for inventive and cinematic promos. Darkly lit, initially both Jackson and Jordan’s silhouettes intercut the screen — one singing and the other dunking. The video features a few money shots: a VFX scene of Jackson throwing a basketball through a window only to splash in a basket, cutting to a close-up of Jordan’s shocked expression. At one point, the King of Pop jumps on his Airness’ back—not unlike some of his teammates—while he shoots.
Director David Kellogg also played the two superstars’ high difference for laughs, as Jackson feebly leaps to take the ball away from Jordan. But the best scenes feature his Airness spinning and moon walking heavier than gravity as the skinny King of Pop instructs him how to move his muscular frame. It’s a fantastic fly-on-the-wall sequence, even if Jordan’s voiceover was later recorded by Dorian Harewood, who played the basketball-great in the short-lived animated series ProStars.
Jordan’s name has resonance everywhere — even in food. During his playing days, at the height of the Bulls’ dynastic run, he lent his name to a namesake eatery: Michael Jordan’s Restaurant. The establishment, located in a former three-story cable car powerhouse in the River North area of Chicago, remained open from 1993-1999. This foray billed itself as casual dining, with Juanita’s Macaroni and Cheese—based on a recipe from MJ’s wife—listed on the menu, along with a sports bar, a Jordan gift shop, and memorabilia. Though the basketball-great often made personal appearances there, he never financially invested in the eatery.
Later, after disagreeing with owners on reorganizing the menu to include upscale options, Jordan opened both One SixtyBlue in the West Loop and Michael Jordan’s Steak House on Michigan Avenue. Though One SixtyBlue closed in 2012, his steakhouse remains in operation today as a vibrant tourist attraction, with several locations in Connecticut and Washington State, and is currently offering a “Last Dance” dinner for Sunday pick-up centered around the 10-part docuseries.
The Crying Jordan Meme
When Jordan retired from the Washington Wizards in 2003, the meme did not hold the title of metamodernistic Internet zeitgeist. Even when the NBA legend was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, there was no way he’d know that the photograph taken of him crying—captured by photographer Stephan Savoia during his induction speech—would spark the most well-known and widely used meme, possibly ever.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2015 that his tear-soaked visage exploded across the Internet to lampoon players and coaches after important losses, politicians, and even the ending of the world. His face has become a shorthand for irony, a comedic language of its own. In fact, as recently as his eulogy for Kobe and Gianna Bryant, Jordan himself has often joked about its usage.
The new interpretation runs significantly against his reputation as a cold calculating machine with expert precision. It’s as if the specter of his humanity—though during that speech he did call-out a hit list of imagined enemies—ignites an equally responsive killer instinct from others. It’s another way MJ remains a cultural touchstone.
“A Cult Classic.” “A Cinematic masterpiece.” “A Generational Anthem” Okay, I added that last bit. Still, others have tried to ascribe the latter lofty titles to Michael Jordan’s star studded acting debut Space Jam. Directed by Pytka, the film mixed the animated Looney Tunes with the live-action basketball-great. The result is one of cinema’s great crossover events.
Shot just after his Airness’ return to basketball, the comedy plays his abbreviated outfielding career for laughs. While he flails at the plate, a sleazy alien owner of the amusement park Moron Mountain—Swackhammer—needs a new attraction and sends the diminutive Nerdlucks to abduct Looney Tunes like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Tweety, and a host of others. After challenging the tiny Nerdlucks to game a basketball, the space invaders find the world’s most talented players: Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, and Muggsy Bogues. He then zaps their playing ability to become the gigantic supercharged Monstars. The Tunes up the ante by kidnapping Jordan, hoping his play will save them from enslavement.
To anyone below the age of 21, Space Jam is admittedly dated. Though featuring a memorable soundtrack that peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, its biggest hit “I Believe I Can Fly” was fronted by R. Kelly. While the animation mostly holds up, his Airness’ Mr. Fantastic arm stretch is still a doozy. Also, how many youngsters remember Muggsy Bogues or Shawn Bradley?
Worst yet, Jordan was never a great actor. Space Jam, instead, serves as an artifact of an era, back when Jordan’s talent and magnitude was enough to carry a film. Granted, he was surrounded by a few classic properties and some stars, from cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to legendary character actors such as Bill Murray and Wayne Knight. That patina gives the movie its cult status.
Still, there is one component of Space Jam that feels especially prescient today. A result of the Nerdlucks’ theft is the league fearing a mysterious and contagious virus is taking away their superstars’ athletic abilities. To combat it, they end their season early, hoping to protect their players.
If only we had “Michael’s Secret Stuff,” now.
Saturday Night Live, But Really “Bill Swerski’s Superfans”
Michael Jordan on Saturday Night Live
Not many recurrent skits have thrust a local stereotype into the national spotlight like SNL’s “Bill Swerski’s Superfans”. In it, a group of Falstaffian Chicago Bears fans—surrounded by artery blocking polish sausages, pork chops, and beer—convene at Ditka’s restaurant to celebrate the Olympian supremacy of their local teams. More often than not, they predicted them to win by ungodly scoring margins. Starring Chris Farley, George Wendt, Robert Smigel, and Mike Myers, the superfans big night came when they invited His Airness to their heart-attack-inducing table of decadence in 1991.
The most incredible portions of Jordan’s appearance are how the superfans’ usual praise doesn’t exactly sound outlandish with modern ears. When they ask MJ about the Olympics, they wonder why he doesn’t just play these teams by himself. With the Bulls recently crowned as NBA champions, the superfans’ also insist upon the promise of an eight-peat, which, again, doesn’t sound like the laughable punchline today as did it then. (Then again, it was probably a real belief Jordan himself harbored.) Of course, the inflection point came when Farley and Jordan–adorned in a hula skirt and coconut bra—gyrated as they chanted “Da Bulls, Da Bulls, Da Bulls.” The moment absolutely smashed TV.
Michael Jordan and NBA Jam
Few video games have been as popular or invoke nostalgia like NBA Jam. Wonderfully chaotic, its graphics featured players jumping to obnoxious heights, performing physics-defying dunks, and inflicting non-fouls that looked more like boxing matches. Nevertheless, it was missing one component: Michael Jordan.
MJ possessed an exclusive rights deal with Nike that caused him to opt-out and made him unavailable. Instead, Jordan had his own video games: Michael Jordan in Flight and Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City. Later, he’d be featured in NBA Live 96 through a cheat code and eventually part of regular gameplay in the 2000 iteration. On NBA Street Vol. 1 and 2, he was a final boss, but beginning with NBA2K11 the championship version of himself finally became playable. The boom was such a big get for 2K Sports that Jordan was featured on the cover of 2k three separate times.
Still, while MJ’s oddly twisting road as a video game character began with his opting-out, unbeknownst to many, secret copies of Jordan in NBA Jam do exist. In fact, MJ, Ken Griffey Jr., and Gary Payton all wanted to be included. As Tim Kitzrow, the voice of NBA Jam shared, “We got a call from their agents and I came back in the studio and recorded their voices. The artists put together the visuals and we sent them each individual a large NBA Jam package. There’s only four to five cabinets in the world that exist. I’d love to ask Michael Jordan if he still has his.”
In more ways than one, very few figures can count themselves as elusive as MJ.