Life Above the Rim: How Michael Jordan Became a Billion-Dollar Man
It doesn’t matter if you’re a rabid fan or someone who couldn't care less about sports: You know Michael Jordan.
His name is shorthand for greatness: as arguably the best basketball player of all time, or perhaps the most effective pitchman ever, with some $1.5 billion in career earnings from business deals off the court.
What exactly made Jordan into the best-paid athlete of all time, a successful businessman and a man with an estimated net worth of $1.65 billion? Read on for the tales of his life above the rim.
Fueled by Rejection
There may never have been a Michael Jordan if he hadn’t suffered the crushing disappointment of being told he was too short to play varsity basketball at Emsley A. Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C.
As a sophomore, Jordan stood only 5-foot-10 and couldn’t even dunk a basketball. He used that rejection as motivation.
“It was embarrassing not making the team,” he later explained. “Whenever I was working out and got tired and figured I ought to stop, I’d close my eyes and see that list in the locker room without my name on it. That usually got me going again.”
Jordan’s basketball career doesn’t need much window dressing.
He won an NCAA title at the University of North Carolina, then went on to win six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls, and two Olympic gold medals as a member of Team USA.
He has far too many individual accolades to list, but chief among them include five NBA Most Valuable Player awards, 14 NBA All-Star Game appearances, 32,292 career points scored, and hundreds of highlight-worth slam dunks that earned him the nickname “Air Jordan” and made nearly every young basketball fan want to “be like Mike.”
And that last point turned him into marketing gold.
MJ & the Swoosh
Jordan the brand was born in 1984 when he spurned Adidas and Converse and signed a five-year endorsement deal with upstart shoe manufacturer Nike. All in, the agreement would net him $7 million, an unheard-of figure for at the time for an athlete.
Nike launched the eponymous Air Jordan brand late that year, and the shoes — and their ubiquitous “Jumpman” logo, a silhouette version of a dunking Jordan — swept the world.
The shoe giant has to date produced 32 versions of the Jordan sneakers and eventually spun off the line into its own sub-category, the Jordan Brand, which brings in more than $3 billion a year in worldwide sales.
His Airness still earns a hefty cut of royalties, estimated to be $140 million in 2017.
'Gotta Be the Shoes'
Athletes “acting” in advertising campaigns is mainstream, but before Jordan, those spots were mainly product-driven and dripping with hokey sales pitches. To support its Jordan brand, Nike recruited up-and-coming filmmaker Spike Lee to co-star in a series of TV ads in the late 1980s.
In them, Lee reprised his Mars Blackmon character from his 1986 film “She’s Gotta Have It,” continuously peppering Jordan with questions about what made him so talented.
“It’s gotta be the shoes” became a ubiquitous catch phrase on the blacktop, and the success of the campaign gave brands a taste of Jordan’s ability to use his personality to sell a product.
Breakfast of Champions
Of course, as befitting any champion, Jordan's image was emblazoned on a box of Wheaties in 1988.
Jordan was the seventh celebrity athlete to be featured on the box of cereal marketed as "The Breakfast of Champions."
'Be Like Mike'
It turned out there was room for more than one catchphrase to associate with Jordan.
In 1991, Gatorade unveiled its “Be Like Mike” campaign, with a jingle based on the song “I Wanna Be Like You” from Disney’s 1967 classic film, “The Jungle Book.”
The original 60-second spot was as charming as it gets: clips of Jordan interspersed with him hooping it up with little kids. Admit it, you’ve got the jingle in your head right now.
Jordan evolved into the most lucrative pitchman in professional sports, with a portfolio that included deals with McDonald’s, Hanes, Wheaties, MCI, Upper Deck, Oakley, and, of course, Nike and Gatorade.
At his peak as a player, he was hauling in some $40 million a year just in endorsement deals.
He even appeared in the movies: “Space Jam,” the 1996 live-action/animation hybrid starring Jordan and the Looney Tunes characters, earned $230 million at the box office.
Lonely at the Top
Jordan did have demons. In 1993, he admitted to suffering heavy losses from gambling, and became further disenchanted with basketball following the murder of his father that same year.
On the back of three straight titles, he retired that offseason, saying he no longer had passion for the sport. He didn’t stay out of the spotlight for long, however, making a surprise shift to minor-league baseball in 1994. (Spoiler: He wasn’t quite as good on a diamond.)
In 1995, he officially un-retired with a two-word statement: “I’m back.” The Bulls promptly went on to win another three straight titles, and Jordan kept padding his credentials as the greatest basketball player in history.
In early 1999, a month shy of his 36th birthday, he retired for a second time. Or so we thought.
Seeking the next step in his basketball career, Jordan took a front office position in 2000 with the Washington Wizards.
As president of basketball operations, Jordan was the top dog in building the team’s roster.
It didn't take immediately, as the woebegone Wizards failed to make the playoffs twice with Jordan pulling the strings.
A Last Hurrah on the Court
In September of 2001, Jordan figured he’d put his money where his mouth was, and unretired again and paid himself a relatively paltry $1 million salary, which he donated to 9/11 relief efforts.
The marriage didn’t end happily, with a 40-year-old Jordan failing to click with his younger teammates and the Wizards continuing to miss the playoffs.
Jordan retired for good at the end of the 2002-03 season, and then was fired days later from his front office position.
Return to Tar Heel Roots
MJ’s exile from the game didn’t last long, as he became a minority owner in the expansion Charlotte Bobcats in 2006. Behind main investor and BET co-founder Robert L. Johnson, Jordan again had full control of the team’s basketball operations.
Four years later, he became the majority owner after he and his partners purchased Johnson’s shares for an estimated $175 million.
Jordan the basketball executive still isn’t as successful as Jordan the player: The Hornets (as the team was renamed in 2014) have suffered through 10 sub-.500 seasons over 13 years, including a historically abysmal 2011-12 campaign in which they posted a 7-59 record.
However, Jordan still has broken down barriers as the first former player turned majority owner of an NBA team and as the only current African-American majority owner in the league.
The Hornets are also currently valued at $1 billion, a decent return on Jordan’s original investment.
His Airness Gives Back
All throughout his journey, Jordan has been an active philanthropist, donating to places like the Boys & Girls Club of America, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the Special Olympics.
From 2001 to 2013, he hosted the Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational, a pro-am golf tournament that raised more than $7 million for a number of charitable causes.
Late last year, he donated $7 million to build medical clinics for Charlotte’s at-risk communities.
A Late Activist
It’s only been recently that he discovered his activist voice.
In 2016, Jordan broke his traditional silence on social issues when he spoke out against the spate of police brutality affecting the African-American community.
He also took a stance on North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom law.”
The Jordan Legacy
Jordan’s influence is immeasurable, both as a player and a businessman.
With his overflowing trophy case, his name plastered all over the NBA record book, and his ever-present wagging tongue, he inspired countless millions of kids worldwide to pick up a basketball.
As an entrepreneur, he has been an example of paying your dues and achieving, especially for underprivileged and minority communities.
Barack Obama summed up Jordan’s legacy best as he awarded the NBA Hall of Famer a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016:
“There is a reason you call somebody ‘the Michael Jordan of,’” said the former president. “The Michael Jordan of neurosurgery, or the Michael Jordan of rabbis, or the Michael Jordan of outrigger canoeing. Everyone knows what you’re talking about. Michael Jordan is the Michael Jordan of greatness. He is the definition of somebody who is so good at what they do that everybody recognizes them. That's pretty rare.”