This blog recently did a piece about Michael Jordan and the possibility of him taking the mantle as the "face" of UNC basketball. It is a fair and fun question with an answer that is still being written. However, this week Michael Jordan continued his recent trend of staying in the public eye with a letter he penned. His brief words were emotional and impactful regarding the seemingly growing divide between the police and general public, specifically within the black community.
ESPN's website TheUndefeated.com ran the exclusive, detailing Jordan's decision to provide $1 million each to the Institute for Community-Police Relations, a recently created division of the International Association of Chiefs of Police's, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. For a man who has been perceived to have been silent on numerous societal issues over the years, it was unexpected.
Social media and mainstream media were quick to react. Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock, both new additions to FoxSports1, largely panned the announcement as inauthentic and a PR stunt. Meanwhile, New York Knick Carmelo Anthony claimed it was, "about time that he stepped up". That sentiment was not uncommon across the media. While the announcement was cheered, there were a surprising amount of skeptics and cynics.
And yet, only two thoughts came to my mind:
1) If Michael Jordan is making a public statement, and personally investing his own money, then this issue has reached levels of a magnitude that some of us may have been unaware.
2) Coach Dean Smith is smiling in heaven.
First, I applaud Jordan in taking the time to write the statement and donate his money to a cause he deems worthy. It is a divisive time in our country, and, perhaps, even more so in the state of North Carolina. Any unselfish act to help find a solution, no matter what the ratings-starved cynics may say, should be lauded. The fact that he has been so selective in the past with his public deeds also lends credibility to the seriousness of the issue and the significance it holds with MJ.
Second, I couldn't shake the idea that Jordan simply was following the example set by his old college coach. Dean Smith was a man of convictions and strongly held beliefs. A man of principles and values. Any UNC fan, anti-UNC fan, or basketball fan knows this. Smith was also the epitome of actions speaking louder than words. If he talked the talk, he made sure he walked the walk.
Perhaps most impressively, he did not seek attention for his decisions. Coach Smith simply did what he wanted and what he felt was right. As John Feinstein has written, Smith famously once told him, "You should never be proud of doing the right thing, you should just do the right thing." He refused to let others dictate what he should or should not do.
Jordan's decision is just another reminder that Smith's lessons have rubbed off on his former players.
Obviously, Michael Jordan is the most recognizable Tar Heel. He is the wealthiest, most famous, and likely, the most respected. But he also isn't the only one of Smith's former players to become involved in various activist or charitable causes. Many of Smith's players have taken on causes close to their heart as they have matured and put their playing days behind them.
Earlier this month, Antawn Jamison opened his basketball camp in Chapel Hill to a group of kids from Camp Corral. That organization helps unite military children from around the country whose parent has been wounded, disabled, or killed in action. Many athletes lend their names to wonderful causes, but don't put meaningful energy toward actually helping. Jamison was right beside those kids providing instruction, lessons, and his attention.
That is in addition to his longstanding partnership with KaBOOM!, which helps communities build playgrounds for local children. Jamison has been heavily involved in providing outlets for physical activity for kids in his hometown of Shreveport, LA, as well as Charlotte and Washington D.C. As recently as last year, Jamison focused his energy in New Orleans, where the city still is recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
Eric Montross has been a mainstay in Chapel Hill since his professional career ended. His Father's Day basketball camp is one of the hottest tickets in town, where fathers and children spend a day interacting, learning, and playing basketball with each other. The original idea to hold the camp was inspired by an individual that Montross, while a senior at UNC, met on a trip to the UNC Children's Hospital.
That young man, Jason Clark, succumbed to cancer, but his memory is the driving force behind the annual camp. Montross, even as he attempted to lead UNC to a second National Championship (damn you Boston College!), understood the importance of finding a cause, and taking action to make an impact.
Kenny Smith has also devoted time and resources to help children affected by Hurricane Katrina. His actions over the past 11 years have raised millions of dollars to support organizations that were focused on helping the kids of New Orleans, such as the non-profit Feed the Children.
Additionally, Smith has used his voice and his role on television to speak out about important societal issues. As a studio analyst for Inside the NBA on TNT, he has a medium to give insight and opinions. He has not shied away from that platform. Potentially sensitive and explosive topics, such as comments made by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban surrounding Trayvon Martin's unfortunate death in Florida and the riots in Ferguson, MO, have been handled with a class and dignity that few others on television today are capable of providing.
Smith recently gave a "State of the Union", on the current state of the NBA and its players. The NBA saw an unprecedented spike in player salaries this past season. Smith called on athletes to give 10% of their income back to their communities. In this day and age, when the fourth option on the NBA runners up can score a max contract (Congratulations Harrison Barnes!), Smith may have a point. His actions and encouragement for players to invest in the societies around them were applauded.
You can even look to the teams of the 70s, and use the greatest UNC point guard of all-time as an example. Last year MBA students at UNC asked Phil Ford for help with a fundraising event. The group of students, as part of a class project, staged a charity basketball tournament. The event partnered with the Phil Ford Foundation, which supports childhood obesity research.
In the year 2015, almost 40 years after Ford allegedly refused to untape his ankles for two weeks after the soul-crushing first round defeat to San Francisco in the NCAA tournament, MBA students sought him out, in a quest to raise money for HIS foundation. Ford sprang into action, as he has done numerous times for local causes. Never once has he sought any recognition.
See, the sad reality is, all too often, no matter what you give, society tends to want more. People increasingly feel as though if you aren't open, transparent, or making a display, then you are disengaged. Today, too many celebrities post their thoughts on Twitter and Instagram to gain attention, try to be social media warriors, or get a few extra followers. They may champion a cause here or there, but many don't truly spend time helping find a solution, except maybe to call on others to take action.
Coach Smith's former players do not fall into that category. They have found causes that matter to them and have personally invested in their own resources. Jamison, Smith, Montross, Ford, and Jordan don't seek the closest camera because they want the notoriety. Instead, they seek avenues that will bring the most aid and attention to the people they want to impact. If publicity is part of the deal, then cool. If it's not, that's probably even better.
Michael Jordan built a literal economic empire. He provided a positive example for youth of all races, religions, and ethnicities. He never ran afoul of the law. His failures as a GM and owner may or may not have humbled him, but he has learned from his failures and turned the Charlotte Hornets into a respectable organization. In every single facet of his public life, he has been nothing less than successful
Additionally, as TheUndefeated's article states, the Hornets currently have more minorities in key front office positions than any other major sport on the continent. That same article points out that the Jordan Brand has always had a black CEO. It also mentions the public statements Michael Jordan made about former fellow owner Donald Sterling when racist recordings became public and about the current situation concerning HB2 in the state of North Carolina.
Jordan has clearly taken his own approach to championing the causes that he holds dear. That is perfectly acceptable and, honestly, nobody else's business. He doesn't "owe" anything. If someone wants to question his authenticity, point them to a video of his Hall of Fame induction speech. To this day, it was one of the most authentic speeches I've ever heard for a venue like that. (And the source of the infamous Crying Jordan meme).
Anybody who still wants "more" can respectfully sit down and be quiet. I'd encourage them to seek ways to contribute in their own community instead of questioning the action of somebody else. That's what Dean Smith did. That's what he encouraged his players to do. That is what his players have done.
Five different men. Five very different charitable causes. With the exception of 1983-84, when Smith and Jordan shared a backcourt, these men represent five separate UNC teams. Five men who helped earn multiple ACC Championships, Final Fours, and National Championships. Five men who played in three different decades. The most notable common thread linking them is Dean Smith and the UNC basketball program.
I won't say definitively that they garnered a sense of civic duty from their old coach, as many people help mold a person's mindset throughout their life. But, it does seem more than a little coincidental to me. Even after his passing, Dean Smith's legacy finds ways to live on through those he cared about the most—his players. I suppose we all expected it, but it still manages to surprise us.
With every selfless act, his players are simply extending their index finger to the passer and thanking him for the assist.
I'd have to think Coach is returning that favor from the sideline in the sky.
P.S. The players mentioned above aren't isolated cases. Many other former athletes have volunteered their time and money over the years. Most of those actions have likely gone unreported. If you have any examples, feel free to share in the comments below.