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Michael Jordan’s ascent from UNC basketball to global icon

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How a young UNC star forever changed both basketball and culture.

Michael Jordan #23

Since the very first NBA game was played in 1946, the game saw its fair share of big time players. Bill Russell, Bob Cousey, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, and Julius Erving are among the short list of players who had huge impacts on the game during their tenures in the association. However, it wasn’t until 1984’s NBA Draft when the game was changed forever. Michael Jeffrey Jordan was selected as the third overall pick coming out of the University of North Carolina, and what he proceeded to do in his career was something that the sports world may never see again.

In order to fully dive into Jordan’s ascension into becoming a global icon, let’s take a look at the accolades that he racked up during his professional NBA career:

  • Rookie of the Year
  • Five-time NBA MVP
  • Six-time NBA champion
  • Six-time NBA Finals MVP
  • Ten-time All-NBA First Team
  • Nine time NBA All-Defensive First Team
  • Defensive Player of the Year
  • 14-time NBA All-Star
  • Three-time NBA All-Star MVP
  • 50th Anniversary All-Time Team
  • Ten scoring titles
  • NBA’s highest scoring average of 30.1 points per game
  • Hall of Fame inductee

Before he was Michael Jordan, Mike Jordan was a 5’11 kid that attended Laney High School. He was famously cut from the varsity basketball team that year, only to hit a growth spurt going into his junior year and earned a scholarship to play at the University of North Carolina for Hall of Fame head coach Dean Smith. While Mike earned ACC Rookie of the Year, he still was slightly overshadowed by his teammates James Worthy and Sam Perkins going into the NCAA Tournament. This didn’t last, however, as the Tar Heels made it to the 1982 National Championship game against Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown where Jordan scored 16 points, had 9 rebounds, and made the game-winning basket with 18 seconds left on the clock. This was the day that Mike Jordan as we knew it became Michael Jordan.

From that point forward the accolades racked up for Jordan, winning ACC Player of the Year, two-time first-team All-ACC honors, two-time consensus first-team All-American honors, consensus National College Player of the Year, and USA Basketball Male Athlete of the year two years in a row. Jordan had left his mark on the college basketball world, and it was one that was pretty significant at the time. Nobody, however, could’ve predicted what happened next.

The second that Michael Jordan’s sneakers touched the court in Chicago in 1985, it was the beginning of the game being changed forever. The Houston Rockets and Portland Trailblazers had their chances to recruit the future star, and it was a decision that both teams assuredly regret to this day. Michael Jordan went on to average 28.2 points per game, win the Rookie of the Year award, All-NBA Rookie Team, All-NBA Second Team, and most importantly, was a rookie NBA All-Star. The attendance at Chicago Stadium and road venues rose immensely, and the fans of teams that the Bulls played seemed ok with their teams losing as long as Michael Jordan put on the spectacle that he did so many times during his NBA career.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of Jordan’s impact on the game his rookie year is how players thought the referees treated him. It was said that the refs started to give him veteran preferential treatment during games, specifically when it came to taking an additional step while getting to the basket. However, the reality of the situation was that Jordan’s first steps were so quick and elusive that he didn’t violate anything in the rulebook. He was just that good.

Outside of the actual game of basketball itself, Jordan’s meteoric rise to global fame was also because of his shoe deal with Nike. A little known fact about how that transpired is that Jordan actually wanted a deal with Adidas, but they never made an offer because they thought Jordan wasn’t worth anything. While eventually Adidas had a change in ownership and entered negotiations with him, a deal never got done. Converse stepped in shortly after and offered him a financial package of about $100,000 a year, which is what top players were making at that time including Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Dr. J. Jordan’s father, however, managed to stump Converse when he asked them if they had any innovative ideas. They had no answers, so Jordan walked.

Then in came Nike, a shoe company that was coming off of their first quarterly loss ever. Michael Jordan’s agent David Falk had an in with Nike, but Michael was dead-set on getting a deal worked out with Adidas. In fact, he was so stubborn on the matter that Falk had to get his parents to fly him out to Oregon for a presentation. After a lot of negotiating, Nike offered Jordan $500,000 a year in cash for five years, an unprecidented amount at the time. Falk also stated that Jordan would earn $7 million over those five years as long as Nike didn’t sever the contract. What would sever the contract? Jordan had to win Rookie of the Year, become and All-Star or average 20 points per game in his first three years or they would end the contract two years early. The ending results made the stipulations hilarious in retrospect, as he easily fulfilled each and every one of their requests.

Nike sales catapulted during Michael Jordan’s NBA tenure to stay the least, thanks to a pair of shoes that are now infamously banned by the NBA due to the lack of uniform dress code the NBA had at the time. The Air Jordan 1’s were sold for $65 a pair (which is ridiculously hilarious compared to what any of his shoes cost now), and sold $70 million worth in the first two months. By the end of the year, the Air Jordan franchise raked in over $100 million. The brand essentially took on a life of its own, and is now sold all over the world and sponsors various teams in the collegiate ranks, including his alma mater UNC.

By the time his rookie season was over, Michael Jordan had reached a status that nobody had yet seen in the NBA. The combination of athletic and shoe success helped implant his name into every household in America, and the virus continued to spread. He was doing commercials, he was on the Dream Team, he was in an iconic movie with the Looney Tunes, he dunked from the free throw line in the slam dunk competition that was the closest to the actual act of flying that anybody had ever seen. Remember the music video he did with Michael Jackson? Of course you do. If you don’t, you were probably too young, so here’s what you missed out on:

Michael Jordan’s rise to a global icon was one that had never been seen before, and it was done in an age when the internet wasn’t a part of just about every single household in the world. The idea that a kid that was once cut from his high school team could become this larger-than-life NBA Hall of Fame legend, the owner of the biggest shoe brand in the world, and most importantly, the greatest player who ever lived is something that is hard to believe unless you were able to witness it. Jordan set the table for players like Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James to be able to have the global impact that they are able to today.

As long as players like LeBron come into the league, there will always be debates about whether or not he is being passed as the greatest player of all time. The one thing that can never be argued, however, is that Michael Jeffrey Jordan had the biggest impact on the world of basketball that we will ever see in our lifetime. The ceiling wasn’t the roof for Jordan during his legendary basketball career. The ceiling was the universe.