I have a confession to make: by the time I watched my first game of basketball on TV, Michael Jordan had already retired from the game for the last time. I was seven years old and the year was 2003; Jordan had finished his last season with the Washington Wizards several months before. I knew who Michael Jordan was, of course. LeBron James’ career was just starting, so he was the unquestioned GOAT (even though people didn’t say that yet). He was already a legend. I had never seen him play, but stories of the free-throw line dunk, his tongue hanging out, and, of course, this quote:
I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
were all over elementary school: stories were told on the playground and his picture, or at least his words, were everywhere. People had at this point started to say “Kobe!” as they shot wadded-up paper into trash cans instead of “Jordan” as I’m told they once did, but MJ’s name was everywhere. Older Tar Heel basketball fans these days have been talking since I was in high school about recruits not respecting UNC because Jordan hasn’t had an impact on their lives, and I’m here to tell you that, at least until I graduated, that is decidedly not true.
I knew him through that horrendous 2002 movie starring Lil’ Bow Wow (what happened to that dude?), “Like Mike,” which is a pretty good representation, honestly, for how my generation thought of Michael Jordan. We might not have ever seen him play, but we all wanted to be the greatest. And “the greatest” was synonymous with “Jordan.” We wanted to dunk like him, shoot like him, be stars like him, even if we didn’t fully grasp what that meant.
What you older folk have to understand is that it’s hard for us to really understand what Jordan’s dominance looked like, because we’ve now grown up seeing a vastly different kind of dominance. Kobe was kind of close, I guess, but he also got a ton of negative press for refusing to pass and jacking up a lot of shots to get a lot of points. Now we have guys like LeBron, who started out just physically better than everybody and now manages to also out-craft any opponent when he’s not overpowering them; Kevin Durant, who has the body of a power forward but the skills of one of the best wings to ever play; and Steph Curry, who takes over games in a way that nobody really thought was possible, by bombing from the outside with a combination of consistency and volume that was unheard of just 10 years ago, let alone 25. To hear what Jordan’s skillset was, in a vacuum, makes him sound like DeMar DeRozan. And my generation loves DeRozan! But nobody would dare to call him one of the very best of this era. I think a lot of people who handwave Jordan because of his displayed skillset were done a disservice by their elders, because in modern terms, it wasn’t that Jordan played basketball at the highest level it could possibly be played.
Obviously, that’s an unfair statement, not just because of the differences in era, but because reducing Jordan to a description of his skills is a gross insult. Jordan’s most enduring basketball legacy, more than any change he brought to the game, will always be his work ethic and unwillingness to fail. DeRozan’s team had an opportunity to shut LeBron down this spring, and he all but stepped aside. Jordan routinely went against the best and raised his level of play. People can quibble about six Finals appearances not being too much for an all-time great, but never losing in the Finals? You’ve got to respect that. A lot of very good players in the NBA today are happy to be who they are. DeRozan still takes a bunch of long 2’s in an analytics-happy NBA, Dwight Howard still shoots 50% from the line, even Steph Curry is happy with the Warriors hiding him on defense as long as he can be the offensive wizard that he is. Jordan was the antithesis of that, and we all know it. Put prime Jordan in today’s NBA, and he’d play a game, get wrecked, realize what he was missing from his game to be among the greats today, and then find the nearest basketball facility and practice until he’d mastered it. That’s not common today, and we all know it. And in terms of basketball, this is what Jordan gave kids like me: the knowledge that even though our game might not be perfect, though we might not be predisposed to being good at something, we could still out-work everybody around us to get to the top. I don’t know about everybody, but that thought certainly inspired me.
I’d love to end the article there, but I can’t talk about Jordan’s impact on millenials without talking about post-retirement Jordan. MJ this decade is basically famous for two things: his brand and memes. First things first: the way Jordan has maintained his shoe empire is nothing short of masterful. His logo is iconic and he continues to put out amazing gear; even if his name doesn’t have the same reverence attached to it as it used to as a player, his shoes are still unquestionably the #1 item in basketball. Remember Brandon Robinson’s reaction to Roy Williams getting a pair for his 800th win?
His tenure as a basketball team owner has been... less successful, and we’ll leave it there (I believe in you, Kupchak!)
And finally, let’s talk about memes. We all know too well the Crying Jordan face, which has become so ubiquitous that the original picture looks Photoshopped somehow and still makes me collapse laughing every time I see it:
But there’s also this one, which serves as a handy reply whenever somebody comes in talking about how Jordan doesn’t compare to today’s stars:
Honestly, these are about as iconic as the Jumpman logo in an online world that revolves around funny pictures. It’s kind of great that Jordan has become one of the de facto reference points among Jordan fans for both mirth and ironic sadness. Even for emotions, Jordan is the gold standard for us. Truly the best at whatever he set out to do.
And of course, there’s the now-classic “The Ceiling is the Roof,” which Tanya has already written wonderfully about. Suffice it to say that Jordan is far from forgotten in the minds of today’s kids, even if we didn’t watch him. His name is still, and probably forever will be, synonymous with GOAT, and he will always inspire us to work hard to be better than those who start out with an advantage. That is a legacy nobody will ever equal.