If you know one thing about Michael Jordan, it’s that he was the greatest basketball player of all time. If you know two things about Michael Jordan, it’s that he was the greatest basketball player of all time and starred in Space Jam. And if you know three things about Michael Jordan, it’s that he was the greatest basketball player of all time, starred in Space Jam, and once said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Or … did he?
(I’m talking about the sneakers thing. Obviously, he did play basketball and appear in Space Jam.)
After night one of The Last Dance covered the basics of the championship Bulls teams, and night two focused on Dennis Rodman, Sunday night’s installment highlighted the creation of the Jordan Brand: how by the early ’90s Michael Jordan had transformed into an avatar of untouchable greatness, and how that image was complicated by growing awareness of his near-pathological need for competition. Much of episode five is devoted to Jordan’s wariness about diving into social issues, lest he tarnish his all-American image — an attitude typified by “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” which Jordan reportedly gave as a response to the question of why he refused to endorse North Carolina Senate candidate Harvey Gantt, who was hoping to become the south’s first black senator since Reconstruction*, over Jesse Helms, a die-hard segregationist. (In The Last Dance, Jordan says he donated to Gantt but did not want to publicly campaign for him; in an interview with Time, Gantt says he has no hard feelings over Jordan’s decision.)
The “sneakers” quote has since come to define Jordan’s hands-off attitude toward politics, particularly compared to subsequent generations of NBA stars. Even today, Jordan is slightly defensive about this part of his legacy. “Was that selfish? Probably,” he says with a resigned shrug in The Last Dance. “But that’s where my energy was.”
The interesting thing about the “sneakers” quote, though, is that for years Jordan experts have cautioned that he may not have actually said it, or if he did, he didn’t mean it the way everyone assumes. After Jordan came out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016, Slate’s Laura Wagner dove into the origins of the phrase. The specific genesis is not hard to pinpoint: It comes from the book The Second Coming, Sam Smith’s sequel to The Jordan Rules, in a passage that uses a notably different noun than the version that became famous:
Gantt had hoped that Jordan’s name would help him defeat Helms, widely regarded as a virulent racist. But Jordan declined. He wasn’t into politics, he explained, didn’t really know the issues. And, as he later told a friend, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
From there, Wagner explains, the quote became a meme through sheer repetition, sometimes as “sneakers,” sometimes as “shoes,” but always something every sports fan knew Jordan had said at some point, even if they didn’t know when or why he’d said it. However, as many commentators have noted, the sourcing in The Second Coming is obscured. Though Smith presents it in quotes, it’s unclear whether he was in the room when Jordan said it, or whether it was something an anonymous source told him after it had happened, possibly exaggerating or embellishing it along the way. And Jordan himself denied he’d ever said “Republicans buy sneakers,” including as recently as four years ago to Slate. There was an aura of “print the legend” to it; even if Jordan may not have said those words 100 percent, they were too emblematic of his worldview not to use.
Smith himself added to the confusion: In a subsequent book, There Is No Next, he presented the quote not as a statement to a friend, but as a barbed answer Jordan gave him when asked about the Senate race. He didn’t care to explain the difference between the two accounts when asked for comment by Slate four years ago, but in advance of The Last Dance’s airing, he wrote a post for the Bulls’ official website explaining what he says is the true story of the “sneakers” quote. For context, Smith explains that staying away from politics had been a leaguewide mandate in the ’80s, a price players had to pay in order to win over the hearts of white fans. (Not everyone followed suit: Isiah Thomas’s comments about race and Larry Bird only added to his heel image.) Smith says he had been urging Jordan to take a stand and support Gantt, and Jordan responded with a dark joke to get Smith to stop pestering him:
So I’m making my case about Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt and even though Jordan knew this wasn’t a topic that was best for his league, he still delighted in the last word. Because after all that meant you won. […] So he shot me the last word.
“Republicans,” he said with a smile, “buy sneakers, too.”
“It was a joke!” Smith concludes. “Stop taking yourselves so seriously. He never did.”
While the notion that Michael Jordan never took himself seriously is debatable, the rest of this account matches Smith’s version of the quote in There Is No Next, which only adds to the mystery of why he said otherwise in The Second Coming. Was it to obscure his own role in the quote’s creation? Or did he simply misremember, either then or now? After 30 years, we will probably never get a firm answer about this aspect of the story.
However, on The Last Dance Sunday night, Jordan finally admitted what most people believed to be true all along: He had said the “sneakers” quote after all. However, he denied that he meant anything by it. “I don’t think that statement needs to be corrected because I said it in jest on a bus with Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen,” he said. “It was thrown off the cuff.”
Jordan’s abrupt turnaround on the quote issue is not hard to comprehend, as his denial seemed even at the time more of an exercise in brand management. In today’s polarized political environment, staying neutral is nearly as controversial as taking sides was in the early ’90s. But it’s notable how the debate has shifted from what Jordan said to what he meant. Those who wish he’d done more with his platform argue that, even if it was a joke, it was the kind of joke that illuminates more about Jordan’s worldview than he probably intended. Jordan’s defenders point out that the quote’s immortality has obscured his more recent willingness to speak out. Like much of The Last Dance, the segment on the “sneakers” quote will probably not change your mind about Michael Jordan one way or the other, but at least it’s cleared up one tiny lingering mystery in the Jordan legend.
*This post originally misstated the ground Gantt was attempting to break with his candidacy.
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