Michael Jordan (1963–)

Michael Jordan is a former NBA player and current primary owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. Jordan played professional basketball from 1984 to 2003, first for the Chicago Bulls and then briefly for the Washington Wizards. He is credited with almost single-handedly bringing the Chicago Bulls to prominence as one of the great dynasties of the 1990s. Playing shooting guard, he led the Bulls to six NBA championships in eight years. A five-time regular season MVP winner and six-time NBA finals MVP, he ranks third in the NBA for career points scored (32,292) and holds the NBA record for averaging the most points per game (30.1). He has the highest postseason scoring average in professional basketball history (33.5 points per game). At the height of his fame, he was the most popular athlete in the United States and likely one of the best known Americans in the world. His biography on NBA.com calls him “the greatest basketball player of all time.” His talent, unprecedented fame, and product endorsements helped change the athlete’s position in modern professional sports.

Along with other stars like Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman, Bill Cartwright, Toni Kukoc, John Paxson, B. J. Armstrong, and coach Phil Jackson, the Jordan-era Bulls won two “three-peats”—three championships in a row—dominating from 1990 to 1993 and again from 1995 to 1998, a single three-peat not having been achieved since the 1960s Celtics. The Bulls went to the play-offs for 13 consecutive years from 1985 to 1998. They won a record-breaking 72 games in the 1995 –1996 season and made television ratings history in Game Six of the 1998 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz, earning a record 22.3; that series was the highest-rated NBA Finals in history. During Jordan’s tenure with the team, the Bulls net worth went from around $15 million to an excess of $250 million.

Michael Jordan’s combination of near-obsessive dedication and competitiveness, combined with what contemporaries often described as “genius” levels of natural talent, created the first athlete-superstar of the modern era. His uncommon speed, unusually high jump, and quick and seamless dunk were incredibly effective. He could twist away from defensive players in seemingly impossible positions and contort his body in unexpected ways to get past an opposing player. A signature move was his fadeaway jump shot, nearly impossible to guard, in which he would jump back while releasing the ball. He was also the only player, aside from Julius Erving (“Dr. J”), who could take a flying jump from the foul line and dunk the ball. Jordan also worked to strengthen his defensive game, winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1998; he was the only player up until that point to win that award and the MVP, and win them in the same year. He is also known for his fierce dedication and work ethic; he was violently ill with a high fever before Game Five of the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz and still managed to play, scoring 38 points in an eventual Bulls victory.

Considered the greatest player in National Basketball Association (NBA) history

Considered the greatest player in National Basketball Association (NBA) history, Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships while accumulating individual honors matched by few in the game’s history. (AP Photo.)

His style of play was so dynamic that even fans of opposing teams (and opposing players) could not help but be impressed. In his rookie year with Chicago, attendance at home games doubled, going from an average of around 6,300 per game to more than 12,700 fans per game. Season ticket sales had increased fivefold by his third year with the team. He became such a celebrity that the team went from taking early commercial flights and smuggling him out of airports to traveling charter.

He was also the first athlete to transcend his fame on the court and become a superstar in his own right through media channels and celebrity endorsements; he earned more from endorsements than from his NBA contract. He was also the first athlete to have a line of shoes named after him. The Nike “Air Jordan” basketball sneaker, released in 1985, earned Nike an excess of $130 million in their first year and went on to become the most successful product in the history of sports endorsements. The marketing campaign was characterized by its iconic logo, a silhouette of Jordan taking a flying jump on his way to the basket, and by its commercials costarring (and directed by) filmmaker Spike Lee, with the tagline “It’s gotta be the shoes.” The Air Jordan broke endorsement records, making Nike more successful than the top sneaker companies, Converse and Adidas. Before Jordan, there were very few athletes with top-grossing endorsements; the number was even lower for African American athletes and for basketball players. Nike later tried similar marketing campaigns with other athletes, but had difficulty finding the same level of success.

Jordan has also endorsed other major products such as McDonalds, Wheaties, Coke, Hanes underwear, and Gatorade, which featured a series of commercials with young children singing about how they want to “be like Mike.” He was a natural salesman, charming, easygoing, and articulate. He was always well dressed and unconventionally handsome, one of the first modern icons of American beauty to deviate from the image of the traditional white male. His shaved head and penchant for wearing long basketball shorts gradually became the norm for NBA style.

Michael Jordan’s fame helped propel professional basketball to an unprecedented level of popularity. Even more so than earlier superstars like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Jordan’s rise in the NBA paralleled the rise of cable television, particularly the fledgling ESPN network, and was a driving force in the attraction of corporate sponsorship and the tapping of a new, young audience. What radio had done for baseball and network television had done for football, cable television would do for basketball, changing the future of sports and propelling basketball into the American and international spotlights. The NBA’s increasing popularity also earned it more network television time, with increased popular interest and more access to advertising dollars.

His two Olympic appearances, particularly in Barcelona on the 1992 “Dream Team,” did even more to popularize the NBA and its players outside the United States. The 1992 U.S. team, which also included Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Scottie Pippen, beat Croatia for the gold medal and won its games by an average of almost 44 points. Jordan also played on the 1984 Olympic team in Los Angeles, which beat Spain for the gold medal.

Superstars like Jordan helped transfer leverage from owners/coaches to the players themselves. During his time in the NBA, the salary average began to escalate every few years. With the rise of high salaries and free agency in the 1990s, players began to change teams more frequently, resulting in fewer team dynasties. Today, it is much more common for NBA players to achieve rock-star-level fame.

The Chicago Bulls took Michael Jordan third in the 1984 NBA draft, at a time when they desperately needed some new talent. In the previous season, they had won only 27 of 82 games and had been to the play-offs just once in seven years. Jordan made an immediate impact in his rookie season. He played every game, averaging 28.2 points per game, the third highest in the league, and racking up 196 steals. He was voted Rookie of the Year. In 1985, he fractured a bone in his foot in the third game of the season and was forced to sit out until March, when he insisted on returning against doctors’ wishes. The Bulls made it to the play-offs but lost to the Celtics in the first round; an injured Jordan scored 63 points in Game Two, an NBA play-off record.

In the 1986–1987 season, the Bulls won 50 games. Jordan averaged 37.1 points per game, a record exceeded only by Wilt Chamberlain. The following season, he led the league with a 35.0 scoring average and 259 steals. In the 1988–1989 season, Jordan averaged 32.5 points per game and won his third consecutive scoring title. He managed 652 rebounds and 650 assists with a .538 shooting percentage. The Bulls went to the play-offs but lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Final. They began to improve even more with the addition of players like Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant in 1989.

In 1991, after losing to the Detroit Pistons in the play-offs three frustrating years in a row, the Bulls finally won their first NBA championship, beating Detroit in the Conference Final and defeating Magic Johnson and the Lakers in the Final. The Bulls won a league-high 61 games that year, and Jordan won his fifth straight scoring title, his second regular-season MVP, and the series MVP. Head coach Phil Jackson had worked on implementing a more-evenly balanced offense, both strengthening the offense and making Jordan a bigger threat. This was an adjustment for Jordan, who had been criticized by the media for being more of a one-on-one player than a team player who made the people around him better. Jordan also began to follow an innovative (for the time) workout regimen designed to make him stronger without slowing him down or bulking him up.

The following season Jordan won his third regular season MVP and his sixth straight scoring title. The Bulls won the NBA Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, and in 1993 they beat Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns for their third consecutive NBA championship and first “three-peat.”

In October 1993, at the age of 30, Jordan announced his retirement. His father had been killed that August at a highway rest area; two teenagers were charged with the murder and with stealing his car. Jordan was devastated by the loss and exhausted from the pressures of fame. He left the NBA to play baseball for the Birmingham Barons, a Chicago White Sox minor league team. He worked hard, but had trouble adjusting. He had little power in his legs, which were longer and thinner than most baseball players. His batting average hovered around the dreaded .200 mark. In March 1995, in the midst of the 1994–1995 baseball strike, Jordan announced his return to basketball. His first game back, against the Indiana Pacers on March 19, was the highest-rated regular-season game in five years. The Bulls improved with his return, though they lost to the Orlando Magic in the second round of the play-offs.

In the 1995–1996 season, Bulls added power forward Dennis Rodman and won their fourth NBA championship against the Seattle SuperSonics. They won their fifth championship in 1997 against the Utah Jazz and their sixth—and second “three-peat”—again against Utah. In Game Three of the 1998 Finals, the Bulls held Utah to 54 points. That year they tied Utah for the best record in the league, 62–20. In Game Six, with two key players on the inactive list, Jordan virtually carried the team. He faked past Bryon Russell for the clutch game-winning shot, which became one of the most important of his career.

In January 1999, just shy of his 36th birthday, Jordan retired from basketball for the second time. In 2000, he became part owner and president of Basketball Operations for the Washington Wizards, with mixed success. In 2001, he emerged from retirement to play basketball for the Wizards, donating his salary to charity. Playing short forward, he led the team in scoring, assists, and steals. In 2003, he was the only player on the team to play in every game, and he became the first player to score 43 single-game points at the age of 40. All of the Wizards’ home games were sold out during his time with the team, and they were one of the most-watched teams in the NBA, though they never made it to the postseason.

Michael Jordan was born on February 17, 1963, to James and Deloris Jordan. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and the family later moved to Wilmington, North Carolina. He excelled in sports from an early age. In high school, he played basketball, football, and baseball—his favorite at the time. He was considered too short to play basketball until he grew four inches between his sophomore and junior year and became a standout on the varsity squad. He always maintained, however, that his brother Larry (too short for the NBA at 5’11”) surpassed him in athletic ability.

He was recruited by Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, into a program that emphasized teamwork, discipline, and education. In his rookie season, the Tar Heels beat Georgetown University in the NCAA championship, a clutch shot by Jordan winning the game. He was voted ACC Rookie of the Year and ranked third in scoring and rebounds. In his sophomore year, the Sporting News named him College Basketball Player of the Year. He was an All-American in his sophomore and junior years, and won the Naismith and the Wooden College Player of the Year Awards in 1984, when the Tar Heels went undefeated. Jordan left North Carolina after his junior year to enter the NBA draft, though he later completed his degree. He was one of the last crop of players to stay in college longer and enter the NBA better prepared.

Jordan married Juanita Vanoy in Las Vegas in 1989. They have three children: Jeffrey, Marcus, and Jasmine. They divorced in 2006.

Jordan retired for good after the 2003 season. He became a minority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats in 2006 and became majority owner in 2010, the first NBA player to do so. He was enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.

—Mariah Gumpert


Greene, Bob. Rebound: The Odyssey of Michael Jordan. New York: Viking, 1995.

Halberstam, David. Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made. New York: Random House, 1999.

“Michael Jordan.” ESPN.go.com. ESPN Internet Ventures, 2011. http://espn.go.com/nba/player/bio/_/id/1035/michael-jordan .