The story behind one of Michael Jordan’s most misunderstood quotes

Sam Smith tells the story behind the infamous Michael Jordan quote.

They are some of the most famous quotes in American history.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."
-Abraham Lincoln

"Give me liberty or give me death."
-Patrick Henry

"I have a dream…"
-Martin Luther King Jr.

"Speak softly and carry a big stick."
-Teddy Roosevelt

"Republicans buy sneakers too."
-Michael Jordan

Sorry, Mike. That's on me, and you don't deserve all the lazy cheap shots you've endured over the years because of what was really a wonderful, shut-up-and-stop-bothering-me-Sam quip.

Plus there's been a fair amount of hypocrisy in recent years about all these supposed social activists who by implication condemned Jordan for his apparent indifference.

Anyway, I figured this was a good time to set the record straight on Jordan's infamous comment because of the much anticipated Last Dance documentary that begins airing on ESPN this Sunday. I'm planning to write this weekend my recollections of what led up to that final season declaration and why it really was inevitable. More on that later, though. I wanted to get to the durable sneakers quote because it was a subject the producers spent the most time on with me when they came to interview me late last year.

The 10-part series is going to be one of the highest ever rated ESPN shows, especially now with all of us in virus hell. Two decades later it's also going to be a wonderful primer for fans who were too young and welcome nostalgia for fans who have mostly forgotten. It will be the history book figures of legend come to life. Michael finally decided to cooperate, and once he does there's generally no better interview.

He seems reasonably secure now, you know, being a billionaire. Ronald Reagan often was called the teflon president for all the goofy stuff he said merely sliding off because he was so beloved. When people would ask me about how Jordan felt given my Jordan Rules book which was considered controversial, I'd often say that I was mostly lint in a snowstorm to Jordan.

Anyway, I was a bit curious when the crew was conducting the interviews the last few years and never got around to me after sitting with basically everyone I knew from that era. It actually was something of a relief as I'd done my share of Jordan interviews after—book plug coming here since ESPN is showing advertising, after all—The Jordan Rules, which was the 1991 championship year diary, Second Coming, the 1995 return of Jordan from baseball retirement and the 2014 There is No Next, the Jordan career oral history retrospective that completed my less-than-Homeric Jordan trilogy.

The documentary chronicles that 1997-98 final title season. NBA Entertainment, then run by current commissioner NBA Adam Silver, basically embedded a crew with the Bulls that season. Phil Jackson, especially by then because of the worldwide phenomenon the Bulls had become, protected the privacy of the team like a mother with her baby. Practice and the locker room were off limits. There were famous stories of General Manager Jerry Krause being locked out. But like NFL teams with that intrusive Hard Knocks show, you can't keep out the league.

Everyone had to sign waivers later, and Jordan likely didn't give permission. So the film sat around. Probably for Silver family cookouts: "You'll never guess what I have in the basement." Jordan obviously relented, but his two primary gatekeepers, Curtis Polk and Estee Portnoy, are executive producers. Everyone who ever seeks to interview Jordan knows Estee. She's Ms. No.

There'll be no news here. That's good, actually. It's not what this should be about.

I did eventually get a call asking if I would sit for an interview. I always do these because it's the right thing to do in my business even if you don't get paid and half the time I end up with parking tickets. But when you spend a career asking people for their time to answer questions, you have a responsibility when someone asks you.

Because I was lucky to basically begin my full-time NBA writing career when Jordan came to Chicago—I even spent a day with him at his townhouse the first week he was in Chicago watching him iron his clothes—I probably sat for some interviews during that season. I can't recall, but I'm curious to see. I hope I didn't bash the Bulls since now I write for their web site. Never expected that.

As my interview was drawing to a close and they were changing film or some such thing, I told the director I was curious about something. Did they have to get Jordan's permission to speak with me?

As I've related at times, I had a good relationship with Jordan writing about the Bulls for The Chicago Tribune in the 1980s. He was great fun to be around, the so called man's man with whom every moment was a test, a contest, an action, an event. It was chronicled in The Jordan Rules and, I suspect, in the documentary. We know Leo Durocher's famous saying about where nice guys finish. It's not universal as I'd take my chances with Steph Curry. Though once The Jordan Rules was published our relationship changed. I stayed around the beat and Jordan remained professional and respectful because that's who he was. Not so many quips anymore, like with the shoes.

So the director dithered a bit and somewhat shyly answered, well yes, they asked Jordan if it was OK to interview me. I could hear Jordan. The director said Jordan told them he didn't give a crap who they talked to. Michael being Michael.

Which was what Republicans buy sneakers, too, was about.

First you have to consider the times. Like we don't exactly want to judge Thomas Jefferson by today's standards and mores.

The NBA was in trouble in the early 1980s. It wasn't going out of business, but business was not good. Always fighting the racial trope of a majority black sport, the game had regressed in the 1970s because of labor issues with the rival ABA and the emerging drug culture. It was easier to point to athletes of color than executives of pallor. The ugliest of stereotypes became drawing room conversation.

We've heard all the stories of the 1980 Finals, one of the greatest ever, shown on tape delay. It was hardly just that. Seattle in the late 1970s, a team without any big stars, was in the Finals with games starting after 11 p.m. eastern time to accommodate local TV markets. Suns playoff games a few years earlier came on at 10:30 a.m. for a TV weekend time. Talk about holy. Conference finals games ran simultaneously so Eastern markets saw only the East teams. Weekend back to backs were common because the networks didn't want games to disturb their weekend prime time viewing. It was a big reason David Stern became commissioner.

Also why the NBA became the first league with an artificial financial ceiling and salary cap, a fusion of league and players. Perhaps a half dozen teams were on the verge of failing after the extensive expansions in the 1970s to drive the ABA into bankruptcy and merger. So the players were looking at the loss of perhaps 100 jobs.

So the league and the players agreed to the payroll certainty that enabled enough franchises to survive and begin to proper. Part of the deal was to limit the commentary about controversial issues. Even the most socially active players, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who boycotted the 1968 Olympics over racial issues and stood with Muhammad Ali, went silent. Players were asked to concentrate on basketball in the best interests of the league.

I recall advocates like Jim Brown coming around occasionally and condemning Jordan for his muted nature. Then Jordan would be vigorously defended by the other stars of the game. They understood.

So I was talking with Jordan before a game at his locker.

I had a previous career in politics, working as a congressional reporter in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s. After a few years with a news service, I had a brief sabbatical from journalism for an I wonder what-that's-like leave as press secretary for U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker before I joined the Tribune in 1979. I moved to sports full-time a few years later, though I'd done freelance basketball writing back into the 70s in Washington, interviewing Magic at his McDonald's high school game among other escapist adventures.

As unlikely as it seems now, back then hardly anyone believed you could win a title with Jordan on your team. He's just a scorer! the columnists instructed. You need to make others better like Larry and Magic did.

Hey, I'm being asked to make Mike Smrek, Gene Banks and Steve Colter better, Jordan would lament. But there may not have been a better interview, few players more welcoming, cordial, engaging and relentlessly interesting. Jordan loved the media give and take. He didn't like shooting before the games because crowds would gather like with the Curry dribbling shows. He preferred to verbally engage, challenge, get that last word. That seemed like the competition he needed for the game.

Like that time I was blathering on about Jesse Helms and that North Carolina senate race. Jordan knew how much the NBA had been asking players to stay away from this kind of stuff, and the truth is he didn't need to protect his shoe company investment. There were times there I recall him talking about splitting from Nike. They were changing deals on him and he didn't like the negotiating. Actually, he'd worn Converse in college and only went to that first Nike interview because his mother ordered him to. Jordan really was in it for the love of the game.

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.

It didn't matter if it was a game, a bet, the first to get dressed or taped, the first bag down the conveyor belt at the airport which he'd, by the way, arranged with a ten for the baggage handler. Conversation and can-you-top-this was a competitive event to Jordan. There were more skilled players, but no one with that manic, never drained reservoir of competitive energy and desire. It's why he worked harder, also. Not necessary to be better. But not to lose to anyone at anything.

So he shot me the last word.

"Republicans," he said with a smile, "buy sneakers, too."

It was all net!

I laughed, which also derailed my train of thought. It was the final word.

I never asked Jordan for whom he voted, to whom he gave money or for whom he worked. He wasn't particularly active or interested in politics, though he might have bet on a race. But after his career I do know he was seriously involved with Barack Obama's campaigns and has supported more social causes than most. Mostly quietly or anonymously.

It was a joke! Stop taking yourselves so seriously. He never did.

Enjoy the show.