That quote has long cast a shadow over Michael Jordan’s career.
He finally addressed it on Sunday’s broadcast of “The Last Dance.”
Did Jordan actually say it?
Jordan’s critics have cited the quote frequently to condemn the basketball great for his reticence to use his fame, wealth and platform to take social or political stances, especially in terms of race relations. It’s most frequently been referenced in terms of the 1990 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina between Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt.
But did he actually say it? He was never on the record. The original report of the quote cited hearsay.
It first surfaced in Chicago sportswriter Sam Smith’s 1995 book “Second Coming” about Jordan’s return from baseball to the NBA:
“Another time, he was approached by U.S. Senate hopeful Harvey Gantt, a black politician who was running against Jesse Helms in North Carolina, Jordan’s home state. 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.’ ”
The quote stuck to Jordan and has been cited frequently since. But his spokesperson Estee Portnoy told Slate in 2016 that Jordan, in fact, denied ever saying it.
Jordan comes clean
Sunday night’s broadcast of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” told a different story, though. And this came directly from Jordan’s mouth.
“I don’t think that statement needs to be corrected,” Jordan said on the documentary. “Because I said it in jest on a bus with Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen — it was thrown off the cuff.”
Jordan then addressed the Gantt-Helms race directly, explaining, “I’m not speaking out of pocket about someone I don’t know.”
He said that he did contribute to Gantt’s campaign.
Helms defeated Gantt
Gantt was Charlotte’s first black mayor and held office from 1983-87. He ran against Helms in 1990 for the U.S. Senate seat Helms had held since 1973. Helms trafficked in race politics during his 30-year career in the senate, advocating for school segregation and arguing against the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday.
Helms defeated Gantt that year and again in 1996.
Sports figures from Jim Brown to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who have used their platforms to advocate for social change have criticized Jordan for choosing his brand over doing the same.
Former U.S. President and renowned Chicago sports fan Barack Obama told “The Last Dance” he, too, would liked to have seen Jordan take a stand.
Barack Obama weighs in
“I’ll be honest when it was reported that Michael Jordan said ‘Republicans buy sneakers, too’ — for somebody who was at that time preparing for a career in civil rights law and in public life — and knowing what Jesse Helms stood for — you would have wanted to see Michael push harder on that,” Obama said.
Jordan then addressed his critics who often contrast him to boxing legend and global icon Muhammad Ali. Ali famously used his platform to take difficult, controversial stances that were a detriment to his career.
Jordan was blunt.
“I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in,” Jordan said. “But I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player.
“I wasn’t a politician when I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That’s where my energy was.”