Updated: May 5, 2020
Michael Jordan has transformed American sports more than any other athlete since Babe Ruth. While Ruth was the first team sport athlete to become a cultural icon, Jordan has taken icon status to another level.
With Jordan, the world was introduced to the concept of the athlete as global brand. The Jumpman logo and “Be Like Mike” have become as synonymous with American culture as the Golden Arches and “Snap, Crackle and Pop.” But to earn icon status, there has to be substance behind the surface. With Jordan, the substance was his brilliant play on the basketball court.
Jordan showed early on that he belonged on the big stage. As a freshman at the University of North Carolina, he hit the game-winning shot to lead the Tar Heels to the 1982 National Championship. He was named First Team All-American the next two seasons before being drafted by the Chicago Bulls with the third pick of the 1984 NBA Draft.
Jordan was a smooth and efficient scorer from the start, averaging 28.2 points per game and shooting 51.5 percent from the field en route to the 1984-85 Rookie of the Year award.
A broken left foot limited Jordan to only 17 games in 1985-86, but 1986-87 would end up being one of the great individual seasons in NBA history. Jordan became the first player to score 3,000 points in a season since Wilt Chamberlain in 1962-63. His 37.1 points per game are the fifth most in history, and the most by any player not named Chamberlain.
Jordan’s scoring assault on the NBA continued, as he led the league in scoring the next three seasons with averages of 35.0, 32.5 and 33.6 points per game. But Jordan’s talents were not limited to the offensive end, as he led the league in steals in both 1987-88 and 1989-90. In 1987-88, he became the only player in NBA history to win a scoring title, MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.
While Jordan’s individual accomplishments were impressive, there was still something missing: an NBA championship. In 1990-91, that void would be filled.
Jordan won his second MVP in 90-91, averaging 31.7 points on 53.9 percent shooting. In the playoffs, he showcased his full repertoire of skills, averaging 31.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. He would put the cherry on top by winning NBA Finals MVP, as the Bulls beat Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers to claim their first NBA title.
The next two seasons were equally impressive for Jordan and the Bulls: two more scoring titles, two more Finals MVPs, and most importantly, two more championships for Chicago.
Jordan was on top of the world in 1993, but what happened on October 6 sent shockwaves throughout the universe. The greatest basketball player in said universe announced his retirement. Five months later, he had another surprise. He was trading his Air Jordans for baseball cleats, as he signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox.
As Jordan’s short-lived baseball career fizzled, his hunger for basketball returned. On March 19, 1995 he played his first game for the Bulls in 21 months. The next season, a newly-focused Jordan and the Bulls began the greatest three-year stretch in NBA history.
In 1995-96, Chicago set a league record with 72 wins, and Jordan became only the second player in history to win All-Star MVP, NBA MVP and Finals MVP in the same season. He also led the league in scoring for the eighth time. The Bulls completed arguably the greatest season in NBA history by defeating the Seattle SuperSonics for the title.
The next two seasons brought similar success. The Bulls won 69 games in 1996-97, beating the Utah Jazz for their fifth NBA championship. Jordan once again won the scoring title, and added a fifth Finals MVP.
1997-98 would bring the Bulls their second three-peat, as they defeated the Jazz in the Finals for the second straight year. Jordan won his 10th scoring title, fifth MVP and sixth Finals MVP.
The final numbers on Chicago’s historic three-year run are phenomenal: a 203-43 record and .825 winning percentage in the regular season, and a 45-13 record and .776 winning percentage in the playoffs.
Jordan announced his retirement for the second time on January 13, 1999. As with the first one, he would come back. This time it was with the Washington Wizards, a team for whom he was partial owner and President of Basketball Operations. After two uneventful seasons in 2001-02 and 02-03, Jordan retired for the last time.
His career numbers put him on the short list for greatest player of all-time. Jordan’s 32, 292 points rank fifth all-time, and his 30.1 points per game average is the best in NBA history. His 10 scoring titles also rank first. What’s most impressive is the efficiency with which Jordan scored. His .497 field goal percentage ranks first among the top 10 scoring guards in history.
While Jordan’s prowess as a scorer is well-documented, his versatility is often overlooked. He is the only player in NBA history to have over 30,000 points, 6,000 rebounds, 5,000 assists and 2,500 steals.
The on-court statistics speak for themselves, but the numbers off the court speak even louder about Jordan’s legacy. In 2009, his Nike brand, Jordan, topped $1 billion in revenue for the first time. In fiscal year 2018, the Jordan brand was up to $2.9 billion, 15 years after the brand’s namesake played his final game.
In 2020, the American invention of basketball is played in every corner of the globe. Each country gives the game its own flavor, and each athlete gives the game his or her own style. One thing is certain, though. Michael Jordan’s influence on and off the court is undeniable.