Michael Jordan is here at the Peach Jam. Not physically but metaphorically, in every one of his Nike silhouette logos – the Jump Man, it’s called – and in every Nike swoosh on every sneaker and jersey and pullover that the college coaches are wearing.
They’re lined up in chairs on the edge of the court, watching some of the best high school basketball prospects in the country. There’s Roy Williams, the North Carolina coach, in light blue. A while ago he suggested that Jordan was being forgotten by the younger generation.
If it’s true it should become clear while asking prospects about Jordan – who he is, what he represents – at the Peach Jam. There are few better places than here to find out what Jordan means to a generation of players who weren’t alive for the most influential part of his basketball career.
For UNC, especially, it’s an important question. For years – how many, exactly, is difficult to quantify – Jordan was perhaps the Tar Heels’ greatest marketing and recruiting asset. Players throughout the 1980s and ’90s grew up wanting, as the old Gatorade slogan went, to “be like Mike.”
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Have those who have grown up in the past decade even heard of that phrase?
“I’ve heard no one say nothing about it,” Jalek Felton, one of the top prospects in the class of 2017, said on Wednesday in Charlotte, where he was attending an Under Armour basketball camp.
Felton, the nephew of former UNC point guard Raymond Felton, has committed to play at UNC. He has been on campus many times, has played pick-up with his uncle and other former UNC players, some in the NBA.
The younger Felton has been by UNC’s basketball museum, where he watched Jordan highlights, and he said he has even met Jordan and spoken with him “a couple of times.” But Jordan’s name, Felton said, doesn’t often come up among high school players these days.
It’s the “new school,” Felton said, “that’s what’s hot right now – Steph Curry, LeBron James.”
They played against each other in a thrilling seven-game NBA Finals in which James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the championship, Cleveland’s first in a major professional sport in more than 50 years. Jordan helped extend the city’s misery with a memorable game-winning shot over Craig Ehlo in 1989.
Time and history
Have more than 25 years really passed since that shot? It’s coming up on 20 years since the last of Jordan’s six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls, and 13 years have passed since Jordan last played in the NBA. Jordan is 53 now, the years rolling by.
History and the inevitability of time is what led Williams, the UNC coach, to his conclusion that Jordan is losing his stature among younger players. It was the day before UNC’s game against Indiana in the NCAA tournament East Regional semifinals.
Reporters were trying to make connections between the past and present. In the present, the Tar Heels were two victories away from reaching the Final Four. In the past, in 1984, Indiana defeated one of UNC’s best teams to never win a national championship. It was Jordan’s final college game.
You know 10 years ago my guys thought Michael Jordan invented the game. Now they don’t even know who Michael Jordan is, if it weren’t for the Hanes commercials.
UNC coach Roy Williams
To illustrate just how long ago that was and to minimize the connection between between teams separated by more than 30 years, Williams used Jordan as an example. He was once a world-wide sensation, the player every kid wanted to emulate.
“You know 10 years ago my guys thought Michael Jordan invented the game,” Williams said in March, the day before his team’s 101-86 victory against the Hoosiers. “Now they don’t even know who Michael Jordan is, if it weren’t for the Hanes commercials.”
It was something of a throwaway line – Ol’ Roy being Ol’ Roy, cracking a one-liner with some exaggeration. And yet there was deeper meaning to it, too, and a commentary on a generation of players coming of age in a post-Jordan basketball era.
“Nobody on my team remembers seeing him play a game on TV,” Williams said in April, after his team’s season ended. “Now, they see some of the ESPN Classics … or they see some of the commercials and they know who he is, to say the least.
“He and Ali were the two greatest figures in my lifetime, in sports. So it’s not really a throwaway line but think about that – nobody on my team ever saw Michael Jordan play a game. And so that’s pretty amazing.”
Jordan inspired an untold number of kids to shave their heads and stick out their tongues, like Jordan did, while they played basketball. He inspired consumers to purchase his shoes year after year, which helped turn Nike into one of the nation’s most prominent brands.
In ways large and small Jordan influenced the public. And so now if he’s fading from the consciousness of up-and-coming players, then what kind of implications does that have? What does it mean, especially, for the Tar Heels and their recruiting efforts?
Indeed, UNC in recent years appears to have lost favor with the best of the best prospects. How much it has hurt is debatable – the Tar Heels reached the national championship game in April – but it’s clear that in the eyes of the very best prospects UNC isn’t quite what it once was.
Those prospects instead are going to Duke, or Kentucky. Instead of wanting to emulate Jordan, who spent three seasons at UNC, many of the best high school prospects today want to be like the latest crop of players who spent one season in college before becoming NBA millionaires.
To learn about who Jordan is and what he represents to today’s players, there are few better places to go than the high school basketball showcases that apparel companies put on throughout the summer. Nike, Adidas and Under Armour all hosted annual events that began last week.
Under Armour hosted a camp in Charlotte. The Adidas event was in Spartanburg, S.C. Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, meanwhile, was back in North Augusta, S.C., for the Peach Jam, which is part all-star high school tournament, part college basketball coaches convention.
That these events exist at all is a tribute to Jordan’s legacy. Where would any company that makes basketball shoes be if not for what Jordan and Nike accomplished together throughout the 1980s and 90s?
The players attending these camps and tournaments have never lived in a world that didn’t include showcases like these. They’ve never lived in a world without Air Jordan sneakers, or one that wasn’t shaped by Jordan’s influence, basketball and otherwise.
Yet do they understand who Jordan is, and what he represented? Do they know the Jordan who made the game-winning shot in the 1982 national championship game against Georgetown, the one who won six NBA championships and became the most recognizable athlete in the world?
Are they more acquainted with that Jordan or with the Crying Jordan internet meme? The man, at one time, was the most influential athlete in the world. Then there’s the meme: Jordan’s sad face, his eyes wet with tears at his Hall of Fame induction, used as a creative, comic tool to depict misery or failure.
“Social media gets out of hand,” Jermaine Samuels, a top-100 prospect in the class of 2017, said between games at the Peach Jam. “I wouldn’t say (the Crying Jordan) is disrespectful. I just think social media is ruthless. It’s ruthless. They’ll do anything to make anybody laugh.”
Physically, at least, Samuels bears a likeness to Jordan. Like Jordan, Samuels is 6-foot-6. And like Jordan, Samuels wears a No. 23 jersey. He had it on, untucked and loose, after his team, named Expressions Elite, finished its game on Thursday.
For years, younger players wore No. 23 largely because that’s what Jordan wore, both at UNC and with the Bulls. Younger players wore No. 23 because of the influence of one player and one player only. And in some ways that’s still true today.
“Obviously, LeBron,” Samuels said of one of the inspirations behind his number. “All the greats have worn it.”
Most rising high school seniors, like Samuels, were 4- or 5-years-old when Jordan retired, for good, in 2003. They weren’t alive to watch live what they’ve studied on YouTube.
And so a younger player’s knowledge of Jordan, who now owns the Charlotte Hornets, , “depends on who’s a basketball junkie and who isn’t,” Samuels said. Talk to enough high school basketball players about Jordan, and some truths emerge: They all know of Jordan, certainly. But they know of him through highlight videos and articles found on the Internet and through what their parents, or an older family member, told them.
They know of Jordan in the way an art history student might know a famous painting. They recognize his greatness without completely understanding why, and since the most powerful part of Jordan’s career happened before they were born they don’t quite understand its significance.
Samuels was representative of the more than a dozen high school players who tried to answer questions about Jordan’s influence – and about who he is, to them – between games at the Peach Jam and Under Armour All-American camp. It wasn’t how Williams, the UNC coach, described it.
Younger players know who Jordan is, and some of them speak about Jordan the way players might have 15 or 20 years ago – in tones full of reverence and awe.
A sampling from the Peach Jam of what high school players said about Jordan:
“The greatest player that ever played basketball,” said Khalil Garland, a 6-6 guard from Arkansas.
“Icon. He’s basketball to me,” said Carte’are Gordon, a 6-9 forward from St. Louis.
“To me he represents the best player of all time,” said Michael Porter a 6-9 forward from Missouri.
And on it went, more than a dozen players, all of them among the most sought-after prospects in the class of 2017, all saying similar things.
“Man, I remember the game-winning shots that he had,” said Isaiah Stokes, a 6-foot-9 forward from Memphis. “I remember when I was watching his highlights, I always wondered why he played with his tongue out. You know, that was weird to me.”
They spoke of Jordan with respect, admiration. One even said he used to want to go to UNC because he knew of Jordan’s history there, after he learned about Jordan in the first place by watching the “Space Jam.”
The film inspired Trevon Duval’s interest in Jordan, who starred in the movie. Next thing Duval knew, he was watching YouTube videos of Jordan highlights and researching his career. Duval, the top point guard prospect in the class of 2017, soon learned that Jordan had gone to UNC.
“I used to admire UNC as a kid because of Michael Jordan,” Duval said. “Because watching him and (the) sky blue it was just like, dang, I want to be like Michael Jordan, play for North Carolina and then play for the Bulls.”
Asked which schools have been most active in his recruitment Duval spoke of Maryland and UCLA and others but didn’t mention UNC, which doesn’t appear to be among his likely college destinations. The reasons could be innumerable. Lack of fit, lack of strong mutual interest.
The Tar Heels already have a commitment from Felton, who’s a highly regarded class of 2017 point guard. Regardless, Duval is unique among players of his generation: He once wanted to go to UNC because Jordan played there.
More than 30 years have gone by since Jordan played his final college game, though. In the decades since he has evolved from college All-American into perhaps the greatest who ever played, and from that into a cultural icon whose influence stretches beyond basketball.
“L-L-M – long live Mike,” Lavar Batts, a guard from Concord who is considered among the top 100 class of 2017 prospects in the country, said between games at the Peach Jam. “Mike is going to be everybody’s favorite player, always.”
Asked if he knew of any Jordan highlights, Batts spoke of Jordan’s “flu game.” Others mentioned the 55 points Jordan scored at Madison Square Garden not long after he returned following his first retirement, and others spoke of the championship victories.
Porter, a top-five prospect in the 2017 class, pulled off his team’s jersey and after one of his Peach Jam games and revealed a tank top with a red Jump Man logo in the middle. There was Jordan, stretched out in flight on his shirt.
“And he also has some pretty fly kicks I like to wear,” Porter said.
These days, a younger player’s only exposure to Jordan comes from the highlights on YouTube and from the streams of Crying Jordan faces that show up on Twitter feeds.
Even so, said Jordan Tucker, a 6-foot-7 forward from the Bronx, “No matter how many times he’s crying, he’s still got six championships.”
Jordan isn’t forgotten, as Williams feared. The 17-year-olds who are the future of the game know him, can name facts about him as if they’re reciting lines out of a history textbook.