What was probably happening was that after a period of truly phenomenal growth in which all sides had benefited across the board beyond anyone's expectations, and the league had enjoyed a rise in popularity and a general growth unparalleled in sports history--in no small part because of profound technological change--and one great player had become the showcase for an entire sport, owners, commissioners, players, and agents were trying to define what the post-Jordan reality was--reality in a world that had no reality because it was driven, in all ways in the end, by fantasy.
No company enriched Michael Jordan more than Nike or benefited more from his career. Jordan had made around $130 million from Nike over his career by 1998. Given his baseball sabbatical, that averaged out to around $10 million a year from just one company. In turn, he not only made Nike literally billions of dollars, he helped it win a series of epic life-or-death battles against Reebok at the height of the great global sneaker wars. Nike had just begun to slip behind Reebok when it signed Jordan, and the Jordan line changed that equation dramatically. In their first year the Air Jordans grossed an unheard-of $130 million, and the Nike comeback had begun. In 1986, because of a number of earlier quite serious miscalculations at Nike, the Reebok share of the domestic sneaker market was far greater than that of Nike: 31.3 percent to 20.7. Four years later, in no small part because of Jordan's presence, Nike regained the lead and widened it steadily. Among the first companies to learn that Michael's presence both on and off-court was special, and not easily repeated, was Reebok. It had placed a huge bet on Shaq but had not prospered. Shaq, eventually cut loose from his five-year $15 million deal, had become, by 1998, something relatively new in American sports, a free agent in the sneaker world. Not every athlete, it was clear, no matter what the level of charm or ability, could replace Jordan either on the court or on the screen.
Not all of Nike's growth was attributable to Jordan's presence, of course, but in 1984 the company had revenues of $919 million and a net income of about $40 million, and by the end of 1997, Nike's revenues were over $9 billion, with a net of around $800 million, stunning annual growth rates.
Michael Jordan had never become very close to Phil Knight, the most iconoclastic and least predictable of American CEOs. Knight was self-evidently a visionary, but he often seemed extremely awkward socially, and he was by no means the kind of person Jordan felt at ease with. Over the years the small talk between them was quite limited. At one point Jordan came very close to leaving Nike to become a full-fledged partner in a new sneaker company that was going to be set up by Rob Strasser and Peter Moore, former Nike men with whom he felt a far greater sense of connection. The showdown meeting between Jordan and Knight had not been a pleasant one: Jordan had kept Knight waiting for several hours, someone involved in the meeting remembered, and arrived in a hostile, angry mood. He had clearly been primed for battle by the ex-Nike renegades, apparently made aware of how small his cut of the giant pie he had helped to create really was. But in the end there had been too much risk involved, particularly for someone whose career could end with injury at any moment, and the prospect of an enraged Phil Knight using all of Nike's not inconsiderable might and muscle to keep a new Jordan-driven company out of the world's biggest sneaker stores was not something Jordan or Falk wanted to take on. One thing that did come out of those negotiations was a far better cut in the revenues for Jordan, and by the early nineties, very quietly, without too much public fuss, he was making around $20 million a year from Nike.
Nike soon found that its success with Jordan was not lightly transferable to other athletes. To be sure, a campaign based around Charles Barkley had charm and wit and intelligence, in no small part because Barkley himself, whatever the egregious aspects of his behavior, was charming, witty, and intelligent. (Danny Ainge, his onetime teammate, once noted that he had been around a lot of players who were essentially bad guys trying to pretend they were good guys, but Charles was the only person he had ever met who was a good guy trying to pretend he was a bad guy.) But a good many other campaigns seemed to fall flat, most notably a campaign to promote a football-baseball player named Deion Sanders as a kind of comparable cultural hero. That Sanders was a gifted athlete was undeniable, but that he was any kind of cultural icon or even particularly likable to a broad spectrum of his fellow citizens was dubious. What was believed to be his charisma reflected all too accurately the aberrant quality of much of contemporary celebrity: It seemed to stem largely from his willingness to do wildly egocentric self-congratulatory dances in the end zone, as if each visit there was his first.
Excerpted from Playing for Keeps by David Halberstam. Copyright© 1999 by The Amateurs Limited; Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
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