Even in an age in which nearly every single detail about an athlete’s life is documented for public consumption, it’s still hard to imagine the density of the media circus surrounding Michael Jeffrey Jordan on the night of his final (actual final) game of his NBA career. Fifteen years ago, Jordan heard his name introduced over the PA system for the last time, drained his last jumper and walked away into the sunset to 21,000 fans screaming his name.
That night was the period at the end of a sentence in which fans and franchises spent a full season showing their admiration for the greatest to ever lace up a pair of sneakers. Leading up to his final game, the Miami Heat retired his number, three all-stars offered their starting spot in the All-Star Game to MJ (he ultimately took Vince Carter’s) and he received a four-minute standing ovation from the fans at the United Center during his last game in Chicago.
Philly presented him with a custom golf cart to get him prepared for life after retirement. In his pregame interview, he told David Aldridge that he would play a round “probably in the morning.” He received several standing ovations during the night and heard the crowd boo when fans thought he wouldn’t re-enter the game in the fourth quarter. “We want Mike” was chanted until Doug Collins gave in to give the world one last look at who may be the game’s only true superstar.
Looking back on the game, you can still see how much he influenced the next generation. Kobe Bryant became an effective carbon copy on the floor, while LeBron James emulated his poise and business acumen. Collins reportedly asked Jordan how many shots he wanted on his final night, saying, “You can have 50 if you want it.” Hilariously, it was Bryant who actually took that many on his final night in the league.
The night was the antithesis to what his career was, though, and ultimately became the synthesis and maybe a bit of foreshadowing of who he would become next in the eyes of a new generation of hoops fans who didn’t get to see him play in his prime. Peak Jordan is arguably the greatest athlete in the game’s history and one of the top three in sport at large. Post-career MJ is revered by those in the know but has also become a proxy for failure by way of the internet.
Jordan and failure did not become synonymous because of anything Jordan did himself but because of the way of the internet and its ability to not just appropriate cultural moments, but redefine them in real time. Jordan’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony turned his tears of joy into a symbol for losing at life. It’s a complete 180 from the meaning of the moment, which is, in turn, a complete 180 from the way his career played out.
The world we live in is dramatically different from the world that existed when Jordan finally hung up his sneakers. The way the game is played, the way it’s discussed and covered, and the way fans interact with the league and its players probably could not have existed during Jordan’s prime — and it may have altered the way we thought of him when he played if it had. The amount of game analysis and how the game is analyzed would still be incredibly kind to Jordan the player, but the internet would have (and has since) changed the way we thought about Jordan the person.
MJ was an asshole, that’s for sure, but the competitive nature of the time always trumped who the player was off the court. It worked for him during the era in which he played, and there are still bits and pieces of that kind of mentality in the NBA now (read: Russell Westbrook).
Post-career MJ isn’t all jokes, though. He’s become the second black majority owner of an American sports franchise (the first was Robert Johnson, the original owner of the then-Charlotte Bobcats, now Charlotte Hornets, which are now owned by Jordan). Even seven years after his final retirement, he was named on Forbes' list of most powerful celebrities, and he became the first NBA player to become worth $1 billion because of his Jordan Brand franchise and his increased stake in the Hornets.
Even today, his shoes are the most coveted on the market, with kids born after his playing days asking for the latest pair of Jordan 13 re-releases. In the grandest of understatements, he’s done well for himself since turning the league over to the next era of ballplayers. There will never be another like him both on the court — and on the internet — no matter how hard and how long we try to find one.