With the sad conclusion of ESPN’s The Last Dance— a 10 episode docuseries following Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls during their epic six championship run from 1991 to 1998—the monumental impact of “His Airness” on America’s culture is evident.
Every kid throughout America wanted to “Be Like Mike,” and his influence extended far beyond just basketball. His signature shoe line, Air Jordan, revolutionized casual fashion and made basketball sneakers a staple in every wardrobe. He is referenced countless times in hip-hop and the entertainment industry. Icons, such as Will Smith, rocked a pair of J’s in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Buggin’ Out in the Spike Lee joint, Do The Right Thing. As the unofficial face of the “Dream Team” that dominated the 1992 Summer Olympics, he exported basketball to the world. But most notably, he inspired the next generation of NBA stars, with legends such as Kobe Bryant emulating his game a tee.
He was America’s icon: a household name that became synonymous with “Greatness.”
At the other end of the world was a nation polar opposite to America in both geography and culture. During the 1990s, China underwent rapid changes and unprecedented economic growth.
In an atmosphere of change, the “Red Oxen”—the Chinese nickname for the Chicago Bulls— and their leader Michael "The Space Flier" Jordan came to China.
Former NBA Commissioner David Stern recognized the lucrative potential of untapped Chinese markets. He rushed to secure broadcasting rights with the Chinese government. In his mind, the deal was a win-win situation. The Chinese Central Television (CCTV) received free programming and he was granted access to China’s profitable market. Waiting for hours in the CCTV headquarters, he was finally met by a low-level official who lectured him on the need for “ennobling the masses” rather than entertaining them. Stern was persistent, however, and he eventually brokered a deal with the Chinese state broadcasting agency. The CCTV began to show old NBA tapes in 1990, and by 1994, they were airing live games.
Chinese superstar Yao Ming remembers the importance of watching the 1994 NBA Finals live—the season of Michael Jordan’s one year hiatus to play baseball. Seeing seeing Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon win the championship changed his life. Later on, Yao Ming would model his game off of Hakeem's style.
But when Michael Jordan shocked the world and announced his decision to unretire from basketball in 1995 with the single phrase, “I’m Back,” the rest was history.
The Chinese quickly became obsessed with this almost otherworldly figure. His individual flair and unstoppable determination resonated with the Chinese people. In their eyes, he was the physical embodiment of the “new and cool” America whose imports were dominating Chinese markets.
Beijing Meilande, an information company, conducted a survey in 1998 asking 1,000 Chinese to rank the most famous Americans. Michael Jordan placed second, ahead of notable figures such as Albert Einstein and Bill Gates.
His popularity has paved the way for future stars to establish their presence in China. In recent years, players such as Derrick Rose, Klay Thompson, Dwyane Wade, and Jordan’s apprentice, Kobe Bryant, have drawn insane amounts of fans every time they visit China. Basketball is now the most popular sport in the country, attracting millions of viewers nationwide.
Michael Jordan was the Richard Nixon of basketball. He opened up China for the first time to the beautiful game. His fame has only grown in China with the advent of social media and the proliferation of his iconic shoe brand. His lasting influence can be seen in the world today, and he will continue to act as the peak representation of human excellence that we can strive for.