It is old news that Michael Jordan once considered himself a racist, but the revelation has taken on new life in light of a new biography of the basketball legend amid the public pillorying of Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
In the just-published Michael Jordan: The Life, author Roland Lazenby presented what he calls “the first truly definitive study of Jordan: the player, the icon, and the man.”
As part of that study, Lazenby offers a look inside Jordan’s upbringing in Wilmington, N.C., during a time when Jim Crow was king and the Ku Klux Klan its chief henchman.
Lazenby said his research revealed just how powerful the Klan’s hold once was in that state. “North Carolina was a state that had more Klan members than the rest of the Southern states combined,” the American sportswriter told Sports Illustrated in a May 7 article.
“As I started looking at newspapers back in this era when I was putting together Dawson Jordan’s [Michael’s great-grandfather’s] life, the Klan was like a chamber of commerce. It bought the uniforms for ball teams, it put Bibles in all the schools. It may well have ended up being a chamber of commerce if not for all the violence it was perpetrating, too.”
North Carolina’s atmosphere of unrelenting racism took a mental toll on African Americans, too, he found. For Jordan the situation crystallized when he saw the critically-acclaimed television miniseries "Roots."
“It was hundreds of years of pain that they put us through, and for the first time, I saw it from watching ‘Roots,’” Jordan said in a May 1992 interview with Playboy magazine. “I was very ignorant about it initially, but I really opened my eyes about my ancestors and the things that they had to deal with.”
Jordan was 15 at the time and also had his first personal brush with racism. “I threw a soda at a girl for calling me a nigger,” he said. “It was a very tough year. I was really rebelling. I considered myself a racist at that time. Basically, I was against all White people.”
It took a year for Jordan to surmount his bitter outlook, and it was his parents who helped him overcome it, his biographer said.
“It would be very easy to hate people for the rest of your life, and some people have done that,” he recalled of their advice. “You've got to deal with what's happening now and try to make things better.”
For many North Carolina Blacks, making things better meant achieving economic success, which informed Jordan’s athletic and entrepreneurial achievements, Lazenby said. For that reason, Jordan’s is a “Black power story,” he argued.
"As I researched, the whole thing began to take form in my mind that we really don’t think of Michael Jordan that way. He’s been lampooned a lot because he was so great as a player that no matter what he did people were going to be disappointed in him," Lazenby said. "…It’s an economic story. It’s a Black power story. It doesn’t come from politics or protests, it comes right off the Coastal Plain of North Carolina and out of the African-American experience."
While Jordan historically takes a back seat on issues of race, the Charlotte Bobcats owner recently waded into the public debate over the racist remarks made by his fellow franchise owner, Donald Sterling.
“There is no room in the NBA – or anywhere else – for the kind of racism and hatred that Mr. Sterling allegedly expressed,” the five-time NBA MVP said in a statement. “I am appalled that this type of ignorance still exists within our country and at the highest levels of our sport. In a league where the majority of players are African-American, we cannot and must not tolerate discrimination at any level."
He later lauded NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s decision to ban Sterling for life.
“I applaud NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s swift and decisive response today. He sent a powerful message that there can be zero tolerance for racism and hatred in the NBA,” Jordan said. “I’m confident that the league, our players and our fans will move on from this stronger and more unified.”
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