Michael Jordan turned 58 Wednesday, an occasion that might be difficult to absorb for those of you who still picture him as a young man in mid-dunk — tongue out, legs climbing, hand about to commit armed violence on a rim.
But bodies change with the passing of time. So do people, if we leave room for that possibility. The impression of Jordan as a sealed, impenetrable bank vault when it comes to charitable giving might need some alterations. Same with the perception of him as a shoe salesman with the social conscience of a tree stump.
Earlier this week, the former Bulls star donated $10 million to help open two new medical clinics in North Carolina. He gave $7 million in 2017 to open two similar facilities there.
Last year, he and his shoe brand pledged $100 million to organizations that work for social justice, racial equality and better access to education.
In 2016, he gave $1 million each to two organizations — the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police — after the fatal shooting of two black men by police in separate incidents and the fatal ambush shooting of five Dallas police officers.
Who is this guy?
Maybe all of it is part of a public-relations strategy, the way his signing off on a 10-part ESPN documentary about him last year was part of a continued effort to shape his image. Maybe what he’s giving away to charity is a fraction of what he’s worth.
But after years of being excoriated by the likes of me for not being more socially aware and for not sharing some of his largesse, here is Jordan giving money to good causes. He deserves to be recognized for that without questions being asked about his motivation. If, as he approaches 60, he’s increasingly worried about his legacy, what of it?
The impetus for the giving doesn’t necessarily matter. It’s the giving that counts. I learned that one afternoon as a young, self-righteous reporter. As part of an opportunity to interview then-Indiana coach Bob Knight, I was tasked with driving him from a celebrity golf tournament to his hotel. Along the way, I groused about the snooty country club people who thought they were special because they had the financial wherewithal to rub shoulders with famous athletes and celebrities (including the guy who played Mr. Kimball on “Green Acres’’). Knight said the only thing that mattered was the money raised for charity that day.
I found room in my self-righteousness for the possibility that he was right.
Everybody deserves a second chance and, if they want it, a second act. Or a third. Jordan might be the greatest basketball player of all time, but he has not been a success as an executive and owner of the Charlotte Hornets. So how about Share Jordan as Act III?
Give him credit: This isn’t the PR dodge where the celebrity asks everyday people to donate to his charity, the charity to which the celebrity himself doesn’t donate. This is a man giving some of his own cash. Go ahead and rip a billionaire for playing philanthropist with his walking-around money. But the point is that he has started to give.
(Let’s also leave open the possibility that, for years, Jordan has been quietly making charitable donations. What a concept that would be in today’s credit-obsessed world. It’s unlikely, given his reputation for being closefisted. But you never know.)
At the same time Jordan was pledging $100 million toward racial equality and social justice last year, he released a statement about the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
“I am deeply saddened, truly pained and plain angry,” he said. “I see and feel everyone’s pain, outrage and frustration. I stand with those who are calling out the ingrained racism and violence toward people of color in our country. We have had enough.”
This is the same guy who said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too,’’ when he wouldn’t publicly support Democrat Harvey Gantt, who is black, in his 1990 U.S. Senate campaign against North Carolina incumbent Jesse Helms, who had been an advocate of segregation. Jordan said the comment was made in jest, but it stuck like a burr on wool.
One of the lasting impressions from ESPN’s “The Last Dance’’ was just how alone MJ seemed. He had pushed to become the best player in the world, and he had pushed away people in the process. I wonder if he has finally come to realize that he needs others and that others need him. Better late than never.
It doesn’t matter when you wake up, just that you do.