One of the most infamous quotes attributed to Michael Jordan during his 15 NBA seasons is “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Jordan was criticized for the quote by figures such as Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who took activist stances during their athletic careers, often to the detriment of their popularity and financial success. The view was that Jordan cared more about selling his Nike apparel, and the millions he made from it, than using his public profile to speak out on important issues and enact cultural change.

But has the quote been misinterpreted over the past 30 years? Longtime Chicago Tribune sportswriter Sam Smith, who now covers the Bulls for, first reported the quote in his 1995 book Second Coming. (via Slate)

“Another time, he was approached by U.S. Senate hopeful Harvey Gantt, a black politician who was running against Jesse Helms in North Carolina, Jordan’s home state. Gantt had hoped that Jordan’s name would help him defeat Helms, widely regarded as a virulent racist. But Jordan declined. He wasn’t into politics, he explained, didn’t really know the issues. And, as he later told a friend, ‘Republicans buy shoes, too.'”

Yet in a new piece for the Bulls official website, Smith tries to clarify the remark, about which he was interviewed for ESPN’s upcoming 10-part documentary The Last Stand.

According to Smith, Jordan was joking when he said it. He wasn’t trying to make any sort of neutral statement or take a cold, corporate salesman approach. It was actually a show of defiance against the NBA’s preference for its stars to stay away from political stances that could be viewed as controversial.

Closing a conversation with Smith about Gantt, Jordan was getting the last word in, something often important to the ultra-competitive star.

“It didn’t matter if it was a game, a bet, the first to get dressed or taped, the first bag down the conveyor belt at the airport which he’d, by the way, arranged with a ten for the baggage handler. Conversation and can-you-top-this was a competitive event to Jordan. There were more skilled players, but no one with that manic, never drained reservoir of competitive energy and desire. It’s why he worked harder, also. Not necessary to be better. But not to lose to anyone at anything.

“So he shot me the last word.

‘Republicans,” he said with a smile, “buy sneakers, too.’

“It was all net!

“I laughed, which also derailed my train of thought. It was the final word.”

Smith’s recollection is more of a “you had to be there” explanation. It doesn’t definitively clarify what Jordan meant or how he intended the remark to come across.

But there’s certainly something to be said for tone and how plain text doesn’t always capture the context of what was uttered in a conversation. We have to go with Smith’s perspective here since he was presumably one of the two people involved in the exchange. Smith laughed at what he interpreted as a joke. And for him, that’s the last word on the subject.

How will it be chronicled in The Last Dance? The topic is covered midway through the documentary’s 10-episode run.

ESPN’s The Last Dance premieres with Parts 1 and 2 on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET. 


About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a writer, editor, and podcaster. You can find his work at Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He's written for Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation.