Michael Jordan was cute. I swear. Before he got the HeadBlade dome and the landing strip on his upper lip for a Hanes commercial, before he got his ear pierced—back when he was 18 and the new face on Dean Smith’s UNC Tar Heels—he was a cute kid. Boyish. His childhood nickname was Rabbit; his ears stuck out. He hadn’t made high school varsity until he was a junior. Back then, he was on the short side for hoops. But then the pituitary kicked in and the world changed.
I first really noticed Michael Jordan when the freshman’s jumper put North Carolina up one point over Georgetown with seventeen seconds left in the 1982 NCAA championship game. As a crazed Hoya alum, I wasn’t panicked—hey, we had All-American shooting guard Sleepy Floyd (who would go on to thirteen pro seasons) and a freshman named Patrick Ewing, who had already scored twenty-three points in the game. But then, like in a nightmare, Georgetown point guard Fred Brown inexplicably passed the ball to the Tar Heels’ James Worthy, and Jordan’s shot turned into the game winner. Michael Jordan and James Worthy… I would remember those names.
Jordan’s impact came a bit later, but it endured. In 1984, Nike put him under contract and then introduced the Air Jordan, the most expensive basketball shoe ever made. The first model was black, white, and red, violating the NBA’s rules and getting Jordan fined $5,000 for every game he wore them. Nike paid the bill all the way to the bank. Jordan was wearing his red-white-and-black Air Jordans when he scored sixty-three points against the Celtics in an ’86 playoff game. In 1989, with his hair receding, he shaved his head clean. Jordan—who wore his North Carolina team shorts under his Chicago Bulls shorts and thus needed some extra room—also asked that Champion give him a wider, longer pair. Jordan’s teammate Scottie Pippen liked them so much he asked for the same. And so baggies came to the NBA, and thence to the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV, the Fab Five of Michigan, and then the world. (Except John Stockton.
Off the court, the young Michael Jordan always exhibited good taste—the right polo, the right jeans, the right sweatshirt, hey, even a rugby shirt. It was only later, as a multi-millionaire, that his moves may have been a bit off. He was always fashionable, but fashion itself goes wrong sometimes, and one of those times came at the height of his career: in the ’90s, when Italian suits ruled the world. Remember Pat Riley cavorting on the sidelines, with his hair gel and his suits with the huge shoulders and the blousy pleated pants? Jordan wore similar suits (but no gel or hair), and in post-game interviews he sometimes resembled a cross between Dr. Evil and the character with the tiny head in Beetlejuice.
But Jordan’s head was a thing of beauty. Bald men everywhere should worship him as a god for making the bald head manly and totemic. Sure, there was Yul Brynner as the petulant King of Siam, and Telly Savalas as Kojak—whom many menopausal women considered the sexiest man alive—but Jordan was like a hairless Hercules, a superman with a noble pate that made him look stronger than Samson, grinning like a death’s-head at the opponents he would dunk over. Taking flight, His Airness made hair seem un-aerodynamic. Like bad design. Jordan’s baldness made him as changeless as a sculpture. Monumental. Without Michael Jordan, there would be no Ving Rhames, no hair-free Samuel L. Jackson, no chrome-domed Shaquille O’Neal, no cue-ball Kobe, no glabrescent Vin Diesel. Without Michael Jordan, there is a toupee industry. Without Michael Jordan, there is no sneaker industry. And the streetwear movement that has journeyed from asphalt basketball courts to Paris runways would never have been the same without number 23