10...9...8...The countdown starts in your head as you make your move. Granted, this isn't Game 6 of the NBA Finals, with thousands of screaming fans and a championship at stake—this is, after all, a blacktop basketball court in the park with kids running around and a dog doing his business ten feet away—but it doesn't matter. You know the sequence by heart: protect the ball by putting your body between you and the defender on the left wing, dribble to the top of the key, crossover to the left and raise up for the game-winning shot.
You, like many other basketball daydreamers, can act out this exact play time and time again because of the greatness of one man: Michael Jeffrey Jordan. With new generations filling the ranks of NBA fandom, some feel that his grip on the title of greatest player of all time is slipping with the likes of LeBron James roaring up behind him. Still, even with generations of fans who weren't born during his prime years, Jordan is still the gold standard for greatness like no other athlete before him.
First, how has Jordan's legacy survived Gen Z so far, despite a strong showing from players like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James?
Is it the shoes?
Despite retiring for the third and final time in 2003, his popularity remains high partly because of sneakers. Air Jordans were a status symbol when they were released, and are still one of the most highly sought after shoes by the generation. The sustained popularity of his eponymous shoes ensures that he remains a big part of pop culture, even though Jordan himself hung up his pair almost two decades ago.
"When released in 1985, the Air Jordan originally cost $65; its most recent iteration is priced at $185, according to Foot Locker." Hillary Hoffower reported in Business Insider. "But rare collector's editions can go for much more — one pair sold for $104,000 in 2018."
Not a lot of people can claim to be a legend in two games, but Jordan's dominance of both basketball and the sneaker industry keeps his status elevated among the youth.
Is it the legendary stories passed down from players of the past?
When it comes to Jordan, storytellers of his prime era pass down psychotic, but often entertaining, instances of the athlete's competitiveness. There's that one legend that he broke the spirit of Muggsy Bogues by calling him a "f***ing m**get." He punched his own teammate in practice. He destroyed a teammate in shooting competitions and hounded him so badly, he lost all of his confidence.
He's scary. He's mean. He's badass. All of these interpretations of the stories only add to the legend that continues to today, and keeps him on the minds of people who were learning their ABCs when he was winning championships.
Is it the highlights?
There are few better record-keepers than the internet, and all you have to do is search "Michael Jordan" on YouTube to find thousands of videos of high-quality highlights that give you a taste of how dominant he was in his prime. Looking for his dunks in the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest? There it is. Do you want to see all of his game-winning shots? It's right there, served on a digital platter for your edification.
Today's players who grew up with these tools may be generating new content, but Jordan has plenty of internet tape to visually prove he's the best, over and over again.
When the NBA closed the doors of its arenas and practice facilities due to the coronavirus outbreak, basketball fans threw their hands up like J.R. Smith just cost them Game 1 of the NBA Finals. That was March 11th. By the next week, NBA Twitter was in full withdrawal mode, posting old highlights, getting into inter-era debates of greatness and playing games of "start, bench, cut." But no one was really asking for anything other than one thing: ESPN's Michael Jordan and Chicago Bulls documentary "The Last Dance" with never-before-seen footage from the team's 1997-1998 championship run.
There was so much fan demand that ESPN moved up the release of the documentary from June 2020 to April 19, 2020. Almost 22 years after that season and 17 years since he played his final NBA game, Jordan still captivates NBA fans like few players do. Even with generational players like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James dominating the NBA over two eras, His Airness' popularity looms large in the minds of the people who watch the game.
While the final chapter of LeBron James is yet to be written, the comparisons to Jordan started as early as high school. As James has made his way through the NBA, he has piled up a number of accomplishments and accolades that have added to his G.O.A.T. résumé. He has already surpassed the Bulls legend in total points, rebounds and assists, but his popularity, even with fans witnessing his prime and not Jordan's, tells a different story.
Since 2016, The Tylt has run six different LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan polls asking who is the greatest player of all time. From 2016 to 2020, Jordan is still considered the greatest player among our audience, with 57% percent voting for the North Carolina graduate—and it wasn't just older NBA fans voting for him.
In one poll in 2016, over 38 percent of the voters were aged 18-24, almost 10 percent more than voters aged 25-34, and almost 20 percent more than voters aged 35-44. This is the generation that may remember Jordan dragging himself through games with the Washington Wizards and are watching the rise and peak of LeBron James. They still picked the Bulls legend.
And it's not just James who has felt Jordan's wrath in these polls. Larry Bird was found to be an inferior trash talker, Kobe Bryant couldn't beat him in a clutch-shot poll and his signature Air Jordan sneaker line bested the Nike Air Force 1s.
So how has Jordan's legacy survived Gen Z so far?
Yes, it's the highlights. Yes, it's the shoes, Yes, it's the stories. It's even the internet memes that pop up when people have something mildly melancholy happen to them. But most importantly, it's the work ethic that results in winning that inspires everyone. That transcends a generational gap that other NBA stars are more likely to fall through. For every highlight he generated, he seemed to have an incredible quote to go along with it. "I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” "Everybody has talent, but ability takes hard work.” These are adages every generation can hold onto.
That's why people revere him. That's why his legacy continues to stay strong even with superstar players nipping at his heels. That's why kids who never saw "The Last Shot" play it out in parks and driveways just to taste a morsel of the greatness that Jordan exuded every time he stepped onto a court.
The daydream may end with the countdown when we take that shot at home, but it still hasn't ended Jordan's place at the top of the basketball world, at least not yet.