When I think of Michael Jordan, I first picture his shaved head and face, glistening, covered in streams of dripping sweat.
This, I suppose, speaks to my specific age. As someone who fell in love with basketball during Jordan’s final Chicago Bulls seasons, this sweating, bald Jordan was inescapable. In the 1990s, Jordan was basketball, and basketball was Jordan.
If you ask someone just a few years my junior, though, what image Jordan’s name elicits, they too might imagine Jordan’s glistening face, but it’s not covered in sweat. Rather, it’s tears: the infamous Crying Jordan meme.
Taken from Jordan’s 2009 induction speech at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the Crying Jordan meme became generational shorthand for a specific kind of failure — “part despair, and part tantrum,” Ian Crouch described in a 2016 piece for The New Yorker. “When Donald Trump lost the Iowa caucuses, he became Crying Jordan. When the quarterback Cam Newton lost the Super Bowl, he became Crying Jordan. When Michael Jordan himself, sitting in the stands at the NCAA men’s basketball championship, watched as his alma mater North Carolina lost to Villanova, he became Crying Jordan.”
The world saw Jordan tearful, once again, on Monday during the memorial service for Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna. Jordan is undoubtedly a proud man — you don’t become the G.O.A.T. without pride, I imagine — but for the first few minutes of his speech, Jordan didn’t wipe away his tears. The bright lights of Staples Center shone down on an emotional Jordan Monday, tears on his face, and I watched him on the TV, saying things like, “(Kobe) wanted to be the best basketball player that he could be. And as I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother that I could be.”
It was a man who, in his prime, gave us everything he had while the entire world watched, eulogizing a peer who had done the same.
“When Kobe Bryant died,” Jordan said, “a piece of me died.”
He even acknowledged that pesky meme, and the crowd laughed — a moment of catharsis during an otherwise somber service — but as I watched, I wondered if this moment might jumpstart some overdue justice for Michael Jordan, his years of tears, and a public persona that’s been reshaped rather unfairly by them.
Collective, large-scale cultural mourning is rare. Perhaps increasingly so. Bryant was omnipresent in a way that few people are, and the circumstances surrounding he and his daughter’s deaths has felt especially tragic. Although Bryant was never among my favorite players, he was still there through most of my fandom. Like Jordan before him, Bryant was interwoven with basketball itself. The cultural outpouring toward the Bryant family these past few weeks has been exhaustive. Yet as Jordan began speaking at Monday’s memorial, I realized how much I needed to hear him speak. How did this enormous basketball loss impact the person who largely defined the sport? I needed His Airness to deliver in this, the most clutch of moments. As he spoke, it seemed the basketball world needed it, too.
And, thank goodness, Jordan delivered. His speech was poignant, and earnest, and funny, and heartbreaking, and inspiring, in all the ways a speech like his necessitated. It needed to be that way, because he’s Michael Jordan. And because he’s also the face of Crying Jordan.
The image of a crying Michael Jordan, of course, goes back way further than 2009. There’s Andrew Bernstein’s iconic 1991 photo of Jordan in tears, clutching his first NBA championship trophy, with his father, James, by his side. Two years later, James Jordan was shot to death in North Carolina. On Father’s Day in 1996, Michael Jordan won his fourth NBA championship — his first without James there to celebrate alongside him. Players and media members stormed the court as the buzzer sounded, and Jordan collapsed. Moments later, he laid face-down in the Bulls locker room, sobbing. For Jordan, this is what giving it everything looked like.
The Hall of Fame speech in 2009, getting awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, speaking at Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s memorial this week — Jordan cried at all of these, too (as I imagine each of us would in his position). There’s an oft-repeated Jay-Z lyric that says, “With the same sword they knight you, they gonna goodnight you.” Jordan’s tears seemed so heroic back when he still played. But afterward? It’s somehow the opposite. Ultimately, though, it’s all the same sword.
“The meme is the people knocking Jordan down several pegs,” Crouch wrote in his New Yorker piece. “Jordan in his prime was unassailable, a man out of reach, way up there above the rim. Now even you can take him.”
Jordan may not seem mythically out of reach anymore. But on Monday, I and the rest of the watching world didn’t need him to be. In fact, we needed the opposite. Maybe it’s cliche to say, but seeing him, the greatest basketball player of all time, shedding tears on national TV on Monday, somehow gave me permission to briefly shed my own. No one else could have been that kind of surrogate.