When thinking of Michael Jordan’s time at UNC, one thought jumps to mind first: a skinny first-year guard donning the now-famed No. 23, catching a pass at his hips on the left wing from point guard Jimmy Black and knocking down a go-ahead jump shot in the waning seconds of the 1982 National Championship game.
It isn’t just that shot that defines Jordan today, though. After all, ESPN wouldn’t air a 10-part documentary focusing on an athlete whose career highlight came at 19 years old.
When Jordan entered the NBA, his six titles and seemingly superhuman basketball skills grew his legend to levels of international fame previously unreached by any American athlete, save for perhaps Muhammad Ali. His shoes sold in unthinkable numbers and still do, years after his retirement from the NBA — Jordan’s signature line racked in nearly $2.9 billion in 2018 alone.
Comparing players is a useless pursuit. We’ll never know what Jordan would have looked like in a modern game that relies on pacing, efficiency and the three ball more than any previous era. What is clear though, is that Michael Jordan's lasting impact on the culture surrounding UNC athletics is nothing short of remarkable.
The nature of sports, and collegiate sports in particular, leads fans to focus more on the institution rather than the individual player. Due to the limitations of four-year eligibility and the prehistoric rules against self-marketing for college athletes, players generally sink into a school's history books after they leave campus. For Jordan, this was not the case.
In "The Last Dance," ESPN’s miniseries on the 1998 Chicago Bulls that concluded Sunday, interviews with Roy Williams and videos of Jordan with his lucky UNC practice shorts hanging in his locker during his stint with the Chicago White Sox Double-A affiliate Birmingham Barons cemented his time in Chapel Hill as a continuing part of his legacy.
Decades since Jordan left Chapel Hill, his image sits on the upper right corner of North Carolina’s jerseys, his shoes are displayed on the feet of Tar Heel hoopers, coaches across UNC’s sporting environment are still singing his praise to national audiences and the Carolina Blue Jordan 1s are a must have for any sneakerhead’s collection.
When considering Jordan’s universal mythos in basketball history, it’s almost hard to imagine His Airness running down the court in Carmichael Arena wearing Carolina Blue and white.
Even in Dean Smith's slow-it-down four corners offense, Jordan was an immediate standout. The guard, then called Mike Jordan, came into UNC as a McDonald's All-American, but as North Carolina’s second most touted recruit behind Buzz Peterson. By the time he left Chapel Hill, he was a Naismith Player of the Year and the third overall pick in the 1984 NBA draft.
Still, Jordan’s largest contribution to UNC came after he left Chapel Hill. Recruits across sports will often see Jordan sitting near them at a men’s basketball game, his face on one of the Dean E. Smith Center’s scoreboards, and they will feel the spirit of one of basketball’s greatest players walking across campus.
Jordan is not a perfect human being. His gambling habits and overly intense methods of motivating his teammates are legitimate critiques of a player who often tried to display himself as perfect. But his impact on UNC and the sport of basketball has continued to grow over 20 years after his retirement from the Chicago Bulls.
It’s been 36 years since Jordan last took the court at Carmichael Arena. Despite this, his cultural impact on generations of kids who want to ‘Be Like Mike’ will linger for decades to come.
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