Michael Jordan has undergone something of an NBA metamorphosis.
Aside from his six NBA championships and status as the greatest of all-time, Jordan's playing career was also defined by a controversial quote about the intersection between sports and politics.
But the recent player strikes that rocked the NBA has seen Jordan take on a surprising new role: "NBA moderator".
In the much-hyped ESPN and Netflix documentary series The Last Dance released earlier this year, Jordan addressed his infamous quote "Republicans buy sneakers too", saying it was merely a flippant, throwaway remark he made as a joke.
Jordan added that he never saw himself in the mould of someone like former heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali, who famously blurred the lines between athlete and activist during his career.
"I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in," Jordan said. "But I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player."
These days, Jordan remains involved in the NBA as the principal owner of the Charlotte Hornets – and the only Black majority owner in the league.
During an intense and emotional week for NBA players, where the season was halted due to a mass player strike in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, the GOAT emerged as an unlikely ally during negotiations between owners and players – a surprising new role, and chapter, in the NBA legend's career.
Jordan's role as 'NBA mediator'
According to a report by ESPN's Jackie MacMullan, Jordan reached out to Oklahoma City Thunder star Chris Paul, who is also the president of the National Basketball Players Association, in advance of the owners meeting during the player strike.
He quickly turned into an invaluable liaison between the players and owners, reportedly telling his fellow ownership group: "Right now, listening is better than talking."
"The message that he got [from the players] was 'look, you guys are always so quick to tell us what to do. This time we'd like you to listen instead of talking. Listen to our pain, feel our pain, understand our pain and help us eradicate that pain by working with us for a solution'," MacMullan told ESPN Daily.
"And I think that was the most powerful message that Michael Jordan was trying to convey."
MacMullan said Jordan's status as one of the few diverse voices in the ownership group as well as the current players' reverence for him as a legend of the game, gave the former Bulls superstar a unique position in negotiations.
"With the exception of Jeanie Buss (the controlling owner and president of the Los Angeles Lakers) most of these owners are privileged white men. And they don't understand these players as well as Michael Jordan did."
Many of the owners, including Jordan, reportedly wanted the season to continue, believing that the NBA playoffs would be the best and most visible platform for social change.
The players eventually agreed to resume the season after coming to a deal on a list of "actionable actions" on social and political change, including turning NBA arenas into polling stations in the upcoming US presidential elections.
The GOAT debate and the legacies of Jordan and LeBron
According to reports on the player meetings that took place during the strike, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James was the prominent voice leading the charge on the players' role on social and racial issues.
During an informal players meeting following the Milwaukee Bucks' refusal to play in their playoffs matchup against the Orlando Magic as a protest to racial injustice and police brutality, the Lakers and Clippers voted to boycott the rest of the season, with James reportedly leading the calls and walking out of the meeting.
MacMullan, who is one of the sport's leading reporters, believes James' legacy as a player will be remembered differently to Jordan's.
"His legacy is cemented in two ways," MacMullan said. "Number one, he invented player empowerment.
"Other players before him had moments. But LeBron James is the reason that Paul George could switch teams twice and it's ok. He's the reason Anthony Davis could leave New Orleans. He's the reason that Kawhi Leonard could leave San Antonio, go to Toronto and win a championship, and then mosey on to the LA Clippers.
"The players have all the power and all the leverage now and they have one person to thank for that and that's LeBron James."
As the player strikes showcased, the player power era that James paved the way for also gave players the ability to leverage their labour for social and political causes.
"Number two," MacMullan continues, "he has taken such a strong and admirable stand for the rights of black players."
James has used his platform to speak out on racial injustice throughout his career and has played a key role in the league's social justice efforts in recent years.
The previously apolitical Jordan himself has also recently followed suit, albeit in different ways.
Jordan reportedly expressed his admiration for the players' strong stance on racial issues and has also recently used his wealth and influence for social justice.
Earlier this year, Jordan and his Jordan Brand pledged USD$100 million to racial equality and education initiatives over the next 10 years amid the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
The debate on the greatest NBA player ever will continue to fill newspaper columns and social media feeds as James resumes his quest for his first championship with his new team.
But off the court, James' legacy as a player is unrivaled.
"You can't touch him on this," MacMullan says. "He's been a powerful, convincing, passionate, consistent voice. And I give him a ton of credit for it."