Michael Jordan has defended his refusal to speak out on politics during his NBA career, saying he viewed himself as an athlete not an activist.
Speaking on the latest episode of the ESPN and Netflix documentary The Last Dance – the sprawling 10-episode series about the Chicago Bulls' quest to win a sixth NBA title in the 1997/98 season – Jordan addressed his infamous quote "Republicans buy sneakers too", his supposed reason for why he was reluctant to take political sides during his playing days.
The comment came during the 1990 US Senate race in North Carolina between Republican Jesse Helms – the controversial incumbent who had been accused of racism throughout his career – and Democrat Harvey Gantt, who was looking to become the first African-American elected to Senate.
Jordan said the quote was merely a flippant, throwaway remark that he made as a joke.
"I don't think that statement needs to be corrected because I said it in jest on a bus with (teammates) Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen," Jordan said.
"It was thrown off the cuff. My mother asked to do a PSA (public service announcement) for Harvey Gantt, and I said, 'Look, Mum, I'm not speaking out of pocket about someone that I don't know. But I will send a contribution to support him'. Which is what I did."
Jordan, who many consider to be the greatest to every play in the NBA, 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."
Jordan conceded that his apolitical stance might be seen as selfish but he says he has no regrets about how he approached his career.
"I wasn't a politician when I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft," Jordan said. "Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That's where my energy was.
"It's never going to be enough for everybody, and I know that. Because everybody has a preconceived idea for what I should do and what I shouldn't do.
"The way I go about my life is I set examples. If it inspires you? Great, I will continue to do that. If it doesn't? Then maybe I'm not the person you should be following."
In the same documentary, former US president Barack Obama said he wished Jordan spoke out more about political issues, especially considering his status as a sports and cultural figure.
"I'll be honest, when it was reported that Michael said, 'Republicans buy sneakers, too' — for somebody who was at that time preparing for a career in civil rights law and knowing what Jesse Helms stood for, you would've wanted to see Michael push harder on that."