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Ball Don't Lie

Michael Jordan will present Nike’s Phil Knight at the Basketball Hall of Fame

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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Phil Knight presents Teri Hatcher with his biggest smile (Jeff Kravitz/ FilmMagic).

In early April, the Basketball Hall of Fame announced that Phil Knight, Nike co-founder and chairman, would be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. It was a controversial selection despite Knight's induction as a "contributor," i.e. non-coaches and non-players who nevertheless have a huge effect on the sport. By any metric, Knight and Nike have altered the course of basketball at every level.

However, this honor, the top award an individual can earn in basketball, would seem to be at least somewhat related to Nike's status as the premier corporate sponsor of virtually every important organized body in basketball. Coming soon after the 2008 induction of one-time coach and ubiquitous announcer Dick Vitale, which many saw as a reward for ESPN, Knight's inclusion in this class has called the integrity of the Hall of Fame into question, particularly as many beloved on-court greats have failed to gain acceptance to Springfield.

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Whatever the case, Knight will be inducted on the weekend of September 6, though not without controversy. The current Hall of Famer he selected to present him into this exclusive company should surprise very few people. As reported by Scott Howard-Cooper at NBA.com (via EOB), longtime Nike endorser Michael Jordan and former Georgetown coach John Thompson will welcome Knight to the club.

It bears noting that the presenter's job is purely ceremonial — unlike the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Baseball Hall of Fame, presenters do not give speeches and literally do little more than stand on stage as the inductee (usually) says a few nice words about them. It's a symbolic role, though often a powerful one. That is especially true in this case.

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Thompson has a long relationship with Nike and currently serves on the company's Board of Directors, so there's a basic logic to that role. And while the same can be said of Jordan — his Jordan Brand reportedly pulls in over $1 billion in revenue per year — the connection goes well beyond money and corporate titles. The symbiotic relationship between Jordan and Nike is among the most important developments in the history of pro basketball, one of the primary reasons that the NBA turned from a popular league into a global behemoth. Jordan helped make Nike the basketball superpower it is today — they control an estimated 95 percent of the basketball shoe market in the United States — and Nike in turn made Jordan something more than the best basketball player ever.

Aided by the marketing power of the Swoosh, MJ became a cottage industry unto himself, the sort of multimedia superstar who could sell a stupid movie about cartoon characters playing basketball as a cultural touchstone and convince the world that sneakers were worthy of the kinds of collections previously reserved for fine art and antiques. Without the Nike platform, Jordan never would have become such a huge public figure. Simultaneously, Nike never would have become one of the world's biggest companies without Jordan serving as the perfect pitchman.

With Jordan present, Knight's contributions to basketball — which truly are considerable, if not altogether positive — will be given the proper context. Knight surely could not have made the Hall of Fame without Jordan's help. And, even if Jordan is primarily there to confer legitimacy on Knight, we'll have to remember that MJ's aura is not entirely a product of his incandescent basketball brilliance. As Knight and Jordan stand together, we'll also be forced to remember the ways in which basketball and commerce are now inextricably tied to each other. If the Hall of Fame is first and foremost a museum, then I can't think of a simpler way to communicate the ways that Phil Knight changed basketball forever, for better and worse.

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