From basketball to business: The Air Jordan saga plays on

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He first flew across our TV screens in the spring of 1985, a slender figure on an urban basketball court with a ball in his hands and Technicolor shoes on his feet. Slowly, to the accompaniment of revving jet engines, the player began to move across the blacktop. Then, as the engines became a full-throttled scream, the player became airborne, legs splayed and ball extended, rising toward the basket as if Newton's Law had been repealed.

That was the beginning of the "Air Jordan" saga, which would play itself out on the basketball court and in commercials for the next decade-and-a-half. It made Michael Jordan one of the most well-known athletes in the history of sportsdom and one of the most well-paid spokesmen in the history of commercialdom.

Jordan's achievements -- rings, records and results -- were such that he was voted ESPN's Athlete of the Century by a panel of 48 so-called experts, one of whom was yours truly. However, several did not have Jordan within hailing distance of the top spot, again including yours truly.

But if there's some dispute about Jordan's place among the athletes of the century, there is none about his place among the Commercial Endorsers of the Century. In that category, he is indeed the greatest of all time.

SELL ANYTHING

Maybe it was the face he possessed -- full of good nature with a little boy's smile -- that did the trick. Or maybe it was the trustworthiness that exuded from his laid-back delivery. Or perhaps, just perhaps, it was the fact that his every move on a National Basketball Association court was a highlight film.

Whatever it was, Michael Jordan was in demand and advertisers soon found that, given half a chance, he could sell anything and everything -- even a vest to someone with a Phi Beta Kappa key.

Celebrity spokesmen have been around, it seems, forever. But the recent trend of having them interact with the product -- which first saw the light of the TV set sometime in the late '50s with Edward G. Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck pushing Maxwell House coffee -- had rarely seen an executant as skillful as Jordan. He was capable of lifting the products he endorsed to the same unassailable heights he achieved in that very first Nike commercial.

Now Jordan, saying "endorsements are a stage you get past," will reinvent the MJ wheel by seeking to become a part owner of anything he is associated with -- much as his association with Nike's Brand Jordan and the NBA's Washington Wizards.

MORE TO COME

Before we sound "Taps" for Jordan's career as a celebrity spokesperson, be advised we will see more of him. A lot more. Especially since most of his endorsement contracts have many a mile to go before they come to an end.

By the time they do, Michael Jordan may have cemented his place not only as the Greatest Endorser of the 20th Century, but perhaps of the 21st as well.M

Mr. Sugar is a Sports Business Journal columnist and author of "The 100 Greatest Athletes of All Time."

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