Senate candidate Harvey Gantt lost his 1990 U.S. Senate bid to unseat longtime incumbent Jesse Helms.
William F. Campbellā€“The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
May 4, 2020 1:38 AM EDT

The fifth episode of The Last Dance, the popular ESPN docu-series examining the impact of Michael Jordan and the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls, touches on one of the more controversial aspects of Jordan’s legendary career: his lack of political engagement during his playing days. Back in 1990 Jordan, who grew up in North Carolina and starred for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, refused to publicly endorse Harvey Gantt, the African-American former Democratic mayor of Charlotte, in his racially contentious Senate race versus Republican Jesse Helms. Helms’ career was marked by repeated charges that he was racist. In the 1980s, he opposed making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday.

“Republicans buy sneakers, too,” Jordan famously said by way of explanation. His Nike Air Jordan shoes, in fact, made him millions. Gantt lost the election.

Thirty years later, Gantt tells TIME he doesn’t begrudge Jordan’s decision not to publicly support him—and isn’t sure how much it would have mattered, anyway.

“Somebody told me he said something about Republicans buying Nike shoes,” Gantt, now 77, says. “And I said, yeah they do. I guess if you’re building a brand that’s what you do.”

Gantt was seeking to become the first African-American senator from North Carolina. A boost from Jordan, who at that time hadn’t won an NBA title but was still one of the most famous, beloved people on the planet, could have only benefitted Gantt. “We didn’t spend a lot of time brooding about it,” Gantt said in an interview on Friday. “Or saying darn, if Michael had endorsed us we would have gotten another 10, 20, 30, 40 thousands votes. That was not the first thing that came to my mind on the morning after that defeat.”

In the series, Jordan copped to making the “Republicans buy sneakers too” comment, but insists it was in jest. He said activism is just not in his nature. His lone focus was his craft. “Was that selfish? Probably,” he admits in The Last Dance. “But that’s where my energy was.”

Jordan’s stance disappointed some of his admirers. The episode, which aired Sunday evening, cut to an older clip of author Nathan McCall—who worked at the Washington Post from 1989-1998—comparing Jordan unfavorably to Muhammad Ali, who gave up prime earning years to oppose the Vietnam War and America’s treatment of African-Americans. “Ultimately, Michael Jordan may be forgotten,” McCall said. (The Last Dance’s ratings would say otherwise).

In an interview for the film, former President Barack Obama weighed in, too. As a young lawyer preparing for public life in Chicago, he said he would have liked to see Jordan back Gantt. But Obama told the filmmakers he also sympathized Jordan’s reluctance to take a political stance. “He was still trying to figure out, ‘How am I managing this image that has been created around me,'” said Obama. “And then, ‘How do I live up to it?'”

Even Gantt himself sympathizes with Jordan. He says that neither he or anyone from his campaign reached out to Jordan directly about an endorsement in 1990. In The Last Dance, Jordan says his mother asked him to film a commercial for Gantt; he wrote a check to the campaign instead. “From morning until night, I was traveling all over this state, making speeches and doing a whole lot of stuff and trying to become a credible candidate,” Gantt says. “I only heard about this Michael Jordan saga secondhand. A lot of people have called me over the years and asked, did you go to Michael? Did he turn you down? Look, I didn’t even know any of this stuff until the drama I guess was over. And since that time, I’ve thought it was much ado about nothing.”

Jordan, Gantt notes, was a 27-year-old superstar still on the rise: his Bulls hadn’t beaten the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals yet. “He was trying to build a brand,” says Gantt. “And I suppose he wasn’t as reflective on the implications of what people were asking him to do.” While Gantt would have welcomed Jordan’s support, he holds no grudges. “My supporters were very strong, very fervent people,” he says. “You had to want to be in this campaign. We had folks from all over the country. And I would feel terrible if he felt obligated to have done something that he didn’t want to do. So no harm, no foul.”

Gantt lost that 1990 race by some 105,000 votes; Helms got 53% of the vote to Gantt’s 47%. He thinks it’s impossible to know whether Jordan, who as a freshman at UNC hit the game-winning shot to give legendary coach Dean Smith his first national title, could have tipped the race in his favor. A much bigger contributor to his loss, Gantt points out, was the infamous “Hands” ad that Helms’ campaign ran before the election. In the spot, the hands of a white man crumples up a letter. “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified,” the narrator says. “But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?”

That election, Gantt says, “certainly had racial overtones. I don’t think anyone who witnessed that campaign would have suggested otherwise.”

Gantt grew up in Charleston, S.C.; he was the first African-American student to enroll at Clemson University in January 1963; he and the second African-American student on campus, Lucinda Brawley, would go on to marry. Gantt was elected Charlotte’s first African-American mayor in 1983. A retired architect, he still remains plugged-in to the Charlotte political scene. The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, in Charlotte, is named in his honor.

Jordan’s reluctance to get political stands in contrast to today’s superstar athletes, like LeBron James, who are much more socially engaged. Even Jordan has stepped out of his former comfort zone a bit: in 2016, he released a statement against police brutality and announced two $1 million donations to organizations seek to build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. He supported the rights of NFL players to kneel during the national anthem and backed James after President Donald Trump questioned James’s intelligence. In 2012, Jordan hosted a fundraiser for Obama; Jordan also offered some fundraising support for Gantt in his 1996 rematch with Helms. Gantt lost again, by a similar margin.

“If he was in his mid 50s and done all of the things he had done and been as socially conscious as he has been and I was running a campaign, maybe I would have expected more of him,” says Gantt. “Maybe we’re going to be linked together in history. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”

As further evidence that Gantt bears no ill will towards Jordan: he’s helping to line Jordan’s pockets. Gantt’s a season ticket holder for the Charlotte Hornets, the NBA team owned by Jordan. “That,” he says with a laugh, “ought to tell you something.”

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

Read More From TIME

Related Stories

EDIT POST