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Start with the shorts: Why Jordan tops our list of NBA game changers

MJ blazed a trail for athletes to escape the plantation and buy the Big House

As LeBron James, Stephen Curry and other stars create a new NBA before our eyes while standing on the shoulders of giants, ESPN and The Undefeated rank the 100 players who have done the most to change the way we play the game, how we talk about the game and the culture of basketball.

For this special edition of #NBArank, we asked our panel — with members from across ESPN, including TV, radio, ESPN.com, The Undefeated and ESPN The Magazine — to choose the players who have influenced the game most, both on and off the court: the real game changers. Here, Jesse Washington of The Undefeated explains why Michael Jordan is still No. 1.

Start with the shorts. Not the shoes — we’ll get to those. The shorts were the first sign that everything would change.

Michael Jordan began his NBA career with a peculiar superstition: He wore his University of North Carolina practice shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform for every game. To accommodate the extra layer of luck, Jordan asked for larger game shorts. Back then, in the early ’80s, the bottom half of basketball outfits verged on tighty-whities. But when the high-flying rookie brought out the baggy bottoms, the rest of the NBA followed suit. Then, the world. Uniforms would never be the same.

Neither would the game.

Jordan transformed the style and substance of basketball, expanding the scope and meaning of athletic achievement. We still see his influence in ways big and small: kids wagging their tongues; the raging popularity of basketball in China; post-up players leaning backward into defenders before making their move.

But for all his huge dunks, fresh kicks and clutch shots, Jordan’s biggest impact came off the court as he empowered athletes, especially African-Americans, to obtain full economic participation in the billions generated by their labor. Starting with Air Jordan sneakers — which led to his own Jordan Brand, which led to him buying majority control of the Charlotte Hornets — Jordan blazed a trail for athletes to escape the plantation, buy the Big House and sit on the porch with their feet up, smoking a cigar.

But for all his huge dunks, fresh kicks and clutch shots, Jordan’s biggest impact came off the court as he empowered athletes, especially African-Americans, to obtain full economic participation in the billions generated by their labor.

Today, it’s normal for Cristiano Ronaldo to own hotels, gyms and shampoo. We expect Jay-Z to be “a business, man.” We don’t blink when Kobe Bryant and LeBron James launch their own movie studios. Jordan created that template.

And yes, it must have been the shoes.

In the past 30 years, has there been a more influential sports artifact than the Air Jordan sneaker? Before, athletic shoes were a subculture. Now, they’re world culture. Air Jordans remain fresh to death, even for a generation of customers who never saw him play, while the man himself has moved into unfashionable middle age. Athletic shoes generated $62 billion in 2016 global sales, an explosion sparked by a single pair of red, black and white sneakers.

All made possible by what Jordan did with a basketball in his hands.

He was not the first to score prolifically, to explore airspace frontiers, to dominate both ends of the floor. He did it all, only better than anybody else ever had, with a ferocious flair we had never seen. Jordan did not change the game of basketball only with his talent or athleticism. He changed it by combining those gifts with his work ethic and competitive drive. Nobody put more sweat into being great. Nobody cared more about winning. Jordan branded himself, through savvy interviews and gutsy performances like the “flu game,” to become synonymous with these concepts. Even questionable actions such as chewing up teammates in the quest for perfection, or coming out of retirement at age 38 to average 21 points per game in two seasons with the Washington Wizards, were seen as part of his ruthless competitiveness.

Previous players had been maniacally devoted to the game. Jordan made the grind mainstream. After leading the USA Olympic “Dream Team” in 1992, he was probably the most recognizable person on the planet, and his popularity fueled basketball’s global growth. Jordan was the biggest beneficiary of the modern media explosion, the perfect player at the perfect time.

Maybe too perfect.

The only place Jordan failed to change the game is in social activism. Instead of calling attention to injustice, he chose to build and protect his logo, which was actually made in his image. By the time Jordan could no longer stay silent, James had proven that commercial supremacy and social conscience could coexist.

James is chasing Jordan, studying and tweaking his blueprint, trying to supplant him as the greatest. But when it comes to changing the game, on and off the court, Jordan stands alone. For all time.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.