"Legend has it that the Nike pitchman justified his lack of activism with the now infamous line, “Republicans buy shoes, too.” It’s unclear, though, whether he actually said the line. Here’s everything we know.
The quote first appeared in Sam Smith’s 1995 book Second Coming, a chronicle of Jordan’s return from minor-league baseball to the Chicago Bulls. In the book’s preface, Smith detailed Jordan’s borderline-paranoid management of his own image. One example: Jordan requested that reporters not write about how he disliked a childhood job as a maintenance worker as he didn’t “want maintenance men to think [he’s] putting them down.” Then Smith turned to the Gantt–Helms race:
Another time, he was approached by U.S. Senate hopeful Harvey Gantt, a black politician who was running against Jesse Helms in North Carolina, Jordan’s home state. Gantt had hoped that Jordan’s name would help him defeat Helms, widely regarded as a virulent racist. But Jordan declined. He wasn’t into politics, he explained, didn’t really know the issues. And, as he later told a friend, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
The quote soon migrated to newsprint. In 1996, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Paul Woody spoke with political pundit Robert Holsworth, who speculated about whether Jordan would get involved in the 1996 Gantt–Helms Senate rematch.
“Michael Jordan is getting pressure from people in North Carolina to endorse Harvey Gantt (a Democrat) in his race for the Senate seat against Jesse Helms,” Holsworth said. “When he was asked to do the same thing in 1990, he said he didn’t know much about politics, but he knew Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Writers have since repeatedly attributed the phrase to Jordan using both the “sneakers” and “shoes” formulations. “Jordan did not take a stand, pointing out that Republicans buy sneakers too,” David Halberstam wrote in his 1999 book Playing for Keeps. The New York Times, Boston Globe, USA Today, Slate, and pretty much every other media entity has also put those words in Jordan’s mouth.
But as Brendan Nyhan and Jason Zengerle first noted in 2005, the provenance of the quote is mushy at best. It’s not clear from the passage in Second Coming if Sam Smith heard Jordan talk about Republicans and shoes or if someone passed the line along to him—he wrote that Jordan said it to “a friend.” Smith told a more specific story in his 2014 book There Is No Next. That time, he implied he heard the words come out of Jordan’s mouth. He characterized it as a joke, not a statement of Jordan’s personal political philosophy."