I can’t believe I have to say this, but no, Michael Jordan was not trash

OPINION: The TikTok trend "We're Done With the '90s" is intergenerational psychological warfare where Gen Z is hyper-trolling Gen X, but I get what they're doing.

We're done with the 90s, TikTok, Michael Jordan, theGrio.com
Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan in game two of the 1998 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz at the Delta Center. Mandatory (Credit: Anne Ryan-USA TODAY)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

I must admit that at first, I was enraged when I saw the wave of “We’re done with the ’90s” TikToks. It’s one of the hottest trends on the app right now. It’s young men from Gen Z making whole videos arguing that Michael Jordan was actually not that good at basketball. (It’s really hard for me to even write that sentence.) They show clips of Michael Jordan failing to score or losing the ball and they say, see, he’s actually trash. It took me a minute to understand what was really going on.

I now see this as intergenerational psychological warfare. The young guys are rejecting the basketball God that Gen X anointed long before they were born. This is a way of saying, screw you old heads, get off our lawn. They’re hyper-trolling the older generation and getting clicks through rage bait. 

It’s also about generational pride and a belief that human progress means everything now is better than it was years ago. 

It’s also about elevating LeBron over Jordan. That’s the real subtext of saying Jordan is trash. It means LeBron is the GOAT. For decades, Gen X and millennials argued over Jordan and LeBron, comparing numbers and nuances to craft arguments about who’s the best ever. Gen Z has crashed into that debate like Bill Laimbeer attacking Jordan as he flew through the lane. Just like Laimbeer deserved technical fouls for that so does Gen Z deserve a tech for this garbage opinion. But I understand and support their subcutaneous intentions.

For sure the kids knew Gen Xers would be enraged by this. Jordan is, as far as athletes go, a sort of god. To watch them cherry-pick clips of Jordan and scream “trash!” while he misses a shot is hurtful. I watched Jordan’s entire career, from his championship-winning shot at UNC to his championship-winning shot in Utah. (The whole Wizards thing did not happen). When he was playing, Jordan was the most popular athlete in the country, and he was held up as the epitome of having it all as an athlete — physically gifted, mentally tough and the hardest worker on the team. If you were playing any sport, Jordan was meant to be a role model.

I could spend hundreds of words listing Jordan’s accolades, but no, I’ll just point to one thing: In 1992, when the U.S. Olympic basketball, aka the Dream Team, went to Barcelona and held practice scrimmages consisting of future hall of famers — the best players on the planet at that time — it was clear to those players that the best of the best was Jordan. It was unanimous.

But now we have kids who’ve barely watched Jordan saying nope. All your memories are wrong. He was actually bad, and he played against plumbers. Wow. The disrespect is disgusting. For sure, NBA players today are, on average, more skilled than players from a few decades ago. But while the average NBA player today is better than the average NBA player of the ’90s, the truly elite players of the ’90s — Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — would still be stars in today’s game. Truly elite players would shine in any era.

If prime Jordan was in the NBA now do you really think Devin Booker or Donovan Mitchell could slow him down? That’s who would be covering him. In Boston, he’d probably draw Jrue Holiday, who many insiders think is the best defensive guard in the NBA. But Holiday, like Alex Caruso or Desmond Bane or Dillon Brooks, could not stop him. 

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The game has evolved for sure — most players today are better ball handlers and shooters than decades ago. They’re also fitter and stronger. More than that, the game itself has changed — in the ’90s there were still centers who played with their back to the basket and wing players who liked to shoot from midrange or even closer to the basket. Nowadays it’s all about shooting from behind the three-point arc even if you’re a center. There isn’t the rough physical play we once had. It’s more of a finesse game. In the ’90s, they had to play man-to-man defense, but now teams are allowed to play zone. The anti-Jordan Gen Zers are conveniently taking into account that the league consists of better athletes but ignoring that the rules have also changed things in order to create more offense.

Many people are pushing back and saying that “We Done With the ’90s” is dead wrong. Among them is J.J. Reddick, who actually played in the NBA (unlike anyone who’s pumping the “Jordan was trash” narrative). He’s now a top NBA analyst at ESPN. On a recent episode of his podcast “The Old Man and the Three,” he said, “Oftentimes we talk about how would a past NBA great look in today’s modern NBA. I think it’s no secret Michael Jordan with all of this space that has been created by the three-point revolution, analytics, all of that stuff, he would absolutely destroy in today’s NBA.” Did you hear that kids? Destroy.  

So the core argument that Jordan actually wasn’t a good player or that he would not make it in the modern NBA is, yes, trash. But the real thing that these young guys are doing is asserting themselves and their generation. They’re saying we’re not going to accept the opinions of the older guys. We’re going to remake the world in our image. While I cringe at the ahistorical nature of their bizarro anti-Jordan argument, I understand that each generation needs to assert themselves and sometimes that means rejecting a prior gen’s shibboleths.

When I was a kid, hip-hop emerged and it frightened a lot of the boomers. It was, inherently, a rejection of the music they loved. Where R&B was based around singing, melody and love, hip-hop was about rapping and rhythm and how hard life was in New York City with the broken glass everywhere. I remember the older generation telling us that hip-hop was not music. I remember them complaining that while their groups had aspirational names like The Supremes, our groups had nihilistic names like N.W.A. Hip-hop was such a revolutionary approach to music that it took many old heads years to catch up.

With early hip-hop, we gave the middle finger to everything the boomers cared about musically. That’s what the young guys are now doing to us. Part of growing up is standing up to the older generation. That’s fine. I respect that. But part of being a grownup is realizing that Michael Jordan is still the GOAT. 

Touré, theGrio.com

Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of Masters of the Game on theGrioTV. He is also the host and creator of the docuseries podcast “Being Black: The ’80s” and the animated show “Star Stories with Toure” which you can find at TheGrio.com/starstories. He is also the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is the author of eight books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter.

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