When he was the most recognizable man alive during his playing days, Michael Jordan did everything possible to avoid the ugly business of real life.
Any attempt to draft Mr. Jordan in on pressing social issues, especially as they applied to race, was rebuffed. Mr. Jordan was not really a person. He was the human extension of a worldwide brand.
That makes what Mr. Jordan said on Sunday – possibly the first political utterance of his long life – so compelling.
Unprompted, the greatest player in history released a statement on the Donald Sterling affair, one that has turned the National Basketball Association into the forward salient in the war on racism.
"There is no room in the NBA – or anywhere else – for the kind of racism and hatred that Mr. Sterling allegedly expressed," the statement reads in part. "In a league where the majority of players are African-American, we cannot and must not tolerate discrimination at any level."
Mr. Sterling, 80, is a real-estate billionaire and the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. He is, by all accounts, a troglodyte in his views on race. Those opinions – peppered throughout a series of dreary lawsuits – had been hanging over the league like a bad smell for many years.
Over the weekend, they came shuffling out into the open with the release of a covertly taped conversation between Mr. Sterling and his 20-something girlfriend, V. Stiviano. In the tape, Mr. Sterling chides Ms. Stiviano – who is of African-American and Mexican heritage – for associating with blacks.
There isn't enough space here to fully explore all of the gobsmacking pull quotes.
On Ms. Stiviano's habit of posting photos of herself with athletes like Magic Johnson to social media: "It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people."
On inviting minorities to the Staples Center: "You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in. You can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games."
On the fact that the majority of his players are black: "I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have … Who makes the game? Do I make the game or do they make the game?"
It's plain that, in his own blinkered view, Donald Sterling makes the game. He is currently receiving a blistering re-education on that score.
"There is no room for Donald Sterling in our league," said the Jordan of the current generation, LeBron James. Like Mr. Jordan, Mr. James is deeply averse to taking stands. It's bad for business. But this is too pressing a crisis to be seen dancing around. Mr. James was amongst the first to come out swinging.
The issue has already worked its way to the Oval Office, with U.S. President Barack Obama referring to Mr. Sterling's "incredibly offensive racist statements" as "speak[ing] for themselves."
These are all simple, predictable and perfectly reasonable reactions. There is only one issue in the current American climate that one cannot ever fall on the wrong side of and survive – race.
This hasn't stopped Mr. Sterling's well-funded PR machine from trying.
He's suggested that Ms. Stiviano altered the tape. That seems unlikely.
He's accused her of releasing it as part of a revenge campaign resulting from a lawsuit – one brought by Mr. Sterling's ex-wife accusing Ms. Stiviano of embezzling her much older lover. That may be true and doesn't alter the basic facts.
Most amusingly, the statement affirms that the contents of the tape are "not consistent with, nor does it reflect, his views, beliefs or feelings."
'Views, beliefs and feelings.' That's the sort of holistic enclosure lawyers hide under. It's useless in this instance. There is no public-relations umbrella wide enough to shield Donald Sterling now.
Before Sunday's game between L.A. and Golden State, Clippers players dumped their warmup jerseys in a heap on the floor, and then turned their shirts inside out so the team logo could not be seen.
New NBA commissioner Adam Silver has promised an investigation that will be carried out "extraordinarily quickly." No doubt, since it's an investigation that can only end one way.
Any sort of fine or suspension – since neither can have any real effect on an enormously wealthy man who's just as happy watching the games at home – will only inflame the sense of injustice. There is no apparent way to strip him of his property.
We are arrived at a moment of extreme measures. Donald Sterling has become the face of American racism. That's an existential threat to the NBA. (And don't think that didn't impact the thinking of Mr. Jordan, who is part-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats).
There is only one possible conclusion here – Mr. Sterling must sever his relationship with the league, and he must do it willingly.
If he won't, if the NBA cannot find some contractual sub-clause capable of dislodging him, we are on the brink of something remarkable.
Sports – the last vestige of the American monoculture – is intertwined through the wider world that lies beyond it. It's woven through. This could be the beginning of a great tearing apart.
Follow me on Twitter: @cathalkelly