On April 23, 2012, at a new site called Memecrunch, an image appeared that would, one day, become a certifiable link in the evolution of human communication. Posted anonymously, it was originally titled “Sad Michael Jordan.” It was simple and straightforward, but universal, somehow: a picture of the bewildered, overwhelmed, tear-soaked face of basketball icon Michael Jordan, framed with letters in white block Impact font: “WHY … DID I BUY THE BOBCATS?” Sad Michael Jordan sat unused and unshared for years. But when it caught on as Crying Jordan, in 2015, it grew into a global sensation, albeit an occasionally tedious one. It has now been replicated across the planet to communicate nearly every aspect of the human condition. It has been shot through a hoop, kicked through a field goal, pounded on a drum, turned into a cartoon, a court drawing, an album cover, a Mets statue, and superimposed onto a nun, a pope, a saint, one NBA player’s beard and another’s bald spot. It has been mentioned on “Jeopardy!” and at Kobe Bryant’s memorial and inside the White House. And now, a decade after its first known appearance, it’s official: Crying Jordan is the greatest sports meme of all time.
THE IMAGE BEHIND Sad Michael Jordan is from September 2009 when the five-time NBA MVP was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Longtime Associated Press photojournalist Stephan Savoia was there, inside a packed Springfield Symphony Hall in Massachusetts, covering the event along with a small pool of five or six press photographers. And during the nearly 60-second standing ovation Jordan received, Savoia said that cameras inside the press pool whirred as the GOAT made his way to the stage for his acceptance speech. At the podium, Jordan became overwhelmed by the roaring reception from his family, his Bulls teammates, Dean Smith, his coach at North Carolina, David Thompson, his childhood hero, and even from competitors such as John Stockton and Isiah Thomas.
Caught up in the moment, Jordan did something shocking, something the public hadn’t seen outside of the basketball arena: He began to weep. It was a stunning departure from every other image we have of Jordan who, up until that point had been the picture of steely focus and cutthroat dominance during his entire career. Luckily, Savoia, a Pulitzer Prize winner for political coverage who had traveled the world capturing important images for more than 40 years, understood the incongruity and significance of the moment.
When the rest of the photographers put their cameras down after snapping a few pictures of an emotional Jordan, Savoia’s instincts told him to wait just one extra beat. And that’s when Jordan lifted his tear-soaked face one last time.
“I hit my shutter — GHRMMMM, rapid-fire,” Savoia told Yahoo in 2019. “And his head was up for maybe 10 seconds. Everybody turns around and looks and sees what’s going on and they’re scrambling for their [cameras]. By the time they do, he had wiped his eyes, he was done crying. Nobody else had the picture. It was the best one I had. And it went out that night two minutes after 9 o’clock with ‘AP Photo/Stephan Savoia’ in the byline. That’s how it became exclusive.
“How it got to the internet, I have no idea.”
Part of the Crying Jordan backstory that often gets overlooked is that after composing himself, Jordan launched into one of the more bizarre, petty speeches in Hall of Fame history, spending more time settling old scores than thanking his family, his mentors or his teammates. It was, as one reporter recalled, vicious, even for Jordan. And that perception lingered. He was still the GOAT, of course, but his snotty performance in Springfield (literally and figuratively) also made Jordan susceptible to something not seen since he briefly retired from the NBA to try minor league baseball: mockery.
Adding to that new dimension, in 2010 Jordan bought Charlotte’s perpetually irrelevant NBA franchise, and his tenure as owner proceeded almost as well as his Hall of Fame speech. (Twelve years into Jordan’s stewardship, the team is still looking for its first playoff series win.) The team hit rock-bottom in 2012 when Charlotte lost its last 23 games in a row and finished 7-59 overall to officially become the worst team in NBA history. And it was toward the end of that epic run of humiliation, on April 23, 2012, that “Sad Michael Jordan” first appeared. The genius of the image was in its simplicity. A still-unknown user on Memecrunch simply took a very personal, and slightly weird and unsettling picture of an icon, added a zinger and turned it into something irresistibly funny and eminently shareable.
Crying Jordan was born.
MEMES, OR SYMBOLIC systems of communication, are as old as civilization itself, dating as far back as ancient Rome where citizens would graffiti city walls with mocking caricatures of their emperors. In 1976, British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins introduced the term meme in his book “The Selfish Gene” as a kind of amalgamation of “phoneme,” the smallest unit of sound in speech; “morpheme,” the smallest recognizable part of a word; the French word for “same” (même); and the Greek word for “imitate” (mimoúmai).
To Dawkins, a meme was any kind of self-replicating symbolic form of cultural transmission of information. (The term — a repeat of the word “me” — is itself a clever form of self-replication.) Dawkins considered memes as part of the natural evolution of human communication and, as such, he theorized that memes would be governed by the laws of universal Darwinism. In other words, memes, just like genes, undergo the process of natural selection. The ones that work the best, the ones that communicate the most information and emotion in the most efficient way, those are the memes that will replicate, spread and become the most prevalent.
Few memes have proved Dawkins’ theory as well as Crying Jordan.
“It’s the GOAT of sports memes,” said Ryan M. Milner, chair of the Department of Communication at the College of Charleston and the author of “The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media.” “You’d almost call it an elder statesman at this point, which is rare. Most memes are fad-dy — here today, gone tomorrow — or, at the most they exist for one internet generation, which is like three years, and then they fade away. So for something to be an iconic, recognized, still usable, still funny, still applicable image for a straight decade or more, Crying Jordan is definitely in the top tier of all-time memes, for sure.”
And yet, incredibly, no one knows who created it.
What is known is that a week before the original Sad Michael Jordan was posted on Memecrunch, a developer named Alberto Garcia Hierro copyrighted and incorporated the site under an LLC called Rainy Cape S.L., headquartered in Verdicio, on the northern coast of Spain. At the time Hierro was a 29-year-old tech engineer, web developer and college professor well known in the region for his work developing apps for Google and Apple, among others. In the fall of 2009 he taught a class on developing iPhone applications for the Official College of Graduates and Technical Engineers in Computer Science of the Principality of Asturias in Spain. And the following year he was portrayed as a prodigy who learned to read at 3, in a story by the newspaper La Nueva España, headlined “The Asturian Who Revolutionized The iPhone.”
Today, Rainy Cape is registered as a tourist company and the physical address given traces to a pink-stucco beach-front hotel in Verdicio. Numerous calls to the landline given for the hotel/company went unanswered. All indications are that Hierro wiped his internet presence around 2013 and never returned. Which means he might not even know what started at Memecrunch in 2012 when someone uploaded Sad Michael Jordan. According to the meme encyclopedia website, Know Your Meme, it wasn’t until 2014 that Crying Jordan began to catch on and become shared, replicated and collected in forums and threads, especially an MJSadFaces Tumblr account and a pop culture website called Boxden. The following year, the Huffington Post even created a cutout mask of the Crying Jordan face for Halloween.
Crying Jordan was everywhere.
ON ITS MOST basic level, Crying Jordan works because its subject is one of the most recognizable, iconic sports stars on the planet, spanning several generations. The best memes have the lowest barrier to entry: they communicate the greatest range of emotion, to the broadest audience with the least amount of explanation. Around the world, wherever basketball is played or watched or the Jumpman logo is consumed, a teenager can use Crying Jordan in an electronic conversation with their peers, their parents and even their grandparents. “It’s a kind of perfect storm,” Milner said. “The image is great. The subject is larger than life. It can be applicable in so many ways. And it appeals to a wide audience. The really, really broad appeal of Crying Jordan, that’s what makes it so unique and puts it in such rarified air for a meme.”
What makes it resonate so deeply, however, is what Milner calls the appropriate incongruity of the image. The neurology and sociology of humor is rooted in things that clash ever so slightly with our expectations. For more than 35 years Jordan built a brand as a larger-than-life, ruthless, dominant competitor for whom emotions were a liability. And then in 2009, Savoia captured him at the Hall of Fame in a way we’d never experienced Jordan before: overwhelmed and staring off into the great divide, seemingly flooded by … feelings. “To see this real-life superhero being so vulnerable and crying, those two things are just so striking,” said Don Caldwell, the editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme. “Every time you see it, it just hits you right in the face with, Wow, that’s something wild. And that’s what grabs people’s attention right off the bat with the image.”
And then, the same thing that made Jordan great as a basketball player — versatility — is the same thing driving his iconic meme. Crying Jordan works as a simple reactionary meme when you’re sad, or frustrated or overwhelmed. (Think of it as an advanced version of a teardrop face emoji.) But it works just as well as a Photoshop meme, creatively, and hilariously, superimposed or plugged into any image to express any emotion, from sadness and empathy to frustration to humor, sarcasm and, yes, the internet’s favorite sentiment, mockery. Crying Jordan’s secret sauce is its limitless range.
The third dimension with Crying Jordan that no one likes to talk about is that it taps into the most powerful forces in human nature and social media: pettiness and spite. This is, maybe, the most unflattering picture ever taken of Jordan. And every time it gets replicated — onto the KFC logo, Björk, Einstein, or any of the other thousands of genius applications the internet has come up with — there’s the added bonus of knowing that by continuing to circulate this image, we’re puncturing the mythological status of a GOAT like Jordan. And the devious, delicious nature of that only adds to the dopamine rush.
“It just absolutely works on all levels,” said Shane Tilton, an associate professor of multimedia journalism at Ohio Northern University and the author of “Meme Life: The Social, Cultural, and Psychological Aspects of Memetic Communication.” “It’s authentic, it’s bite-sized, it’s recognizable, it’s easily replicated and there’s a wide range of pure emotional power to it.”
That power began to peak during the 2016 NFL playoffs. On Jan. 24, as soon as Denver defeated New England in the 2016 AFC Championship Game, fans started trolling the Patriots on Twitter with myriad Crying Jordans, including one featuring Tom Brady’s courtroom drawing from Deflategate. Jordan’s son Marcus then retweeted the meme with the message: “I see the crying meme of my Dad is here to stay for 2016.” Was it ever, and beyond. Meanwhile, on the NFC side, when Arizona lost to Carolina in the conference championship game, the Cardinals’ social media account preemptively Crying Jordan’ed itself with the tagline: “Is this what you want, Internet?!” (Why yes, yes it was. The meme was retweeted 40,000 times.) The Broncos then went on to dominate the Panthers in the Super Bowl, where a sulking Cam Newton got the Crying Jordan treatment and, afterward, Charlotte native Steph Curry amplified the meme, in a self-deprecating way, to his then-4 million Twitter followers.
The following month Jordan spokesperson and senior vice president of JUMPDC Estee Portnoy felt compelled to weigh in on what was now a full-blown viral sensation, telling the Chicago Tribune, “I don’t recall when we first started noticing it — everything explodes so quickly on the internet, and suddenly it was everywhere. Everyone seems to be having fun with the meme, and it just keeps going. We haven’t seen anyone using it to promote their commercial interests, which is something that we’re monitoring.”
Instead of smothering the vibe, the fact that Jordan was aware of it, and seemingly cool with it, only made the meme more popular. And then, in April 2016, Jordan’s North Carolina Tar Heels made the NCAA finals. They lost on a heartbreaking, last-second 3-point shot by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins that was, of course, instantly turned into an entire MET-worthy installation of Crying Jordans. Sitting in the stands, Jordan got Crying Jordan’ed, his phone got Crying Jordan’ed, even his Jumpman logo got Crying Jordan’ed. All the Carolina players and coaches also got Crying Jordan’ed. As did the school mascot. And in what is perhaps the greatest iteration of the meme, moments after the game, someone on the interwebs replaced the ball on Jenkins’ winning 3-pointer with the Crying Jordan head.
With Michael Jordan on hand to witness North Carolina’s loss to Villanova, the internet jumped at the opportunity to take advantage of the “Crying Jordan” meme.
According to Google Trends analytics, around this time interest in Crying Jordan more than doubled. Even the leader of the free world got in on the trend. In November 2016, President Barack Obama referenced the Crying Jordan meme inside the White House while presenting Jordan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “That was a historical moment in internet meme history,” Caldwell said. But not the last. Less than year later, Crying Jordan topped that with this “Jeopardy!” answer: “For some reason, a picture of this athlete crying after his NBA Hall of Fame induction in 2009 became meme-worthy in 2016.”
Years passed and the meme was finally, mercifully fading back to its pre-2016 status when in February 2020 at the Staples Center, Jordan delivered an impassioned speech at the memorial service for Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna. Jordan’s face was, once again, covered in tears before he even reached the podium. This time, though, he expertly and compassionately lightened the moment by sharing how he had explained to his wife he wasn’t going to cry because he didn’t want to look at another Crying Jordan meme for the next three or four years.
“This is what Kobe Bryant does to me,” he shrugged as the crowd roared with cathartic laughter. Crying Jordan even had the power to heal.
Social media lit up. Jordan acknowledging Crying Jordan was a watershed moment in cultural history.
“That’s why Crying Michael Jordan will never be lost or go away, because it’s both powerful and so remixable,” Tilton said. “What really drives sports memes is what really drives sports — it’s the pure emotional power of it.”
Last week, in the championship game of the men’s NCAA tournament, Jordan’s UNC Tar Heels lost yet another heartbreaker, this time to Kansas. Plagued by injuries in the second half, UNC blew a 15-point lead with an epic collapse capped, appropriately, by an air ball as time expired.
After the game, at the end of a wild tournament run, a quick panorama of the team’s battered bench, its fans, its former coach Roy Williams and even the school mascot revealed a kaleidoscope of emotions. Defeat. Devastation. Sadness. Exhaustion. Utter befuddlement.
But, hey, at least they had a perfect way to convey to the world exactly how they were feeling in that moment.