Crying Jordan: Oral history of the meme that wouldn’t die

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)

On Sept. 11, 2009, Michael Jordan stepped on stage at Symphony Hall in Springfield, Massachusetts, for his epilogue. It was Hall of Fame weekend. Friday night. For 23 minutes, Jordan reflected on an unparalleled basketball career with thank yous and verbal jabs and everything in between. “It was,” his son, Marcus, says, “an authentic showing of who my dad really is.”

Ten years later, however, that night is remembered not for what it celebrated, but rather for what it birthed. Not for Jordan’s words, but for the tears that snuck down his cheeks before he could utter any. Not for the GOAT, but for the GMOAT: The Greatest Meme of All Time.

This is the story of that meme, the Crying Jordan. Of its rise, its power, its ubiquity, and so much more – but first, of the photograph that enabled it.

Chapter 1: The photo

(Note: All identifiers reflect subjects’ titles in 2016.)

MARCUS JORDAN (Michael Jordan’s son): I remember all of it. It as a fun weekend, spent with family. I think it was one of my dad’s most special weekends, and greatest achievements. … Growing up, I definitely saw him emotional. But I don’t think it was the same emotions he had that day.

STEPHAN SAVOIA (Associated Press photographer): So he comes up, he’s introduced. He walks up to the podium, and drops his head, and starts crying. Before he said a word. … As soon as he walked up and his head was down, we knew there was an emotion there that was probably honest in its origin. And it became apparent, once he started talking, that he was truly humbled.

MARCUS JORDAN: The realization that his playing days were over, and just the culmination of his career, led to him being overfilled with joy.

STEPHAN SAVOIA (AP): The Hall of Fame, I’ve probably covered it at least half the years I’ve been working here. I did Charles Barkley, I did a number of the big guys. And there’s never any emotion like that. … He was overcome by tears. He couldn’t speak.

It’s not a heavily attended event for press photographers. There’s basically only five or six of us. They all, in that first minute or so, decided, he’s crying – [after snapping pictures] the Reuters guy pulls his disc, he’s about to file. Once one guy pulls his disc, when you’re in a group like that, everybody starts pulling their disc.

But Jordan wasn’t done crying. So I just hung in there. And about 10 seconds after they all get their discs in their computers, and they’re in the middle of scanning, Jordan raises his head.

And I hit my shutter – GHRMMMM, rapid-fire.

And his head was up for maybe 10 seconds. And everybody turns around and looks, and sees what’s going on, and they’re scrambling for their discs to put back in their cameras. By the time they do, he had wiped his eyes, he was done crying. … Nobody else had the picture.

[Years later, somebody] said, ‘The photographer must’ve been pretty good to capture that.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Actually, it was pretty f---ing easy. If the other guys had hung in for a few more seconds, they would’ve had it too.’

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.

Now, how it got to the internet, I have no idea.

The photo of Michael Jordan that started it all, by Stephan Savoia. (AP)

Chapter 2: The untold origin story

BRAD KIM (Editor-in-chief, Know Your Meme): As far as the deep origins, the genesis story of the meme … is something that we could not pinpoint.

RYAN MILNER (Author, The World Made Meme; professor, College of Charleston): In 2012, it showed up as an image macro.

(An image macro is a photo with witty, sometimes humorous text placed on top.)

BRAD KIM (Know Your Meme): It was uploaded to a meme generator site. … Its earliest usage after that that we have cited is Nov. 7, 2014.

But the true Patient Zero appeared seven months earlier – in April 2014, on a sports and pop culture website called Boxden.

RICO23 (Boxden user): Boxden is pretty much my social media. You can go there for one-stop shopping. It’s basically the Walmart of the internet. You can go there to find out everything that happened in sports, or music. You can keep up with TV shows.

RIKERMY NERIS (Boxden username: Mutant Boy): It’s a great place to go and talk a lot of sh-t.

RICO23: At Boxden, back in the day, before all the memes started, we were using regular pictures in place of memes, in place of emojis. We call it a smiley. That’s just how we express ourselves. We use a lot of pictures, we use a lot of GIFs, a lot of smileys. So I, and maybe a couple other people, were using the actual [Jordan] picture in place of the smileys that we had. But it doesn’t look the same when you use the whole picture. So, somewhere on the website, there was a thread called ‘Request a smiley.’

RIKERMY NERIS (Mutant Boy): A few members kept asking, ‘Hey, you should make [the Jordan photo] a smiley.’ … And I’m like, ‘Yo, this is great, why is nobody doing this?’ A couple of weeks passed …

RICO23: Then I reached out personally to him, and I just said, ‘Hey, do this right quick.’

RIKERMY NERIS (Mutant Boy): And I said, ‘You know what? Let me do it.’

RICO23: It definitely started on Boxden, and it was definitely because I asked someone that was better at Photoshop than I was to create it.

RIKERMY NERIS (Mutant Boy): Once I saw it really pop off on Boxden, I knew that it eventually would pop off on other message boards. Once I saw that, I was like, ‘OK, this is about to be big.’ It just caught fire.

Chapter 3: Going mainstream

RYAN MILNER (Author, professor): Twitter, being a site of mass, mainstream participation, is a lot of times one of the last places to get a meme. Crying Jordan, for the longest time, [had] been shared on smaller, more niche sites. On these smaller sites – meme creators, meme generators, specific forums about specific topics, small places like different corners of reddit, 4chan – people play with a lot of images in really creative ways. They throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall. … If something resonates with people, if something clicks or sticks, then other people on that site start playing with it, too. Then they move it out to other sites. And then it moves to your really massive platforms, like Twitter, like Facebook. Months or years later, if that image has clicked or resonated with a lot of people, then it’s massive. So it’s sloooow virality in that sense.

COBY RICH (Digital media manager, Arizona Cardinals): [In] 2015, or maybe late in 2014 during the NBA season, it started popping up and becoming real popular. And I loved it. Every single one of them cracked me up.

MARCUS JORDAN: Stuff always gets sent to me and texted over to me. … But the first time I saw it, I kinda just shrugged it off, laughed it off. It was the stereotypical meme that’s making its circulation for 15 minutes. But this one stayed around a little longer.

ANDREW WEISS (Co-creator, Crying Kicks, along with Sherman Winfield): Memes are flavors of the hour. That’s what’s so crazy about it. If you look up memes, you can kinda see the shelf life. And people even say, ‘Oh, it died when white people did it on the news.’ That happened with this, and it still kept going. … It was just so big on social media, and no matter who you were, where you were from, who you represented, you knew what that was.

TIM BURKE (Video director, Deadspin): At the time that people started doing the Crying Jordans, it seemed just like any other short-lived, heavily saturated meme to me. For reasons I don’t quite understand, it developed into a longer-lasting cultural touchstone.

Chapter 4: The highlights and the heyday

TIM BURKE (Deadspin): The one I really remember was the Tom Brady courtroom sketch. Somebody made a Crying Jordan of that. I feel like that was somewhere near the peak of the art form. That was January 2016.

ANDREW WEISS (Crying Kicks): It took a life of its own. It literally became slang, in my opinion, the same way some sayings stand the test of time. Whoever messed up that year, as a celebrity, as a sports figure, as a team, as anybody who was ‘taking an L’ – they became that meme.

TIM BURKE (Deadspin): There was a team, maybe the Arizona Cardinals, they tried to preempt Crying Jordan by doing it themselves.

COBY RICH (Cardinals): It was the day of the [2016 conference] championships. The AFC championship was happening earlier in the day. The Patriots were losing, and they were getting showered with it. And I was just consuming it, loving it.

Fast-forward three hours, when the Carolina Panthers were on their way to a 49-15 beatdown of the Cardinals …

COBY RICH (Cardinals): We were getting pummeled. … The previous year, we had lost to the Panthers in the playoffs, and a member of our digital team tweeted out something about trolls in the basement. And it got such a negative response. … So I thought I’d do something kinda meta to beat all the trolls. It was just this snap decision. Like, I know it’s coming. So might as well get ahead of it.

I think it garnered 50,000 retweets at the time. I remember dozens of people responding, ‘Give this guy a raise.’ I kind of knew I was leaving [for another job]. So it was like a walk-off home run.

I remember the Atlanta Hawks being the next to jump on it.

JARYD WILSON (Social media manager, Atlanta Hawks): I remember it very vividly. It was Game 2 of the 2016 conference semifinals. The Cavs were burying us. They set the record that night for the most threes [in a single NBA game]. We were down 40 at half I think, or something like that.

So, it was myself and another woman who was working with me, we kinda came to the conclusion together: This is the opportune moment. Let’s react the way a Hawks fan would react to this, and make it a little lighthearted.

I don’t think we expected it to do as well as it did. I don’t think you ever do. But those are moments that really make your brand stand out and have a distinct voice.

But what did his Hawks bosses think of it?

JARYD WILSON (Hawks): Yeah, they hated it.

It wasn’t just teams Crying Jordaning themselves. In January that year, Florida Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo slapped it over his own face. The following month, with his hometown Panthers losing the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos, Steph Curry contributed to the craze.

Later in February …

DWYANE WADE, speaking at NBA All-Star Weekend in 2016: Every time I look at social media, that’s all you see, man. It’s the picture seen around the world.

DEMAR DEROZAN, speaking at NBA All-Star Weekend in 2016: An internet hit. They put ’em on everybody, man. They put ’em on everybody.

CARMELO ANTHONY, speaking at NBA All-Star Weekend in 2016: That’s the funniest meme that’s online right now.

STEPH CURRY, speaking at NBA All-Star Weekend in 2016: I think it’s about to go into extinction.

Spoiler alert: It was not.

JIMMY DONOFRIO (Prolific Crying Jordan maker): It was so versatile that it was hard not to use it. It was hard not to see things and see opportunities. It was too good not to use. I used it once politically. The republican logo, I turned it into a Crying Jordan.

JIMMY DONOFRIO (Prolific Crying Jordan maker): And the Jordan Spieth Masters one.

ANDREW WEISS (Crying Kicks): The people you would least expect [were getting Crying Jordan’d]. Because, like, everyone fails. And everyone has a misstep. And the more public of a misstep you made, whether it was losing a game in the last second, or being fired, you got that meme. And it worked.

DAVID OKUN (Creator, Crying Jordan Meme Generator app): The subtle Crying Jordan memes are the best. The ones that are creative and go outside the box. My favorite was the day after Brexit. Obviously the British pound tanked in value. And somebody on the internet took the chart of the pound, and for the area underneath the curve, they put a blown-up version of his face. The value of the pound was getting Crying Jordan’d. That was proof that the meme had really transcended sports, and Twitter in general.

COBY RICH (Cardinals): I think it was the one-upsmanship and the creativity of the internet that kinda kept it going.

JIMMY DONOFRIO (Prolific Crying Jordan maker): There did come a time where it was so easy to put the head on something that you had to go beyond that. I do remember it going from, ‘Hey, let’s just put the head on,’ to, ‘Let’s integrate the head into the body, and change the skin color, and make it look super natural’ … to actually creating things out of the head that were not heads.

TIM BURKE (Deadspin): For a while, I was messing with the Snapchat Face Swap feature, and I was making videos. I said, ‘Well, this is a new frontier here.’

JIMMY DONOFRIO (Prolific Crying Jordan maker): I did one of Kevin Durant sitting on the ground, and it was raining, thundering and raining – but the rain was little Crying Jordans.

BRAD KIM (Know Your Meme): One of the most common questions was, ‘Will this last? How long will this go on?’ Because even then, its endurance was going to a new level. Up till 2016, there really weren’t any memes that not only survived but stayed at the top of the relevancy charts for an entire year. It’s interesting how Michael Jordan [is] the superlative face of basketball, and the meme itself also became a superlative in its own right.

Chapter 5: The peak

The meme’s true peak – perhaps qualitatively, certainly quantitatively – arrived on April 4, 2016. That, of course, was the night Villanova beat Jordan’s alma mater, North Carolina, on Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater in the national championship.

Searches for 'Crying Jordan' on Google, August 2014-present.

DAVID OKUN (Crying Jordan app): And you had Michael Jordan sitting in the stands to support UNC. And they lost in epic, epic fashion. And all the cameras immediately panned to him. And nobody was gonna say it out loud, but everybody was thinking: Oh my God, is he gonna cry? Is he gonna cry? And all over Twitter, people were making memes of Crying Jordan sitting next to actual Michael Jordan. At that point it really went through the looking glass.

TIM BURKE (Deadspin): There was a shot of Michael Jordan at the game. And SB Nation made a Crying Jordan version of it that, at the time it came out, there was no context or reason for it. They just Crying Jordan’d Michael Jordan because it was Michael Jordan. Like, there’s no joke there. ... So I, having had access to a different broadcast feed that had a shot of Michael Jordan looking at his phone, realized, well I can have Michael Jordan looking at the Crying Jordan that SB Nation made, and his reaction to seeing it would make him a Crying Jordan.

I really just thought I would put it out there and some other media people would snicker. I would guess that a lot of people who saw this didn’t necessarily get the joke. But it works on its own just in terms of, ‘Oh, it’s Michael Jordan, and he’s seeing that people are making him a Crying Jordan, and it’s making him a Crying Jordan.’ I mostly, though, just wanted to make a statement: This is enough. My entire timeline’s full of Crying Jordans. This isn’t a funny meme. Just stop. The end. Stop it.

STEPHAN SAVOIA (AP): I was sitting at my laptop, watching the game. The game was over, and there was something from the game I wanted to look at again. And I typed in ‘North Carolina Villanova basketball.’ And the first thing that popped up was a video of the guy that made that last-second shot, almost at half court. The ball leaves his hand, and it turns into a Crying Jordan ...

… And it goes through the hoop. I thought that was one of the most clever usages of it. The funniest one I’ve ever seen.

Chapter 6: What did Jordan think of the meme?

STEPHAN SAVOIA (AP): I’ve never talked to Michael Jordan, about this or anything else. So I don’t know what he would say, or what he thinks. My understanding was that Jordan was not very happy when he saw it on the internet.

DAVID OKUN (Crying Jordan app): I would love to know what he thinks about it. But he won’t budge.

MARCUS JORDAN: It never really bothered me. I think it kinda comes with the territory. Even my dad’s team really was kinda warm about it, and took it as a joke.

CHARLES OAKLEY, to TMZ in 2016: Nah, he don’t like it.

ESTEE PORTNOY (Spokeswoman for Michael Jordan): We think the Crying meme is very funny.

MARCUS JORDAN: I think there was some instances where people were making shirts, or trying to make profits off of using the image, and I think my dad’s team probably took issue with that.

COBY RICH (Cardinals): I had a Crying Jordan lapel pin at the time. And now somebody bought me a hat with Crying Jordan on it.

ANDREW WEISS (Crying Kicks): I remember seeing clothes. There were people selling Crying Jordan sweatshirts. A lot of other people tried to make money off it. … We didn’t [explore monetizing our Crying Jordan shoe design], because we knew we’d get in trouble. … [His team] was quoted saying, ‘We’re having fun with it, it’s all good, but if you try to make money off of it, we’ll come for you.’ And we were like, ‘OK, we want to benefit from this from an artistic standpoint. We are not gonna sell it.’

MARCUS JORDAN: I think the one thing most people didn’t know was that it was [almost] used in a recent shoe release, but didn’t make the final cut. The Jordan Brand shoes that just came out, the No L’s, the first sample featured the Crying Jordan face in the sockliner on the inside of the shoe. Obviously, it didn’t get approved. But the first sample definitely does have the Crying meme on the sockliner.

ESTEE PORTNOY (Jordan spokeswoman): The Jordan Brand doesn’t use memes on our apparel.

ANDREW WEISS (Crying Kicks): I can only imagine how much money they would’ve made. But I think it was a very vulnerable thing for him to even comment on it. For him to make a shoe about it would’ve been such an interesting thing to do. Even a T-shirt would’ve gone far. And that surprised me that they never did anything. But it’s a really treacherous place for a brand to be. … That is kind of messing with the logo, and the equity of the brand. I can only imagine the weird pitfalls that would’ve been experienced.

Chapter 7: Why did Crying Jordan resonate?

TIM BURKE (Deadspin): I never really thought that they were particularly funny in the first place. And so, why Crying Jordan became a hit meme, and not something else, I’m not super sure. But it did. … I really can’t think of any meme that’s ever been like Crying Jordan. It stands alone in its power and stupidness.

RYAN MILNER (Professor, author): In my research, I talk a lot about resonance, and how memes resonate with people. And the first lesson is that you can’t predict what’s going to resonate with people.

JIMMY DONOFRIO (Prolific Crying Jordan maker): One of the most important aspects of it is that it’s Michael Jordan. Like, he’s known for the successes in his life. Greatest basketball player of all time – arguably. Runs of championship wins. He’s gotta be a billionaire at this point. There’s nothing really about the guy that says his life is sad. And yet … we have this snapshot in time, where this super successful [man] looks like he is devastated.

And he wasn’t devastated, right? This was a happy moment. It’s that subversion of reality, which is what is really the best part of it. It conveys a whole lot of emotions that are not there. At all. It’s not even sad! And I think that’s why it works so well in the sports world.

MARCUS JORDAN: I think, just because of how great my dad is, and how people idolize him, and how he’s almost not even human to certain people, is why the meme is so impactful. You take him at that vulnerable moment … you never really got a chance to see my dad fail. It’s kind of an ironic statement on who he is and who he isn’t.

RYAN MILNER (Author, professor): There’s a humor that comes from the combination of Michael Jordan and crying. This is kind of in the weeds, but what makes stuff funny often comes down to something called incongruity. If there is a disconnect between the expectation and the reality, in a way that’s not completely shocking but a little jarring, a lot of times that’s why we think something’s funny. ‘Appropriate incongruity’ is that theory.

So what you have with the Crying Jordan meme is you have a really masculine, really iconic celebrity; also a figure who’s pretty stoic, and known to not be overtly emotional. If anything, he’s got a reputation for being kind of a jerk, right? But then you have this incongruity of him red-eyed, in tears, like really, really crying. And so if you’re a sports fan, and you’re a basketball fan, you say, ‘Oh, that’s kind of off.’ That helps the image resonate.

And that’s what’s beautiful about memes. In the original context, you have the subject – you have Michael Jordan – crying not in a way that expresses any kind of sadness. But when you move an image from one context to another, you don’t need him to be sad anymore. You just need the visual marker of this person crying. And then all of a sudden those tears can be applied in other ways. So it’s versatile, in that way. It’s ambiguous. You can use it beyond its original context.

TIM BURKE (Deadspin): And there’s a broader discussion to be made about this concept that modern humor is context-less, and that people react to things because they recognize that they’re funny, not because they get the joke. And – I mean, there’s a lot of shows that are super context- or subtext-sensitive that are extremely popular despite the audience, I’m quite sure, not actually getting the root of the joke. Family Guy’s kind of a good example of that. So you can have a lot of memes that are popular for that reason.

ANDREW WEISS (Crying Kicks): So it’s very weird and deep. But it’s also still the internet. It’s the internet, man. It does its own thing.

Chapter 8: Reflections

STEPHAN SAVOIA (AP): People have said to me, is this the greatest picture I’ve ever shot? And I kinda laugh. First of all, I’ve won two Pulitzers. I’ve been all over the world covering all kinds of events. It’s nowhere near [the best]. I would never even include it in a portfolio.

Of course, my kids – it really began to piss me off, I actually had a talk with them – for a year afterwards, [they’d say,] ‘Oh yeah, my father’s a photographer, he shot the Jordan meme.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t want to be known for that!’ It’s not that I’m embarrassed by it. But if you look at the content of work I’ve done in 40 years, that’s a minor moment in a career.

But as I begin to build a website, at some point, I guess the Crying Jordan [photo] will go up with one of the memes next to it. Because people that know, they cite that, when I’m introduced, as the first thing. And I cringe every time.

RIKERMY NERIS (Mutant Boy on Boxden): I’m just glad that Jordan had that moment. And felt that happiness. Cuz that’s what it was. He was happy. He wasn’t sad. But that happiness says so many different things. It can convey so many different emotions. It’s just perfect. I’m glad that he exists on this planet, because if it wasn’t for that moment, and for him existing, I mean, I would have not had so many laughs. It was perfect.

RICO23 (Boxden): I never really think about it that much. But when I do, it’s just kinda like, ‘Wow!’ Who can believe some guy in IT who lives in Cincinnati came up with the idea to make a meme so popular that everyone … is using it?

RIKERMY NERIS (Mutant Boy on Boxden): I honestly never even told anyone. I never really cared about getting any recognition for it. If you’re in a bar and you tell people, they’re gonna look at you like, ‘OK weirdo.’ It’s just so silly to me. It’s nothing I’d want to put on my grave when I die. ‘MJ Cry creator.’ You know, like …

He pauses to reconsider.

You know, it would be funny, I should do it.

JARYD WILSON (Hawks): It’s clearly iconic. … And every time it’s used, I still laugh. Like, it’s not even just sports anymore. You see it in news, you see it in pop culture and entertainment, you see it in politics, you see it everywhere.

JIMMY DONOFRIO (Prolific Crying Jordan maker): As the Crying Jordan kind of started to wane a bit, other stuff came in and tried to take its place. Like Steph Curry’s white shoes, the Chef Currys. Crying Jordan had hit a peak. People were like, ‘What’s next?’ And they wanted so badly for something to be next. And I don’t really think that anything will be next on that level.

RIKERMY NERIS (Mutant Boy on Boxden): It feels like it will never end. It’s the perfect facial reaction to, ‘Oh, man, you lost that girl? You had that chance and you didn’t do it?’ Aw, boom, you put that [Jordan] face. ‘Oh, you lost your job? Oh no, poor guy’ – boom.

It’s never gonna go away.

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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