A doctor gets to the bottom of it
Like millions of people around the world, you probably caught some of ESPN’s documentary, The Last Dance, about the greatest NBA player to bless the court: Michael Jordan. And, like many viewers, you may have noticed MJ’s eye color and wondered what caused it. Was it the cigars? The glass of brown liquor on the table next to him?
MJ’s eyes were front and center in every close-up shot of the 10-part documentary series. I noticed MJ’s eye pigment years before, but I was just a medical student back then. This time, I was a doctor — so I did my research in order to get to the bottom of this internet mystery.
I checked Twitter to see if other MJ fans were discussing his eye color, and comments and theories abounded. People thought MJ might have suffered from alcohol abuse that affected his liver and produced jaundiced eyes. Some thought it could be the result of hemolysis (the destruction of red blood cells), hepatitis, or even pancreatic cancer.
To be fair, all of the conditions mentioned above can cause a yellow eye pigmentation. I searched for photos of a young MJ and didn’t find any addiction problem or information relating to hospitalizations for severe conditions. Fortunately, it was never the case back then, and not the case now. But I knew there could still be one other factor. A few people, without knowing the true cause, pointed out that many middle-aged African American men develop this sort of eye coloration. That cause, which is what I suspected, is melanosis, a conjunctival pigmented lesion.
That’s a big phrase, so let’s unpack it one word at a time. First, the conjunctiva. It’s a thin mucous and vascular membrane in the eye that protects it, helping with lubrication, movement, and some immune functions. Generally, we can describe three parts of the conjunctiva: the bulbar that covers the anterior part of the sclera, the palpebral region that lines the eyelids, and the forniceal, or fornix, which is the junction between the two.
As long as he gets them checked from time to time, the NBA great’s eyes are safe and sound.
Pigmented lesions are areas of abnormal coloration that are familiar to anyone with moles or age spots, and a few different types can occur in the conjunctiva. The worst-case scenario is conjunctival melanoma, a malignant tumor that can spread to the entire body; it usually has a bad prognosis. Lesions called nevi are benign, and have a low risk of converting to melanoma. In between those two types is conjunctival melanosis, which can be either benign or malignant, and has a higher risk of developing into melanoma.
That said, Michael Jordan may haveconjunctival melanosis — specifically racial melanosis. It’s a benign type of conjunctival pigmented lesion sometimes found in individuals with darkly pigmented skin. Conjunctival melanosis can increase with age, and is not shown to often progress to melanoma. But patients can still develop melanoma, so medical professionals recommend annual screenings.
In other words, as long as he gets them checked from time to time, the NBA great’s eyes are safe and sound.