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‘The Last Dance’ Unravels the Complications of Michael Jordan’s Prime

From his stunning decision to quit basketball to his merciless treatment of teammates, episodes 7 and 8 examine the height of MJ—both as an icon and an enigma

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Sunday’s installments of ESPN’s The Last Dance showed the rude, the bad, and the ugly sides of Michael Jordan. And the happy, the sad, the devastated. During the two hours of episodes 7 and 8, we see Jordan endlessly berate his teammates; sob in the locker room after winning the 1996 NBA Finals on Father’s Day, three years after his dad was murdered; and punch Steve Kerr in the face after antagonizing him in practice.

You sympathize with Jordan. You dislike him. You admire him. He is, to use the cop-out of all cop-out clichés, a complicated man. The Last Dance was produced because Jordan approved the use of exclusive footage, and though most filmmakers try to avoid it, documentaries always—sometimes explicitly, sometimes subtly—end up taking sides. Jerry Krause’s public, insistent destruction of the Bulls throughout the documentary makes it easy to sympathize with Jordan. But Sunday’s installments finally show the clip MJ feared would reflect most poorly on him. His leadership style, effective as it might’ve been, was to harass the people around him into becoming winners. “When you see the footage of [me riding teammate Scott Burrell], you’re going to think that I’m a horrible guy,” he told director Jason Hehir before filming.

And he’s right. The clips of Jordan attacking Burrell in practice come off as so malicious that it seems like there was a vendetta involved. And there was, between Jordan and losing. His Bulls were a prolific dynasty, but teammates like Burrell were casualties on the path to winning. But our attention quickly turns to Jordan and the Bulls winning another title in ’96. We remember that Jordan is the ultimate champion, despite the outbursts, and one sentiment sticks more than the other. This is how it goes with problematic athletes. Greatness overshadows nastiness. The Last Dance conveys the height of both with Jordan.

Highlight of the Episode: Jordan Takes a Break

In 1993, Jordan quit basketball. He’s the last person you would imagine quitting anything, yet he quit the game altogether. Or that’s as much as fans knew at the time. “This was a young man who’d gone through some heartrending things,” Phil Jackson says in Episode 7. Jordan was still mourning his father, whom he was close to. James Jordan’s body had been found in a river just two months before MJ’s decision, and media later speculated without basis that Jordan’s gambling had something to do with the murder.

“You’re denying a gift to society,” Jackson told Jordan, “but I understand.” Denying a gift. People feel possessive over once-in-a-lifetime athletes, singers, and entertainers. If you’re of a certain age, you felt that Jordan was yours the same way my generation has become attached to LeBron. It’s not fair, but it’s instinct. Consider the ridicule Andrew Luck received last summer after he announced he was retiring. He wasn’t even the greatest at his position, let alone in the game. He had endured multiple cataclysmic injuries. Yet people called it—and him—a waste.

“The superstar’s frequently the talk of the town,” one reporter says before Jordan’s retirement press conference in ’93. “This time, the talk is more like a chorus of mourning.”

Jordan shares in the doc that he’d been planning to quit for some time. In his last conversation with his dad, Jordan laid out his plans: to take a break from the Bulls and try his hand at baseball, his true childhood passion. “Do it,” Jordan says his father told him. The public reaction was grief, though the detail that sticks with me is Jordan’s persistent smile during his retirement press conference. “This is a very bittersweet day,” Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf says. “There’s a certain sadness because the greatest athlete to ever play a team sport is leaving the game. But it’s really, for me, a very, very happy day, because somebody who I admire and respect is doing exactly what he wants to do. And I’m absolutely convinced that he’s doing the right thing.”

And he did! Jordan had been exhausted for years. Baseball served as a way to reconnect with his dad. It was a break, and a new challenge. He’d conquered the NBA, and there probably wouldn’t be the second trio of titles had it not been for the breather. In an age when mental health wasn’t associated with sports, Jordan considered his own emotional well-being.

The Moment of Truth: Was Jordan Good at Baseball?

Before he picked up a bat again at 31, Jordan hadn’t regularly played baseball since he was 17 years old. Reinsdorf also owned the Chicago White Sox, who—wink, wink—extended Jordan an invite to their major league camp in Sarasota in ’94. MJ was then sent to the Double-A Birmingham Barons not because of his skill level, but because of logistics. There wasn’t enough room for the overwhelming horde of media in Single-A and rookie ball facilities. “I’m Terry,” Barons manager Terry Francona told Jordan when he arrived, “and I guess I’m going to be your manager.”

Jordan began his career with an unlikely 13-game hitting streak. That came to a halt when opposing pitchers stopped throwing fastballs and began almost exclusively using off-speed pitches, and for the first time in his professional career, Jordan was the butt of the joke. Eventually, after spending a Michael Jordan amount of hours in the batting cages before and after games and practices, Jordan eclipsed the Mendoza line and hit .202 for the season while driving in 51 runs. “In my opinion,” Francona says, “with 1,500 at bats, he’d have found a way to get to the major leagues.” Alas, Jordan returned to basketball the following spring after refusing to become a replacement player during the 1994 MLB strike.

I have absolutely no idea what a promising baseball prospect looks like other than knowing he should look 12 years younger than Jordan was his rookie season. I don’t know whether his work ethic could’ve made up for the decade’s worth of curveballs he didn’t see. Before Jordan retired from basketball in 1998, he told Ahmad Rashad that he didn’t want to stay in the game so long that he’d need to be carried off the court. He wanted to walk off, to leave two years before he started to decline. Jordan was hyperconscious about aging out of a sport. That’s what gives me pause about his baseball dreams: It’s difficult to make up for lost time when you’re also fighting against it.

Best Jordan-ism: The LaBradford Smith Story

“Do you know the LaBradford Smith story?” legendary NBA reporter David Aldridge asks the Last Dance film crew. I do, unfortunately, it being one of those weird things a fellow Louisville alum comes across mid-rabbit-hole after searching for the video of Smith climbing Mount Everest against DePaul. Here it is, a play in four acts:

  1. Chicago faces Washington at home on March 19, 1993. Smith is in his second year after being drafted 19th. The Bullets are, in a word, shit. Miraculously, he catches fire against the Bulls. “LaBradford Smith had a game,” B.J. Armstrong tells the camera, widening his eyes. “I mean he had a game of games.” Meanwhile, Jordan can’t connect on anything. He shoots 9-for-27. Smith finishes with 37 points. (It’s worth mentioning that the Bullets still lost. The hate that follows was born from a game the Bulls won.)
  2. Leaving the United Center, according to Jordan, Smith puts his arm around MJ and says, “Nice game, Mike.”
  3. The next night, the Bulls fly to D.C. to play the Bullets again on a back-to-back. Jordan tells Armstrong (and probably the entire locker room) that he’s going to have what Smith had—37 points—in the first half. He nearly does it, leaving for the break with 36 points, and scoring nearly exclusively on Smith. We’re talking 3s, dunks, fadeaways, sheer humiliation. Of all the Dan Majerle and Toni Kukoc–in-Spain stories, “I’ve never seen a man go after another player the way he did,” says Armstrong.
  4. Decades later, a rumor arises. Did Michael Jordan fabricate what Smith said to him leaving the United Center? Did Smith say anything at all? Filmmakers ask Jordan. “No,” he says, smiling. “I made it up.”

He invented a story for motivation to get back at a man who didn’t say anything worthy of that retaliation. Jordan was such a serial trash talker that he knew how to provoke himself, such a competitor that he wanted to be provoked.

Most Memorable Performance: The Double-Nickel Game

March 18, 1995, was the official “I’m back” announcement, but March 28, 1995, was the official “I’m back” game. The Bulls, playing their fifth game with MJ back in the lineup, were visiting Madison Square Garden, Jordan’s favorite place, and he dropped 55 points to celebrate his return to the NBA—and his return to ruining other teams’ lives:

Most Candid Interview: Jordan on Scott Burrell

Jordan picked on everyone in practice, but dug into the younger Burrell specifically because he saw it as a challenge, but found the backup forward was ultimately too nice of a guy to break.

“I tried to get him to fight me a couple of times, in a good sense,” Jordan says, as if getting someone to fight you in a good sense is a normal outcome to want. “Just to get him … ‘Hey, man, I’m tired of you picking on me. I’m gonna,’ you know, type of mentality.”

Jordan retells these stories with the certitude that it was the right thing. To get the best out of people, aggravate them into punching you. To motivate the people whose help you require, tell them they’re not shit. His teammates remember it as harsh, but helpful, though Scottie Pippen’s more reassuring style of leadership in 1993-94 was a welcome break in the yelling.

Best Bonding Moment: Jordan Gives Steve Kerr a Black Eye

Chicago fell short of the Finals in the 1995 playoffs. Jordan had returned from his baseball intermission, but he was too out of shape, or in the wrong shape—baseball requires very different training—to carry the Bulls past the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals. “This just in,” Keith Olbermann said on SportsCenter after Chicago dropped Game 1, “Michael Jordan is human.”

The next summer, as Steve Kerr tells it, MJ was “frothing at the mouth” from the way the last season ended. Every practice was a full-out war; if his teammates thought Jordan was a tough hang before his retirement, now it was doubled. During one scrimmage, Kerr, who was matched up with Jordan, decided he’d had enough of the trash talking. He hit him in the chest, Jordan punched Kerr in the face, and Phil Jackson threw his overheated star out of practice. Jordan later called Kerr and apologized.

“From that point on, our relationship dramatically improved,” Kerr says. Ways to bond with Michael Jordan: side bets on golf, side bets on a game of cards, play on the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, and be punched in the face.