No one ever brings up how exhausting it was to be Michael Jordan. It doesn’t fit the narrative. He could outshoot you, outhustle you, melt your defense, and stop you on the other end. He was a two-way player who gave it his all, and his all, of all the alls, trumped everyone else’s. His reputation isn’t all roses and rings. Jordan was—is?—kind of an asshole. That much is known, even championed. He gambles. A lot. Maybe too much. Definitely in the millions, but that’s not my money nor my card game. He broke many hearts when he said “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Those actions suggest he’s inconsiderate, destructive, or self-centered. But none of them indicate exhaustion. Exhaustion is something else. Exhaustion is not a character flaw; it’s a sign of weakness. And there’s no mention of weakness in the Michael Jordan story.
But Jordan was tired. ESPN’s well-received docuseries The Last Dance needed us to see that. It is, after all, about the end of MJ’s career. Sunday, ESPN aired the documentary’s fifth and sixth installments, which were sprinkled with signs of the legend’s burnout. During the 1993 playoffs, Jordan refused to talk to the media for 10 days after he was criticized for a trip to Atlantic City to gamble the night before a game. After winning the Finals that year, the Bulls’ third consecutive championship, Jordan says, “Physically, I was getting exhausted. But mentally, I was way past exhausted. When you try to do something repetitively, you lose some of the hunger, some of the edge.” It manifested, eventually, into multiple hiatuses disguised as retirements.
At the end of the sixth episode, MJ is shown in the car with his friend, NBC broadcaster Ahmad Rashad. It’s April 1998, one week before the playoffs are about to begin, and the discussion around whether Jordan will really leave the game (again) is all anyone can talk about. Jordan drives out of his estate as iron gates with the number “23” on each side split open to let the two through. “I want to leave two years before my skills tell me I can’t play this game,” Jordan tells Rashad. “I don’t want to miss my time to go.”
Sunday’s episodes show the Bulls star’s frustration and fatigue, along with a handful of other iconic Jordan basketball stories—the kind that do fit in to his legend. Here are the highlights:
Best Quote: Michael Jordan Scouts a Young Kobe Bryant
A familiar face appears right away on Sunday. Episode 5 is dedicated to Kobe Bryant, and he appears onscreen at 19 years old, walking through the tunnels of the Garden in ’98, hours before his first All-Star appearance and what was thought to be Jordan’s last. They pass each other nonchalantly in the hall and touch hands, but later in the East’s locker room, Jordan makes it clear he’s been watching Kobe closely. “That little Lakers boy is gonna take everybody one-on-one,” he says. “He don’t let the game come to him. He just go out there and take it.” They’re inches from each other at the tip-off, not drifting far from each other the entire game. Kobe tries to contest Jordan’s turnaround jumper here, blasts off for a dunk of his own there. The Last Dance shows only their highlights, but Jordan and Kobe were the highlight that Sunday.
“He haulin’ ass,” Jordan says in the huddle. Suddenly we’re face-to-face with adult Kobe giving his interview for the documentary. It’s shocking to see a never-before-seen clip of the late legend. The two had a closer relationship than most assumed, and Jordan’s beautiful eulogy at Kobe’s funeral spelled it out. Kobe explains that he often turned to Jordan for advice, beginning with that famous turnaround jumper. Jordan had given him an answer and an opening: If Kobe ever needed anything, he was welcome to give Jordan a call.
“What you get from me is from him,” Kobe says. For years, Kobe was asked who’d have won one-on-one. To Kobe, his beloved fans were missing the point. “I don’t get five championships here without him because he guided me so much, and gave me so much great advice.”
They hug after the All-Star Game, two players connected forever by their unparalleled desire to be the best. Of course Jordan saw himself in Kobe: The latter built his game watching the former. I’ve always imagined it was hard for either star to keep friends in their prime. They were both too obsessed and competitive. But that’s where they built their bond. “I’ll see you down the road,” Jordan says.
Highlight of the Episode: The ’92 Dream Team
If Michael Jordan made the Bulls cool, the Dream Team did the same for Olympic basketball. I didn’t watch the 1992 Olympics live (terrible TV reception from the womb), yet I own one of those block-font “USA” crew neck sweaters and still, as an adult, have a Dream Team poster on my wall. Without the ’92 squad, players now might shrug off Olympic basketball participation like they do the All-Star Game. NBA players weren’t allowed to compete in the Olympics until FIBA changed the rules in 1989 (and after the U.S. lost to the Soviet Union in 1988). So when committee members were able to recruit the best of the best to participate in the 1992 games, the roster set an enormous precedent for teams to come.
It was like the crossover episodes of your favorite cartoons: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, David Robinson, Clyde Drexler, Christian Laettner, and Charles Barkley. Together they established a new level of dominance over the rest of the world, but that wasn’t even the best part. Winning gold was expected. The level of camaraderie and competition between them turned the Dream Team into folklore. Their practices were legendary and full of personality, shit-talking, and elite talent. In Episode 5, Magic calls a scrimmage in Monte Carlo “the greatest basketball, I think, that we all were involved in.” Rod Thorn, who drafted Jordan and was later a Team USA selection committee member, also glowingly recalls the Monte Carlo practice. The Last Dance shows grainy footage of Magic and Barkley trying to get under Jordan’s skin. With his team up eight, Magic told Jordan, “Look, man. If you don’t turn into Air Jordan, we’re going to blow you out.” According to Thorn, that was all Jordan needed to hear. He scored on every possession after that.
Everyone that The Last Dance interviews can identify a moment when they knew the pecking order had changed in Jordan’s favor. Magic had already lost to him in the Finals before the Dream Team, but the Monte Carlo scrimmage made the top players in the world realize, collectively, that he was the alpha among alpha males. Also, maybe don’t provoke him.
History Cliff Notes: Why Was Isiah Thomas Left Off the Dream Team?
For all its glory, there’s a 6-foot-1 asterisk next to the Dream Team. Isiah Thomas wasn’t asked to the ball. That’s 1989 and 1990 NBA champion Isiah Thomas, All-Star Isiah Thomas, the second-best point guard in the league at the time Isiah Thomas. Isiah was the second-greatest point guard of all time behind only Magic Johnson, Jordan says during The Last Dance. (We all know how well Jordan does and does not judge modern point guards.)
Jordan has historically caught the blame for Isiah being snubbed. The two had public beef, and the committee was forming its team just after the 1991 Eastern Conference finals, when the Pistons walked off the court early after being swept by the archrival Bulls. In the 2012 documentary The Dream Team, former NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik explicitly said that Isiah wasn’t considered because of the incident. But condemning him for one handshake is simplifying the problem. Magic and Bird had run-ins with Isiah, too. Pippen has said before that he “despised” the way Isiah plays. He was the “general” of the dirtiest team in the league. Accepting him meant alienating others. “He was the guy who would yap at his teammates and say ‘Kick them on their ass. Do whatever you have to do,’” Pippen said. “No, I didn’t want him on the Dream Team.”
Jordan repeats to Last Dance filmmakers what he’s always said. It came from the top. Thorn called Jordan in 1991 to recruit him for the Dream Team; Jordan responded, “Who’s all playing?” It’s the basketball equivalent of “Who’s all going?” The purpose of this question is to (1) make sure the company is worth one’s while, and (2) avoid anyone you don’t want to be with. In this case, for weeks. In a foreign country. Huddled together on flights, buses, hotels, and locker rooms. “The guy you’re thinking about,” Thorn said, “is not going to be playing.” According to Jordan and Thorn, Isiah’s name was never specifically mentioned.
Jordan allegedly icing out Isiah is treated like one of the greatest injustices of the ’90s, but for all the emphasis we place on locker rooms, it’s understandable why the committee decided to pass on him. There are consequences to being a provocateur, good and bad. The Bad Boys won two titles. The Baddest—in Pippen’s eyes, anyway—didn’t get an invite to the party for a reason.
Most Candid Moment: Charles Barkley on Losing the 1993 Finals
Chicago won its third consecutive title in 1993 against the Suns. Going into the series, Jordan was “a little bit upset that I didn’t get MVP that year. They gave it to Charles Barkley.” A “little” upset for Jordan meant 44 points in Game 3, 55 points the game after, then 41, then 33, then a championship. But it was Game 2 that stuck with Barkley. He and Jordan finished with 42 apiece. “I played as well as I could play,” Chuck said, “And Michael just outplayed me.” Losing in ’93 defined Barkley’s career. The only time he ever reached the Finals, he ran into Jordan in his prime.
“That was probably the first time in my life that I felt like there was a better basketball player in the world than me,” Barkley said. “I have no problem losing to Michael. Losing to Michael, there’s no shame in that. Sports are like a gunfight. And we lost to the fastest gun.”
Most Innocent Bystanders: Toni Kukoc and Dan Majerle
Jordan readily admits he tried to embarrass Krause as revenge. And, as most things go for Jordan, when he tried, he succeeded. In 1990, Chicago drafted Toni Kukoc, a forward out of Croatia. He opted to play in Europe for a few more seasons, though Krause was set on bringing him over. Krause’s focus on Kukoc, whom he called “the future of the Bulls,” was off-putting to the Bulls players, who had just won their second championship, and who considered themselves the future of the franchise. Making matters worse, Pippen’s contract talks were put on hold while Krause went overseas to negotiate with Kukoc.
When the U.S. played Croatia in the 1992 Olympics, Jordan and Pippen—who had not met Kukoc, but resented the attention and admiration Krause was giving him—terrorized the young star. They put a target on his back, hounded Kukoc, and held him to four points. Pippen said after the game that he had no place in the league. And that’s how Kukoc met his future teammates.
A year later, in Game 1 of the 1993 finals against the Suns, Jordan used Dan Majerle to make the same point to Krause. “I knew that Jerry Krause loved Dan Majerle,” Jordan says, “and just because Krause liked him was enough for me. You think he’s a great defensive player? OK. Fine. I’m going to show you that he’s not.” Jordan toyed with Majerle, pausing before blowing past him, crossing him to the next state over, and chastising Krause without saying a word.
Most Heartwarming: John Paxson’s Shot in Game 6
The Last Dance was released early, but the timing couldn’t be more convenient for John Paxson. Before he was half of GarPax, he was a hero in Chicago. The highlight of his career came at the end of Game 6 in the 1993 Finals. It was the final game of the series, the final quarter, the final seconds: Paxson is on the perimeter with the Bulls down two, he’s passed the ball, he takes the shot, and suddenly, Chicago is up one. Paxson was the first Bulls player to score that quarter not named Michael Jordan, and without him, the esteemed three-peat wouldn’t have happened.
“The ball was not supposed to come to me, but as a player, you’re always ready,” Paxson said. “And for me personally, it was pretty special.” His eyes are on the verge of watering, and he shrugs. This is the version of Paxson that Chicago should remember: