Like seemingly every other sports fan in America, I spent the last five Sundays watching the ESPN’s epic 10-part Michael Jordan infomercial, The Last Dance. And while we may not have any more episodes to keep us entertained tonight, I’m here to offer you some biased analysis of the man, the myth, the legend. And after 10 hours of Jordan love, there are two inescapable truths to be gleaned from the doc:
1) Michael Jordan is probably the greatest basketball player who ever lived.
2) Michael Jordan is a whiny little bitch.
It needs to be stated here that I first started watching basketball during the Bad Boys era of the Detroit Pistons, and we hated Jordan and the Bulls more than perhaps anyone in sports until Patrick Roy and Matt Millen entered our collective hive mind. With the exception of a brief interlude that I’ll discuss momentarily, that hatred has not gone away, so it’s important for you to read this post with that information in mind.
Now, when I was 14 or 15, I told my dad I hated Michael Jordan. My dad had grown up outside of Chicago and harbored loyalties to that city’s teams, but with the exception of a soft spot for the ‘85 Bears, his loyalties had not passed down to me, largely because he had moved back to Illinois while I grew up in Michigan. We weren’t watching sports together, so my loyalties tended toward the local Detroit teams. Well, and the 49ers, but that’s a story for another day.
Anyway, I told my dad I hated Jordan. I was a shitty 14- or 15-year-old, and my dad and I weren’t getting along particularly well, and my dad told me that telling someone you hate their team or their favorite player might be a way of telling them you don’t like them. I didn’t think it was fair for a couple of reasons – one, he’d never mentioned any particular affinity for the Bulls or Jordan (unlike his beloved Bears) and two, it didn’t show any particular respect for the rivalry that existed between my team and his.
Still, it made me think, and when I saw how happy my dad was when John Paxson hit the game-winner against Phoenix in ‘93, I found myself thinking, ok, I can do this. The Pistons’ mini-dynasty was done and I had a penchant for being a fair-weather fan, so why not hitch my wagon to my dad’s team? I was never much of a Jordan guy even when I wanted to see the Bulls win – I was more of a Scottie Pippen guy and Dennis Rodman was an obvious choice when he joined the team – so I didn’t feel much when he “retired” in ‘93.
I don’t remember when or why I stopped pulling for the Bulls. I remember having no particular rooting interest during the ‘97 or ‘98 Finals, and only followed the NBA in passing until the Pistons re-emerged in the early-2000’s. But it felt like the mini-loyalty to the Bulls should be pointed out to my faithful readers. Both of you.
On to The Last Dance.
As everyone knows by now, ESPN managed to secure the rights to a 10-part documentary that looked back on Jordan’s career and the Bulls dynasty. Of course, in order to secure Jordan’s involvement in the project, they had to offer him final approval. Saying this was an objective look at the man is like saying Michael Moore is fair to the Republican Party. Michael Jordan is a bully, he’s got a chip on his shoulder that dwarfs the Rock of Gibraltar, and a 10-part documentary where he gives is sign-off was not going to treat his adversaries in a flattering light. I’m here to offer an opposing view.
Because whining about shit years after it’s happened is something a bitch does.
I know, I’ve done it.
Let’s see if we can look at a few examples.
The Pistons Walkoff
In the documentary, Jordan was kind enough to say that he wouldn’t have made it to the summit without the Pistons. It was their toughness and tenacity that inspired Jordan and his teammates to get in the weight room and dish it out as much as they took it. Of course, no one remembers that.
No, they remember the Pistons walking off the court without shaking the Bulls’ hands as the clock ticked to zero in the ’91 Eastern Conference Finals.
Oh, they’ll tell you the Celtics did the same thing to the Pistons in ’88. They’ll do that so they can show how magnanimous Jordan and the Bulls were in shaking the Pistons hands in defeat when the Pistons had knocked them out the previous three seasons. Because Jordan’s nothing if not a good sport. I mean, nothing screams good sportsmanship like shitting all over the guys you defeated 30 years prior.
You know what they didn’t show you? They didn’t show you Jordan and Phil Jackson declaring – before that series was over – that the Pistons were undeserving champions, that they were bad for basketball, and that the sport would be better off when they were gone. No, you can’t show that, because it doesn’t help the argument that they were being disrespected when that disrespect is completely justified. It’s worth pointing out that this nuance was included in the 30 for 30 episode that ESPN aired on the Bad Boys. Funny how that gets left on the cutting room floor when Jordan’s got final cut.
Considering the Bad Boys’ reputation, Jordan can consider himself lucky they just walked off the court. They should’ve smacked him in the mouth.
There’s some controversy over what initiated Jordan’s animosity toward Isiah Thomas. To the producer’s credit – and by extension Jordan’s since he had final approval – they let Isiah say his piece about his relationship with Jordan. There’s not much point arguing over who says what – Jordan believes that Isiah and a couple of other veterans froze him out at the 1985 NBA All-Star game. What Isiah says is largely irrelevant – it’s not going to change Jordan’s mind. The walkoff in ’91 didn’t help.
So what did Jordan do? Nothing, if you ask Jordan. If you use basic common sense Jordan had Isiah left off the greatest basketball team in history, one that would’ve had extra meaning to Isiah.
When USA Basketball announced that NBA players would be playing in the 1992 Olympics, it was only a question of who would be on the Dream Team. Obviously, the first call was to Jordan. Jordan asked who was playing, and was told, “The guy you’re asking about [Isiah] isn’t playing.” Of course he’s not. If Jordan says, “If so-and-so is playing, I’m not,” so-and-so isn’t playing. You don’t select anyone over Michael Jordan in 1992. So for him to suggest this was anyone’s call but his is nonsense.
Oh, sure, everyone involved in that team is tripping all over themselves these days to say they didn’t want Isiah on the team. David Robinson said he wasn’t welcome because of his connection to the Bad Boys, which makes sense for about 2 seconds until you realize that the team was put together by the GM of that Pistons team and coached by the Pistons’ head coach. Magic Johnson was icing Isiah out because he believed Isiah was questioning the circumstances that found Magic contracting HIV, a belief that Magic apologized for when he was selling a book years later. Karl Malone had bad blood with Isiah and had no problem saying he didn’t want Isiah on the team. Karl Malone is the same guy who impregnated a 13-year-old when he was in college and said he didn’t want to be on the same court as Magic after he was diagnosed, but Isiah’s a bad dude.
There’s one other possible explanation. Isiah Thomas was the president of the NBA Players’ Association, an elected position that would seem to require a certain amount of likability in order to hold. During his tenure, he looked out for the rank-and-file players at the expense of the superstars. The superstars and their agents didn’t like that, so, led by Jordan’s agent, they had Isiah voted out and looked out for their own interests from that point on.
The same superstars who made up the Dream Team.
But yeah, Jordan had nothing to do with it.
Isiah said that he’s been in business settings with Jordan, had dinner with him, and figured all the water was under the bridge. Hell, in 2003, when Jordan was named as a reserve in his final All-Star Game, Isiah pushed Vince Carter to sacrifice his starting spot so the league could celebrate Jordan, a story that was not included in the documentary, naturally. And Jordan sums up his relationship with Isiah by saying, “There’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an asshole.”
You know what makes the blackballing of Isiah Thomas even worse? Isiah was named to the 1980 Olympic team, but didn’t get the chance to play because the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics. He was ineligible in ’84 (when Jordan won a gold medal) and ’88. He was a long shot for ’96, where his replacement, John Stockton, won a gold. The 1992 Olympics were Isiah’s only chance to play for his country.
Jordan didn’t care.
Update, May 26, 2020: ESPN published a story showing that Jordan had in fact told Rod Thorn, a member of the USA Basketball selection committee in 1992, that if Isiah was on the Dream Team that Jordan wouldn’t play. Thorn said that the head coach of the Dream Team didn’t want Isiah on the team, so it wouldn’t be an issue. Curiously, the head coach of the Dream Team was Chuck Daly, who coached Isiah in Detroit, and there was no apparent animosity between Daly and Isiah.
It’s interesting that ESPN would correct the issue after the fact, but had no issue with the clear and blatant lie being allowed in the documentary.
Jordan stunned the sports world in October 1993 when he walked away from the Bulls and “retired”. There are three possible explanations for this:
1) He was exhausted from the grind of three straight championship runs.
2) He was distraught over the murder of his father a few months prior.
3) His “retirement” was a quasi-suspension for the massive gambling debts Jordan had racked up.
To their credit, the producers addressed the suspension theory with the two people who mattered, Jordan and then-NBA commissioner David Stern. Of course, leaving it out would be like doing a documentary on the JFK assassination and not mentioning Sam Giancana. Obviously, both Jordan and Stern denied the allegations, so let’s take them at their word.
The murdered father theory would seem to make sense. But in the documentary, Jordan admitted that the night the Bulls clinched the 1993 title – two months before his father was murdered – Jordan and his father suspected he was done. He had accomplished what he wanted, he had gotten the 3-peat that Magic and Larry Bird had never pulled off, he was done.
Then why’d he come back?
Look, it’s probably not appropriate for me to discuss someone’s exhaustion or mental health. Thing is, I’m writing 3600 words on how much of a bitch Michael Jordan is, so I’m not exactly a model of propriety.
With that disclaimer out of the way, the standard set by Jordan has been applied to LeBron James basically since he was in high school. Those are impossible expectations to meet, yet LeBron’s largely met them. In my introduction I said Jordan was probably the best player of all time – LeBron is the only reason to say “probably”.
Why am I bringing up LeBron? Through his age 29 season, LeBron James had played 1000 games across the regular season and the playoffs. Jordan had played 879 games in the regular season, playoffs, and college. LeBron had 3 more seasons of the NBA grind (and the 82 games as opposed to roughly 35 in college). He’d played 47 more playoff games than Jordan had at the same age; even if you include Jordan’s NCAA tournament games, LeBron had still played 37 more “high stress” games at the same age as Jordan had. He’d been to the Finals 4 times and won 2 titles (to Jordan’s 3/3). And you never heard a word about LeBron walking away for exhaustion.
And people call LeBron soft.
One of the overarching themes of The Last Dance was that Jordan and his teammates couldn’t understand how Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ GM, could tear down the team after the 1998 season. Of course, that’s not exactly what happened. Krause announced before the season started that Phil Jackson wouldn’t return, even if the team went 82-0. It was a questionable decision, but he hadn’t made any decisions or pronouncements about the makeup of the team. Jordan immediately announced that he wouldn’t be playing for anyone but Jackson, and thus it was Krause’s fault he wouldn’t be coming back.
It’s never explained why it was ok for Jordan to decide when a team’s run ends but not the guy who has to rebuild the team after all the championship pieces are gone. So what led him to walk away in ’93? Was it exhaustion? A suspension? Overwhelming grief over the loss of his father? An overwhelming desire to ride the bus through the minor leagues? Whatever it is, LeBron’s taken more shit for compiling a mega-team than Jordan did for walking away from his team.
1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals
The producers of the series spent a decent amount of time on the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals. Trouble is, the focused on the wrong game.
In Game 3 of that series against the Knicks, Phil Jackson drew up a final shot for Toni Kukoč. This pissed off Scottie Pippen – who’d had an MVP-caliber season – who wanted the shot and refused to enter the game. The doc spent a fair amount of time on this, with Pippen curiously admitting he regretted the decision but would do it the same if he had to do it again.
Anyway, Kukoč would hit the shot to get the Bulls back in the series, they won Game 4 to even it up, and had the lead in the closing seconds of Game 5 when the refs made an atrocious call that allowed the Knicks to take the lead in both the game and the series. Pippen was called for a foul on Hubert Davis with 2.1 seconds left, a foul that one of the officials later admitted was terrible. Davis hit the free throws, the Knicks took the game and went up 3-2. They would take the series in 7 and eventually lose the NBA Finals to the Rockets in 7 games.
That call didn’t make it into the show. Why not?
Look, I’m not that smart, so I can’t take credit for this analysis – I believe I found it on CBS Sports, but couldn’t locate the article to share. Of course, a skeptic would say this is me shifting blame for a stupid take, so you’ll just have to take me at my word.
Say the refs don’t blow the call and the Bulls are able to close out the game to go up 3-2. They’re now hosting Game 6 with a chance to win the series. Let’s assume that reality holds and they win that game to win the series in 6. They would’ve then faced the Indiana Pacers with home court advantage in the conference finals. The Bulls went 4-1 against the Pacers in the ’93-94 season, so let’s assume that they continue their dominance against Indiana and advance to the NBA Finals.
It’s difficult to assume that the Bulls would’ve won that series against Houston, but we’re assuming that they would’ve won a series against a Knicks team that, in reality, were up 3-2 on the Rockets and took the Finals to 7 games. Hakeem Olajuwon was having an MVP-caliber season, and Patrick Ewing matched up better against Hakeem than anyone on the Bulls, but the idea they they could’ve beaten the Rockets and taken their fourth straight NBA title – without Jordan – isn’t ridiculous.
(I’ll add the obvious caveat that there’s no guarantee that the Bulls win Game 6 or Game 7 if they’re up 3-2. Maybe the Knicks play with more urgency and are able to take Game 6, maybe the Bulls win the series but the Pacers pull an upset and go to the Finals, where the Rockets make mince-meat of them. But with what we know, it’s safe to say that if they get the call in Game 5 there’s a damn good chance they go to the Finals.)
So why didn’t they leave the blown call in the story?
Because it’s Jordan’s story.
Jordan had no issue shitting on Pippen throughout The Last Dance. He expressed skepticism about the migraine that hobbled Pippen during Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference finals. He had no problem calling out Pippen for the selfish decision to pull himself out of the game when Jackson ran the play to Kukoč. He whined about the back spasms that limited Pippen in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals and compared his inability to play hurt to Jordan’s “Flu Game” in 1997. To Jordan, Pippen was a sidekick, nothing else.
If Pippen is able to take a Bulls team that Jordan walked out on to the NBA Finals and potentially win the title, in a season in which Pippen finished 3rd in the MVP voting, that diminishes Jordan’s view that he is the team. Jordan’s spot in history was already well-established, but you have to think his importance to the team takes a hit if they can be a legitimate championship contender without him.
In Jordan’s eyes the Bulls were a plucky upstart who managed to survive the loss of his services and make it to the second round of the playoffs. In reality they were a 3-seed with an MVP contender who got screwed out of a chance to play for the title.
I realize this post has run very long, but you can’t talk about The Last Dance without discussing Jordan’s relationship with Jerry Krause. Krause is an unsympathetic character – his decision to not renew the contract of a man who’d coached the team to 6 of the last 8 NBA titles was curious, to say the least. But he never made any decision on the composition of the team until Jordan “officially” declared he wouldn’t be returning when Jackson wasn’t retained. The 1998-99 Bulls were not the same as the 1993-94 Bulls. Everyone was 5 years older (duh…math), a new crop of talent was coming into the league, and it wasn’t a safe bet that the Bulls would be the favorites even if Jordan returned. With Jordan retiring again – seemingly for good this time – it was as good a time as any to tear the team down and begin the rebuild. It’s probably not what I would’ve done – flags fly forever, so I’d hold off on the rebuild until someone took us out – but the strategy wasn’t crazy.
Jordan has no problem expressing his disdain for Krause throughout the series. Jordan hated Krause so much that he made sure to point out that he didn’t invite Krause to his Hall of Fame induction…during his speech. Krause’s insistence that organizations win championships was ludicrous to a guy who made sure everyone knew that “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team’, but there is in ‘Win’.”
Here’s the thing though: Krause wasn’t wrong. Jordan without Pippen was an elite talent on a mediocre team. He never dragged bad teams beyond what they should’ve been capable of, like LeBron James did with the ’07 Cavaliers, or Allen Iverson with the ’00 76ers. In the 3 seasons before Pippen entered the league, Jordan’s teams went 108-138 (87-95 in games he played), and lost in the first round of the playoffs all three years, winning a total of 1 playoff game.
And of course, it was Jordan who told Krause to draft Pippen, right? Or maybe it was Pippen – an unheralded prospect out of an NAIA school – who refused to sign with the SuperSonics and demanded he be traded so he could play with Michael Jordan. No, that was Krause.
Krause drafted Pippen, Horace Grant, and B.J. Armstrong. He traded for Bill Cartwright. He hired Tex Winter, who installed the triangle offense, then replaced Doug Collins with Phil Jackson. He signed Toni Kukoč and traded for Dennis Rodman. Ask Jordan how many championships he’d have if Krause hadn’t made those moves. Hell, ask Jordan what it takes to win a championship as an owner or GM. Charles Barkley called out Jordan for his ineptitude at running a team, and Jordan hasn’t spoken to his former best friend since.
To close, I come back to the Bad Boys Pistons. Their GM, Jack McCloskey – the same guy who was tasked with building the Dream Team – was known as “Trader Jack”, and did the same thing Krause did with the Bulls, building his team from a laughingstock to repeat champions. When the Pistons were awarded the trophy, the players had McCloskey front and center to celebrate with them; Krause was nowhere to be found when the Bulls celebrated. To Jordan (and, to be fair, the rest of the Bulls of that era), Krause was the short fat kid that they let tag along on their ride.
Look, obviously I don’t like Michael Jordan, but to deny his talent is ridiculous. I’m prepared to be called out for my bias, but the simple fact is, if you’re building a team composed of players in their prime to play one game to save your life, and your first pick isn’t Michael Jordan, you’re clearly suicidal. A friend – who, it should be noted, is perhaps the biggest fan of Detroit sports I’ve ever met and hates Jordan almost as much as I do – maintains that his significance in American sports can only be rivaled by Babe Ruth; I don’t completely agree, but the comparison isn’t crazy. His career merits a documentary, maybe even a 10-part documentary series that saves America from the nightmarish hell that is 74 days (and counting) without sports.
But Michael Jordan is not a good guy. ESPN and the basketball-loving public can slobber all over him and declare that he just behaved that way because he was so competitive, that he never asked anything of anyone that he wouldn’t do himself. But in my eyes, he’s what’s wrong with America today. Hard work can get you far in this country, but ultimately you’re probably not going to reach the pinnacle if you don’t hitch your wagon to someone who is going to stomp people into the ground if that’s what it takes to get there. And not only are those people going to ground people into dust on their way to the top, they’re going to make sure to remember every slight and make sure to play the “Woe is me” card to alter the narrative.
And I’m calling bullshit.