Here are five takeaways from episodes 5 & 6 of “The Last Dance,” the documentary series on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 championship season:
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If anyone – lifetime Bulls fans, younger folks who weren’t around or paying close attention – still thinks Chicago might have won NBA titles in 1994, 1995 and even 1999, they need to go re-watch Sunday’s episodes. Jordan was fried.
No offense to the Houston Rockets, who won twice during Jordan’s initial retirement, or the New York Knicks, who seized the first East title after Jordan retired again. But the Jordan who ground his way through the 1992-93 season would have been vulnerable to toppling in a way he wasn’t in the midst of either three-peat.
If that Jordan doesn’t get a breather, heck, he and his team might have been done after three.
Much of scrutiny, media crush and build-‘em-up, tear-‘em-down that Jordan faced was his own doing: his gambling in casinos and on golf courses cast him in a light different from everything that had come before. Even his contentious relations within the Bulls as revealed by Sam Smith’s “The Jordan Rules” book didn’t prepare folks for His Airness heading to Atlantic City the night before a playoff game – and then (gasp!) losing the game.
But much of the 24/7 crush on Jordan — way before social media, mind you — was simply a by-product of the new heights of intense global popularity to which Jordan had helped take the league.
“From the moment Michael Jordan leaves his hotel room, the spotlight is on him,” said longtime Bulls media relations chief Tim Hallam. taking us through a typically packed day. Everybody, Hallam said, “wanted a piece of him in one way or another.”
“I wouldn’t want to ‘be like Mike. It’s an impossible task.”
It got impossible even for Jordan. Deep into Episode 6, lying on the couch in his hotel room with the documentary’s film crew present, Jordan in 1998 at least had perspective on the price paid for all his riches, glory and fame.
“This is not one of those lifestyles that you envy,” he said, making clear that ’98 dance would be his last (for a while, at least). “I’m ready for getting out of this life.”
But in 1993, it all was seizing up on him for the first time. Rumors swirled about his associations with gamblers such as James (Slim) Bouler and Richard Esquinas. If it wasn’t the debts he incurred – pocket change relative to his earnings – it was the character and unsavoriness of those golf partners. Beyond that, the demands on his time, the pressure to be “on” all day and night and still produce after tipoff, seemed oppressive.
No way he and thus they could have kept it going from 1991 through 1998 or 1999. Bill Russell and the Celtics’ run of eight in a row, and 11 in 13 seasons, would have had nothing to worry about.
Makes you realize, too, why he seems to avoid the spotlight now as the owner of the Charlotte Hornets. He did his time, and way more.
That was Jordan’s way of explaining what some assumed was a gambling addiction. And he nailed it. We had seen slices of his obsessive, even maniacal need to win in the first four episodes. But by the end of Sunday night, who wasn’t thinking at least a little, “Poor Toni Kukoc, Clyde Drexler and Dan Majerle.”
In discussing all three of them, you could hear echoes of Jordan’s notorious Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 2009, when he dredged up seemingly every grudge and triumph over nemeses dating back to the kid who stole his milk money. It wasn’t gracious. Frankly, it was vicious. But it was Jordan distilled, a glimpse that his wiring was intact, a reminder of how and why he was who he was.
That was made clear again as he added the three aforementioned rivals to the trash bin where he’d tossed Isiah Thomas earlier in the doc.
He and Pippen dismantled Toni Kukoc as “Dream Team” Dobermans in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as a surrogate for Bulls GM Jerry Krause. Krause, their resident nemesis in Chicago, was fawning over the Croatian Sensation while he still had the GOAT and his all-world sidekick chasing down championships for him.
Jordan made Drexler, Portland’s future Hall of Fame shooting guard, pay in the ’92 Finals just because they happened to play the same position and other people (not Clyde) had compared the two. With Majerle, it was back to showing up Krause, crushing a player in the ’93 Finals the GM admired.
A curious omission from Episode 6: Based on how personally he took things against Kukoc, Drexler and Majerle, we could have used a few inner-most thoughts on his motivation against Charles Barkley in the Phoenix series.
Resenting a regular-season MVP snub was enough for Hakeem Olajuwon against David Robinson in 1995. But given Jordan’s pathological need to destroy people and his long relationship with Charles, there had to be more than we got Sunday.
In 1990, Democratic nominee Harvey Gantt first challenged incumbent Jesse Helms in North Carolina for his U.S. Senate seat. Jordan, as that state’s biggest celebrity, declined to endorse Gantt, an African-American who was Charlotte’s first black mayor, against an opponent widely considered to be racist.
That’s when a quote uttered in jest trailed Jordan for years: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
"Republicans buy sneakers, too."@SamSmithHoops set the record straight on MJ's misunderstood quote:
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) May 4, 2020
These days, such a disinclination to take a stand would resonate, and in ways that could potentially impact the bottom line. Even in 1990, folks wondered and media asked if Jordan’s fiscal interests outweighed his civic responsibilities. In the documentary, Jordan explained why he stayed in his lane and simply sent a check to Gantt’s campaign.
“It’s never going to be enough for everybody, I realize that,” he said. “The way I go about my life, I set examples. If it inspires you, great. If it doesn’t maybe I’m not the person you should be following.”
Jordan sure seemed to spend a lot of pregame time in that one room off the Bulls’ locker room at United Center. We’ve seen him time and again in there, usually in street clothes, with pals such as Ahmad Rashad and Quinn Buckner. But mostly, we’ve noticed the guys who made up his security detail in there with Jordan.
On Sunday, when he wasn’t entertaining them by giving teammate Randy Brown grief while handing over a game ticket for a Brown associate, Jordan was pitching pennies (or some coin) and razzing those security staffers assigned to him by the organization. He was happy to take their money or give up his in yet another bit of casual competition.
RIP John Michael Wozniak. He passed in January and I’m sure he has a front seat watching this from heaven! https://t.co/Vrftv1G5ly
— Estee Portnoy (@esteep) May 4, 2020
Jordan had an easy rapport with those guys, around whom he seemed to let down his guard. Oh, everyone knew he was the boss in those situations, but their roles were so defined, it has looked – through all six episodes so far – that he was able to relax around them.
More so even than his teammates, who always represented some sort of challenge. If not to his supremacy in the Bulls’ pecking order, then an obstacle to defeat on the practice court or a possible slacker when it would be winning time.
Obviously, some wildly designed sneakers were not the secret to Jordan’s transcendence as arguably the greatest player in NBA history. An old pair of canvas Chuck Taylors still probably would have gotten him to Springfield.
But the Air Jordan I and all the variations that came after in his association with Nike did propel him to a level of business success and global popularity rarely, if ever, achieved by an athlete to that point.
Jordan and Nike had unveiled the shoes in a November 1984 game at Philadelphia in Jordan’s rookie season. The NBA took umbrage at the individualism in the shoe company’s packaging of the new star and threatened the Bulls and Jordan with a $5,000 fine for every game he wore them. Nike, naturally, would have been happy to write the checks – it couldn’t buy publicity like that (though the league, the shoemaker and Jordan reportedly reached a compromise agreement before any fines were levied).
Working in Milwaukee and writing about the Bucks at the time, I shifted my attention for a Bulls’ matinee bus ride up I-94 to the sneakers that weren’t sneaking up on anybody. Here is an excerpt from the next morning’s column:
Red and white and black all over, with coordinated laces and labels and swooshes, they look like a cross between the leftovers in the back of Elton John’s closest and a pair of rentals from [the nearest bowling alley]. Finally, something for Leroy Nieman to paint in … [Jordan], with his seven-figure endorsement contract and [4-foot] vertical leap, is literally and figuratively taking basketball shoes where no “tennies” have tread before …
The NBA has since approved the shoes. That leaves Jordan’s peers. There has been some speculation that the fancy footwear might offend players as being too individualistic. Especially on a rookie.
“I am very conscious of not being a prima donna,” said Jordan, who knows it could be a problem. “I wouldn’t want that if I were a veteran, and I try to put myself in our veterans’ shoes.”
The column ran with a big photo of Jordan’s shoes. Bookending it, on the other side of the type, was a photo from the game of Bulls teammate Quintin Dailey’s feet, adorned in some worn, unattractive, black-and-gray Pony brand low-cuts.
Turns out, when I asked Dailey if he too were getting into shoe entrepreneurship, he just shrugged and admitted he had forgotten to pack his game sneakers for the ride up from Chicago. So against the Bucks that afternoon, in an NBA game, he had used his “walkin’ around shoes.”
We’ve come a long way. And we’ve got four hours to go.
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