A full analysis of episodes VII and VIII
Back in April, Michael Jordan expressed that he might not be coming out of soon-to-be-released The Last Dance documentary looking like a likable figure.
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Throughout his decorated career, his feats on the basketball court were legendary. But almost equally legendary were the whispers of his being a less-than-ideal teammate.
Everybody knows the story about his fistfight with teammate Steve Kerr during practice. Sam Smith (the Chicago Bulls beat writer, not the Too Good at Goodbyes singer) told a story about how Jordan would take away Horace Grant’s airplane food after a bad game. He was ridiculously competitive. In The Last Dance, he even admits, “I don’t have a gambling problem, I have a competition problem.”
This pair of episodes tackles a few things: the death of Michael’s father, his retirement, his short-lived baseball career, his return to basketball. But mostly it gave a peek into his mentality as a competitor. He gives this emotional speech at the end of Episode VII speaking about his attitude towards teammates and towards winning.
“Winning comes at a price. And leadership comes at a price. I pulled people when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. And I earned the right, because my teammates who came after me didn’t endure all the things I endured.
Once you join the team, you live at a certain standard that I play the game. And I wasn’t gonna take anything less. Now, if that means I had to go in and get in your ass a little bit, then I did that. You ask all my teammates, the one things they’ll say about Michael Jordan was, he never asked me to do something that he didn’t fucking do.
When people see this, they’re gonna say, he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant. Well, that’s you. Because you never won anything.
I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well. Look I don’t have to do this, I only do this because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality.
If you don’t wanna play that way, don’t play that way.”
He calls for a break in filming afterwards. It’s a poignant moment, a rare look into the psyche of Jordan in as vulnerable a state as we’ve seen him.
But that’s the second theme to this string of episodes. For most people, vulnerability is a weakness. But for MJ, vulnerability is the calm before the storm.
You don’t want to face MJ when he’s vulnerable. Because when he’s vulnerable, he’s motivated. And when he’s motivated, there is nothing that can stop him.
You can ask LaBradford Smith, a rookie who dared to have one good game against Jordan. Michael would use a post-game comment of “Nice game, Mike” to fuel himself. In a rematch a few days later, Jordan dropped almost the same amount of points on Smith—in just the first half. (Jordan later admitted that Smith never said “Nice game, Mike” which shows the lengths that MJ went through to motivate himself.)
You can ask BJ Armstrong of the Charlotte Hornets, a former Bulls teammate in the first three-peat who torched Jordan and the Bulls in Game 2 of a playoff series in 1998 and celebrated. Jordan made sure Armstrong would not get going the rest of the way, and the Bulls won all three of the next games.
Or you can ask Horace Grant, another former Chicago teammate. He left during Jordan’s retirement and became part of the Orlando Magic, alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway. They were the one and only team to beat MJ’s Bulls in a playoff series since Jordan became a champion back in 1991.
Let’s put all the caveats in place. Michael retired and played baseball—transforming his elite basketball body into one more suited for a different sport. Michael made a triumphant comeback one season later, but it was late in the season (he only played 17 regular season games plus the playoffs) and he was far from being in basketball shape.
The Bulls ran into Grant and the Magic in the ‘95 Eastern Conference Semifinals and beat the vulnerable Jordan and the vulnerable Bulls. But that image of Horace celebrating on the Chicago home floor on his new teammates’ shoulders—that was motivation.
So in response to that, Michael took the summer to get back into peak basketball condition (all while somehow shooting a feature film, Space Jam, for several hours of his day). Then Chicago turned in what was—at the time—the greatest regular season run ever seen. A record 72 wins—the first and only 70-win season in NBA history until the modern-day Golden State Warriors breached the mark 20 years after the Bulls did.
And when Chicago and Orlando had their eventual rematch in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1996? The Bulls swept them 4-0.
See, Michael may have been right. Maybe he doesn’t come out of this a nice guy. But for many, that isn’t new information. And sure, maybe more people learn that fact now—a lot of people are watching The Last Dance.
But nice guy or not—it doesn’t really matter. Because in his monologue, at his most vulnerable, Michael hit on the truth.
He won—and that’s the legacy he left behind. There are plenty of nice guys in this world. Some of them may even have been in the league. But there are very few athletes who have been winners quite like Michael Jordan has been.
But more importantly, he played that way because it was who he is.
The Last Dance may no longer be portraying him as a nice guy, but it paints a layered, emotional, human Michael Jordan. And that, for my money, is a much more compelling character, and one I want to root for.
There are two episodes left in The Last Dance and that means next week’s review will be the last. Still, there’s a lot of ground left to cover. Episode VIII ended with Reggie Miller, talking about wanting to retire Jordan. Good luck with that, Reg!
In these episodes, you have baseball guys saying Michael would’ve made it to the major leagues if he had the repetitions. There’s an alternate universe where Jordan never stops playing baseball, and I wonder what kind of legacy he would have left then.
This week on great Jordan moments: “The Double Nickel.” In just his fifth game back after his year-plus hiatus from NBA basketball, he drops 55 points against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Even after time away, Michael is still Michael.
Words Mikkel Bolante
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver