BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 05/18/2020

Thiel: ‘The Last Dance’ was Jordan’s self-salute

Lots of spectacle and revelations in “The Last Dance.” But it was less a documentary than a hagiography of Jordan, who even making bad decisions never seemed to lose.

Michael Jordan, lord of the rings. / Wiki Commons

Never before-seen scenes. Spectacular hoops video. Candid insights. Dramatic storytelling.

The Last Dance was a marvelously riveting, 10-hour valentine about the greatest dynasty in modern sports, the six-time NBA champion Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. It also made a point that everyone inside and around basketball knows, but typically is afraid to say.

Michael Jordan was an asshole. More precisely . . . is an asshole.

The documentary didn’t say it either. Somebody had to.

If you watched all or most of the series that concluded its five-week run on ESPN Sunday night, I bet you did too. On top of what you saw, to make this film, with Jordan’s business partners as executive producers and with Jordan as an investor in the project (proceeds to charity, it is said), you have to be an asshole, don’t you think?

Because the glimpses into the darker corners of his career — bullying of teammates, compulsive gambling, the first retirement into minor-league baseball, his hatred for Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, his father’s murder, his refusal to use his platform for social/political activism  — ended up rationalized, neutralized or glossed over.  Jordan didn’t lose on any of the dubious narratives. Because Jordan won’t allow himself to lose at anything.

It wasn’t a documentary. It was a hagiography (a biography that idealizes or idolizes the person, especially a person who is a saint).

Having said that, the film is an enthralling repository for some of the most majestic career highlights in team sports history, wrapped around a Tim-Burton-style cast of misshapen characters. The best outcome was that every basketball fan under 30 finally was properly schooled on the identity of the game’s best player. Kareem? Kobe? LeBron? Please.

But you knew that, right? I was hoping for honest biography. I got Space Jam with profanity and a re-discovery of a truly alien creature, Dennis Rodman.

I wanted the Ken Burns treatment. Speaking of whom, here’s what America’s eminent historical film storyteller had to say about Jordan telling his own story.

“If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made, it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in, aren’t going to be in, period,” Burns told the Wall Street Journal recently, saying he would “never, never, never, never” allow such a partnership on one of his films.

“That’s not the way you do good journalism,” he said, “and it’s certainly not the way you do good history, my business.”

But for all my skepticism about the project, I was dumbfounded by the amazing saga in episode 10 recounting Rodman’s departure in the middle of the 1998 Finals against Utah to take part in a WCW event in Auburn Hills, Mich.

I must have been consumed by some Seattle-centric drama around Ken Griffey Jr., because I had no recollection of the story of him leaving Salt Lake City between games three and four on a chartered plane to hang with Hulk Hogan and the other steroidals for 24 hours.

He skipped a Bulls Monday practice without notice, got back Tuesday and in Game 4 Wednesday had 14 points in 29 minutes off the bench. The Bulls won to go up 3-1 in the series, which they eventually won 4-2 for the much-hailed sixth title in eight years.

And you thought Sonics coach George Karl had his hands full with Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.

The fact that Jordan and coach Phil Jackson navigated the Rodmaniac disruption in the middle of a national championship is, by itself, worthy of an episode.

“The beauty of Dennis joining the Bulls (when he did) was we had a really mature team,” said then-teammate Steve Kerr, now the Golden State Warriors coach. “There were a lot of veteran players, and Phil had a beautiful connection with Dennis, and so did his teammates. That gave Dennis the freedom and the space he needed.

“It wasn’t a thing where we were all complaining about Dennis not making it to a practice. We just sort of understand he was his own man, and he did so much for our team that it allowed him that freedom.”

Regarding Jordan and his gnarly treatment of lesser teammates throughout his career, he offered an emotional defense in episode 7 of his ruthlessness by saying his critics never won anything, a retort most of us have exhausted by eighth grade.

“Winning has a price. And leadership has a price,” he said. “So I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they don’t want to be challenged. And I earned that right because my teammates came after me. They didn’t endure all the things that 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 have to go out there and get in your ass a little bit, then I did that. You ask all my teammates, the one thing 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, ‘Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.’ Well, that’s you, because you never won anything (starts to tear up). I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well. I don’t have to do this. I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that, don’t play that way . . . break.”

Jordan then moves out of the scene, a little upset. In the episode, the director interviews some of Jordan’s victims — Kerr, Toni Kukoc, Scott Burrell — who offer varying degrees of acceptance for Jordan’s “tough love.” And the rings prove Jordan’s point, right?

I would have liked to have heard someone say, “You know, Mike, I bet we would have won just as many rings without your kneel-before-Zod, ego-gratification bullshit.”

For a more unscripted view of Jordan’s desire to have something over on everyone, let us turn to his infamous induction speech in September 2009 at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA.

Observers knew right away it was going to get petty when he invited as his presenter former Sonics and NBA All-Star guard David Thompson, who played college ball at North Carolina State, rival of his alma mater, North Carolina, thereby dissing all the Tar Heels in the crowd.

Adrian Wojnarowski, now of ESPN, was with Yahoo! Sports then and covered the event. He summarized it well:

This wasn’t a Hall of Fame induction speech, but a bully tripping nerds with lunch trays in the school cafeteria. He had a responsibility to his standing in history, to players past and present, and he let everyone down. This was a night to leave behind the petty grievances and past slights – real and imagined. This was a night to be gracious, to be generous with praise and credit.

“M.J. was introduced as the greatest player ever and he’s still standing there trying to settle scores,” one Hall of Famer said privately later.

Jordan didn’t hurt his image with the NBA community as much as he reminded them of it. “That’s who Michael is,” one high-ranking team executive said. “It wasn’t like he was out of character. There’s no one else who could’ve gotten away with what he did tonight. But it was Michael, and everyone just goes along.”

That’s what happened with “The Last Dance” — everyone just goes along with whatever Jordan thinks is true. As when Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who also hired Jordan to play minor league baseball in 1994 for his Chicago White Sox farm team, got away unchallenged with saying that if given more time, there was “no doubt” Jordan would be a major leaguer.

Even the few highlights of Jordan batting for the Class AA team showed the long, loopy swing that was never going to be correctable in a 32-year-old athlete, no matter how skilled.

And setting up Krause as the homely little fat guy that everyone mocked, often to his face, because the story needed an antagonist to Jordan’s protagonist, was plain cruel.   Yes, he was an annoying control freak, but Krause hired Jacksson and twice built the Bulls into champions. He died in 2017 and had few defenders in the film.

And before you ask: No. I don’t think putting Payton on Jordan throughout the 1996 Finals, instead of just the final three games, would have changed the outcome.  The 1995-96 Bulls won 72 regular-season games and were the best team in NBA history. Period. Although I wish Karl had put Frank Brickowski on Dennis Rodman for all six games. That matchup would have its own series on National Geographic Wild.

So, no bitterness here from a Seattle columnist. A self-gratifying hagiography takes nothing away from the Bulls winning six titles in eight years despite the tensions and spectacles of being a global sports phenomenon.

The success, however, did seem to burn up all the NBA karma for Chicago. In the 21 years since the sixth Jordan title, the Bulls have had eight winning seasons. They’ve played 15 playoff series, losing 10, reaching the conference finals once, in 2011.

It’s a little like what happened after the Mariners’ 116-win season of 2001 — to create that masterpiece season, every bit of the baseball gods’ goodwill was sucked from the franchise’s subsequent two decades.

The analogy is only six titles short of being dead-on.


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YourThoughts

  • DJ

    Thanks Art! I took the Last Dance as Michael telling us his version of what it took be the ultimate master of his craft, and to bring others along with you. As a Sonics fan, I now have a better realization and respect for what we were up against in the ‘96 finals – really explains the “Puh-leeez!” reaction I got from a Chicago native when debating that series. Every one of the side interviews of his teammates supports that Jordon was responsible for elevating those around him.

    What stood out to me was the kind of isolated life he was restricted to, his having the focus to always be able to bring it on the court regardless of what was going on in his life, no matter how tragic, and always being gracious with the press and the public. I don’t believe that Michael was looking for any sympathy regarding his hardships. The story of his Dad was more a dedication to his Dad. It takes a special and strong person to navigate all that he’s had to navigate, while avoiding controversy and in the end having the financial freedom to enjoy. His success is a tribute to his upbringing. Michael Jordon was and is a phenomenon.

    • art thiel

      Most top-tier athletes experience some isolation, but the rewards outweigh the obstacles. I think the filmmakers were in awe of Jordan, which sacrificed honest storytelling for the viewer. I’m a fan of honesty over gee-whiz.

  • Alan Harrison

    Yes, Michael Jordan was the best. Yes, he was/is an asshole. The latter is why I didn’t care much about the former. Reminded me of Magic Johnson as a coach – he never understood why the “kids” didn’t practice as hard as he did. As an owner/king, Jordan is no different. As far as doing a whatever-that-was-but-it-certainly-wasn’t-a-documentary without having equal time from Jerry Krause…picking on a dead man is not cool. But that’s entertainment.

    • art thiel

      Some great athletes can manage their most ruthless impulses, like Barkley and Shaq. Jordan can’t. He tried to re-write a little history with this series by glossing over the dark stuff. ESPN didn’t care; the first letter in the acronym stands for Entertainment, not journalism.

  • Tim

    I had great hopes of the Sonics winning the championship in 1996. But when Rodman goaded Frank Brickowski into getting ejected, I knew the series was over. Jordan may be the greatest of all time, but he couldn’t have won as many rings without Rodman and his mind games.

    • art thiel

      I think it came through that Rodman was a huge asset, regardless of behavior. The Bulls needed contributions from many, and I get that’s why Jordan felt compelled to be ruthless to them. But he’ll never admit he went too far with some, and they won’t say anything.

      • Husky73

        I was impressed by John Paxson. He had some very interesting insights. He was an important component of those teams.

  • Paul Nelson

    Well done, Art. From a Bulls fan in Seattle.

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Paul. My hope for the series was that Jordan was strong enough to stand with the truth. Alas . . .

      • Paul Nelson

        A key phrase from the article: “his refusal to use his platform for social/political activism…” I always felt he could have been the Ali for our age. Instead he invested in a motorsports team and something else on the side. I’ve not watched a minute of this hagiography. Ugh.

        • art thiel

          An opportunity lost. The film is another business decision to enhance his popularity at the expense of honesty.

  • Husky73

    Speaking of movies—“I knew it. I’m surrounded by assholes.” (Dark Helmet, in Space Balls)

    • art thiel

      Good that you quote from the greats.

  • jafabian

    I’ve always thought that Jordan’s rookie year was a negative experience that had a long lasting impact on him. Right off the bat NBA personnel and media criticized him for his red-and-black Air Jordans. How dare he have them named after himself and not follow the white shoes standard. (The Celtics not withstanding.) Then there was the All-Star Game Weekend. From being criticized for being out of uniform and opting for Nike wear (in his defense there was no uniform requirement at the time) for wearing double necklaces for the contest and being told he was wearing a Mr. T starter kit to the now legendary freeze out during the game. Then to win only 38 games for the season and for it to be a 9 game improvement. Everything became personal to him. He upped his wardrobe and how he presented himself publicly. The Bulls canned Coach Kevin Loughrey and several veterans. Maybe the Bulls are at fault for kow-towing to him. Or North Carolina. And after his father’s murder he seemed to become less grounded. I get his no holds barred approach to winning championships but for every Michael Jordan and his a-holeness there’s a Steph Curry, Lebron James or Magic Johnson who have done it a little better.

    I agree if GP was guarding MJ the entire Finals in ‘96 wouldn’t have changed who won but I’d like to think it would have gone 7. But the ‘93 Sonics? Who got robbed in the West Finals against Phoenix? Coach Karl has said if it happened he would have put Derrick McKey on Jordan. Might have been a better matchup overall.

    • art thiel

      That’s quite a compilation of his rookie-year “insults.” You may be right. It’s the sort of thing that keeps him seething for a lifetime. That’s why I’d like Ken Burns to do Jordan’s story, not Jordan.

    • LarryLurex70

      The defensive matchup wasn’t the problem in Game 7 in ‘93. I’m not normally one to point to shoddy/questionable officiating when my favourite teams lose, but there’s definitely a case to be made there. NBA/NBC wanted a Barkley/Jordan matchup, and they got it.

      • art thiel

        Worst high-profile episode of business prevailing over sports integrity in my time.

        • wabubba67

          That game was so obviously handled by the NBA. That game should make for a three episode documentary. Such a great Sonics team… superior to the 1996 version.

    • wabubba67

      McKey might have been the perfect player (other than Payton) to bother Jordan. Long enough to guard inside, but still quick enough to guard and effect shot attempts from the outside.

      I’ll still take the attitude and quickness of Payton over McKey. Payton is more active on the defensive perimeter…able to deny the ball, and then get in Jordan’s grill after he catches it.

  • Husky73

    Jordan’s HOF speech was the second most notorious. Mike Love’s will always stand as unrivaled.

    • art thiel

      Missed hat one.

      • LarryLurex70

        It’s worth a YouTube search.

        • Husky73

          Epic.

    • 1coolguy

      Love’s was very strange, agreed

      • Husky73

        Mike hovered behind a very shaky Brian Wilson as Brian was struggling reading from notes. Mike even leaned in and interrupted Brian before Mike took over. Later in the evening, Bob Dylan spoke and said, “I want to thank Mike Love for not mentioning me.” And apparently, back stage, Carl Wilson cornered Mike and said, “Our career is over.”

  • Husky73

    Did anyone else notice Jordan’s yellow eyes? Liver problems?

    • jafabian

      It’s made the news for sure. They look jaundiced. Reminds me of how Walter Payton’s eyes looked like the last few months he was with us.

    • art thiel

      Hard to miss, but I’ll wait until Dr. Trump makes the diagnosis.

    • LarryLurex70

      He’s had that for years. It’s definitely not new.

  • LarryLurex70

    Thank God it’s over. Admittedly, I didn’t watch beyond probably week 3. It was too much, as I never did manage to jump on the Jordan/Bulls bandwagon like so many front runners did in the ‘90’s. Honestly, I rarely use the word “hate” towards any pro athlete – it’s just sports, not life. It doesn’t have to be THAT serious – but, I definitely reserved it for Michael Jordan in the 1990’s, long before the 1996 NBA Finals. In fact, I cannot STAND Nike nor North Carolina because of him. By the time of that series, I had reached the point of asking, “must he win EVERYTHING all the time?!” I don’t mind seeing a team other than the ones that I like in each league win the title. I can live with that. But, when the out-of-market “fans” start crawling out of the woodwork and chirping everyone else who doesn’t also support that same team as if they’ve been a longtime fan since day 1, I can’t help but hate that team and the face of it with a passion untamed. Lots of out-of-market “Bulls fans” once they started winning titles. It was still too much of a bitter pill, and ultimately why I couldn’t really get up for The Last Dance. I really believe it was more for the millennials who never saw him play anyway. Particularly the ones who think Bryant is their Jordan and/or believe James is the greatest to ever lace ‘em up. No, I don’t ever indulge in THAT discussion. It’s ridiculous.

    That said, as a documentary advertised and intended as a peek behind the curtain of the Bulls 1997-98 season, The Last Dance failed hard. I’m still scratching my head wondering what the hell the Isaiah Thomas backstory from 1991-1992 has anything at all to do with 1997-98. Thomas had retired 3-4 years BEFORE that. I do find it curious how Isaiah Thomas is/was portrayed, though not at all surprising. He wasn’t any less cutthroat in his desire to take his team to the winner’s circle, yet he’s vilified for it to this day. All because he didn’t bow down and kiss Jordan’s feet on his way back down the ladder. If that’s not the definition of petty on Mike’s part – we already knew from his HoF induction speech that he was – I don’t know what is.

    Jordan was a hell of a ball player, no doubt. But, there are also a select few other names that are just as deserving of being tossed into “that” debate that I’m usually loathe to participate in. Hopefully the he’s-the-all-time-greatest-at-EVERYTHING propaganda will come to an end once actual games – in ANY major North American sports league – make a welcomed return to the spotlight.

    And, for what it’s worth, it’s almost embarrassing seeing/hearing/reading anyone from the 1995-96 Sonics (or their fans) believing that team could’ve beaten Chicago if only George had made the defensive switch earlier. No. Just stop it. NO team on earth was beating Chicago THAT year. But, let’s talk about 1993…

    • jafabian

      People said the 2001 Mariners were unbeatable when the playoffs started. Anything can happen in the postseason of any sport.

      • LarryLurex70

        The difference between the 1996 Bulls and 2001 Mariners is one team had a core group that had already proven itself on the big stage. The other did not.

        • art thiel

          The Bulls didn’t have a pedigree until they upset the Lakers in ’91.

          • John Hammargren

            Art, I love your work. Having said that, the Bulls beating the Lakers in ’91 was not an upset. For the record, I think the Blazers got the Stern treatment in Game 1 of the WCF against the Lakers that season. Stern had to get Magic vs. Michael at least once.

          • LarryLurex70

            Yes, but I was responding to someone who referred to my alluding to the ‘Supes chances in ‘96 against what I deemed an unbeatable Bulls squad. And, I’ve never felt the result of the ‘91 Final was an upset any more than the ECF that year was. The Bulls had been up-and-coming for 2-3 years before that. Detroit and L.A. were hanging on to what they’d already done during that same time. In hindsight, the Lakers were lucky to even get game 1.

    • art thiel

      The Thomas-Jordan rivalry was a big deal at the time, particularly over the Dream Team snub. Jordan and his defenders in the film claim he did nothing to block Thomas, but that’s another example of Jordan dodging responsibility and going unchallenged in the film.

      Regarding resentment of Jordan’s success, that happens to every superstar who sustains it. Montana, Favre, Brady, Russell, Kareem, etc. Mostly, we’re jealous that he’s not OUR guy.

      • LarryLurex70

        The Jordan-Thomas dynamic was somewhat of “a big deal at the time”, yes…but not during the 1997-98 season. Jordan just wanted to use The Last Dance as an opportunity to control the narrative, shape public opinion and drag his adversaries in retirement.
        And, regarding resentment of the success of other all-timers who didn’t play for my favourite teams, rarely have I been jealous and wished they played for the team I liked. I never once wished Jordan wore Sonic green. I just wanted to see him lose when it mattered. Same goes for the Magic-led Lakers, whom I still can’t stand to this day, and whose greatness I didn’t appreciate until he retired in 1991. Once the Bulls started winning and their out-of-market “fans” walked around with their chests puffed out, I just wished for ANY team to beat theirs in June.

        • art thiel

          So out-of-market fans can’t adopt a team as their own? I missed that rule.

          • LarryLurex70

            Pretty sure I made it clear it’s the front runners who jump on an out-of-market bandwagon once they start playing for and winning championships.

          • Husky73

            Husky73 <—– Dodgers fan since the late 1950's.

          • LarryLurex70

            Me too. Since age 11 in 1981. Probably because of Lasorda more than anything else.

      • 1coolguy

        I am in the camp of respecting Jordan’s skill and the tremendous memories I will always carry of watching him live in Seattle. I am very aware of the animosity shown Jordan and that is for each person to choose, but I do not recall that same level of vitriol shown in your list Art: Montana, Favre, Brady, Russell, Kareem: Is it annoying they seemingly ALWAYS won? Yes, and that’s what fans often feel toward the guy at the top, but vitriol toward these guys? No, and nothing like that shown toward Jordan.

        • art thiel

          My list could have included Lance Armstrong, Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, Bob Gibson . . . sports have many premier athletes who have difficult personalities that put off and even damage the people around them. It’s a broad field that is little understood, except that most fans don’t know or prefer not to care.

    • Husky73

      Good post. You must revel in the Charlotte Bobcats.

      • LarryLurex70

        No, not at all. Much like the OKC Thunder, I rarely waste my time on opposing teams that don’t win anything, unless they’re a direct/division/geographic rival to the team that I like.
        The Hornets could definitely use a makeover though. I’ve actually thought about this long before today, and am surprised Jordan hasn’t already changed the name from Charlotte to Carolina, and adopted a colour scheme similar to the Panthers.

        • Husky73

          That’s an interesting thought. Good one.

  • Kirkland

    Question from someone who didn’t watch (not an NBA fan): Was there enough material for a substantive, multi-part documentary without Jordan’s participation?

    • art thiel

      That was the trade-off. Lots of videographer access was granted in ’98 that was held for 22 years until Jordan and associates deemed it time.

  • B-squared

    I enjoyed it. Whether we like it or not there are far too many a$$holes in the world so having an apex-a$$hole makes more of humanity seem a little nicer.

    • art thiel

      Well, that’s one way to look at it. What I wrote didn’t mean Jordan shouldn’t be an asshole, just that he be accountable for consequences. Someone independent of Jordan should have been in charge of this story, to hold Jordan accountable.

      • B-squared

        totally agree

  • 1coolguy

    I enjoyed all 10 episodes, mostly because as a long time Sonic season ticket holder, watching Jordan on the court was a true, once in a lifetime experience, akin to watching Griffey in center field, who I consider a larger Willie Mays, my childhood idol.
    What was instructive to me was the dichotomy watching Jordan the BB player vs Jordan the baseball player. The BB Jordan was on a mission to win at all costs, the world championship every season, and he rode the team hard, and took on all that teams pressure, whether it be scoring or the press.
    The baseball Jordan was a completely different man, one who appeared to be his true self, riding buses to games not jets, being a less than average player, not the one expected to hit home runs every game, the “no pressure” Jordan. No press, and teammates who were average Joe’s playing for their big chance for the Bigs but knowing it would rarely happen. Dressing in jeans and a t-shirt after games, not the immaculate and expensive suits, again there is that perfection part, to keep up his BB persona.
    I happen to think the “baseball Jordan” is who he is inside, not the “basketball Jordan”.

    • art thiel

      Good observations. I don’t know about inside vs. outside. I do think Jordan, as with the rest of us, has contradictory behaviors.

  • woofer

    And just in case you happened to miss it on the first two tries, let me say it once again….Perfect.

    • art thiel

      Sorry, I lost track of your reference. Help.

      • woofer

        A too oblique take on your multiple mentions of St. Michael’s holiness. Apologies for the obscurity.

        • art thiel

          Got it. Thanks.

  • wabubba67

    Someone always has to be the bad guy in a tremendously successful sports franchise. It’s usually the head coach. I think it’s interesting that Jordan’s hyper-competitiveness allowed the more relaxed philosophies of Phil Jackson to thrive…and be able to welcome a sole (supremely talented) outlier like Rodman. With a typically stern head coach, Rodman becomes much more problematic for a team.

    • LarryLurex70

      As Bob Hill found out the hard way in San Antonio.

    • art thiel

      The role of demanding leader on a sports team has a long history. And as I wrote, the rest of the NBA of the day knew well how Jordan treated teammates. My issue is that the film always let Jordan have the last word, and never found a player to say on the record how often he needlessly brutalized people. They do exist.

  • Leigh Garrett

    I never expect journalism from ESPN. That said, some of the 30 for 30 episodes are interesting.

    AS for Jordan, I have always admired his determination. But He needed to learn that most teammates do want to win; he’s not the only competitor.

    • art thiel

      The 30s have had more independence, but for this project, hagiography was the unspoken order.

      You’re right about Jordan believing his way was the only way.