As seemingly all of America has tuned in to “The Last Dance,” a debate has reignited over whether or not Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time (or GOAT, for the uninitiated). After watching the third night – which showcases Jordan’s unlimited competitive drive and alpha dog mentality – it’s a lot harder to argue that the GOAT is anyone but him.
The fifth episode begins on a bittersweet note: as Michael Jordan participated in what was likely to be his final All-Star Game (1998 at Madison Square Garden), a 19-year-old Kobe Bryant was playing in his first. Scenes from the locker room show Jordan and a number of other All-Stars complimenting the young Laker’s game, and Bryant gives an interview that was infinitely more emotional after his tragic death in January.
“[Jordan] said, if you ever need anything, give me a call,” Bryant said. “He’s like my big brother. I truly hate having discussions on who would win one-on-one … what you get from me is from him. I don’t get five championships here without him. He guided me so much and gave me so much great advice.”
Jordan, despite being the “old guy” among the All-Stars, wins MVP of that game at Madison Square Garden.
“If there was ever any doubt that he could have kept playing at an MVP and championship level, here’s the All-Star game,” Bob Costas said. “He’s still the star among stars.”
The show then dives into the birth of the Air Jordan shoes. In 1984, Jordan signed with agent David Falk, whose ProServ agency had mostly represented athletes in individual sports (Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe were two of his big clients). With Jordan, Falk wanted to “take a team sport player and treat him more like a boxer, or a golfer, or a tennis player” – which was somewhat of a bold strategy at the time.
Jordan famously signed with Nike, but it was far from his first choice. It may be hard to believe, but at the time, Nike was a smaller company. Converse was the official shoe of the NBA, and Jordan wanted to sign with Adidas. His mother convinced him to hear Nike’s pitch, where they offered him $250K for the deal – a staggering amount for a rookie. Thus, Air Jordan was born, and most people know how that turned out.
“Nike’s expectation when we signed the deal was that the end of the year four, they hoped to sell $3 million worth of Air Jordans,” Falk said. “In year one, we sold $126 million.”
He single-handedly elevated the company, and his shoes were a cultural phenomenon. “It was almost like holding a lightsaber from ‘Star Wars,’” said rapper Nas. “You needed the shoe to be like him.”
The show flashes to 1992, as the Bulls tried to defend their first championship. They faced Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trail Blazers, famously the team that passed over Jordan in the 1984 NBA Draft (they took Sam Bowie instead). Ahead of that series, Jordan and Drexler were considered the best two players in the NBA – but Jordan didn’t think they were equals.
“Clyde was a threat,” Jordan said. “But me being compared to him, I took offense to that.”
Jordan took it to Drexler and the Blazers, hitting five threes and scoring a record 35 points in the first half of Game 1. “It wasn’t even close. I attacked [Drexler] every night,” Jordan said.
After that Finals was the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, where the US fielded the famed “Dream Team.” The US, who only fielded amateurs up until that year, consistently got whooped in the Olympics. Then the Olympic Committee allowed NBA players on the team, and that year featured some of the league’s greatest ever players: Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley, among many others.
The one superstar who was not invited was Detroit’s Isiah Thomas, and many assumed it was because Jordan didn’t want him there. Jordan claimed it wasn’t just him who had beef – so did Johnson, Bird and Scottie Pippen – but admitted he was happy Thomas wasn’t there.
“The Dream Team, based on the environment and the camaraderie that happened on that team, it was the best harmony,” Jordan said. “Would Isiah have made a different feeling on that team? Yes.”
Despite the collection of superstars, Jordan proved himself to be superior to everybody. Johnson said it wasn’t just basketball: “We played cards every night, and if I had the upper hand, he wanted to play another hour. And he never wants to just beat you. He wants to put his foot on your neck.”
The Dream Team had a practice game in Monte Carlo, where Johnson and Barkley got off to a lead over Jordan’s team. As they trash talked Jordan relentlessly, they unleashed something within him.
“I said, look man, if you don’t turn into Air Jordan, we’re going to blow you out. Man, what did I say that for?” Johnson said. “He broke the huddle, hit a three, bam. Came back down, hit another three, bam. Came through the middle and shook everybody, bam. Before we knew it, they were up two.”
Johnson ended up throwing the ball into the stands in frustration.
“After that game, everyone acknowledged we were in a new era,” said Brian McIntyre, former senior communications advisor to NBA commissioner David Stern. “Michael Jordan was the alpha-alpha male. Period.”
After the Olympics, Jordan was the most popular and beloved figure in the world. But the show then pivots away from Jordan’s flowery, perfect image and dives into his more controversial moments. In 1990, Harvey Gantt, a black democrat, was challenging the outwardly racist Jesse Helms for a senate seat in North Carolina. Some called on Jordan, who grew up in North Carolina, to endorse Gantt and do a commercial with him. But he wouldn’t, infamously saying “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Helms would go on to win the race.
Barack Obama (who, by the way, is identified in this episode as “President Barack Obama” instead of “former Chicago resident“), weighed in.
“You would have wanted to see Michael push harder on that,” he said. “On the other hand, he was still trying to figure out how am I managing this image that has been created around me, and how do I live up to it?”
“I never thought of myself as an activist,” Jordan said. “I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably.”
Sam Smith’s book, “The Jordan Rules,” came out in 1993 and documented turbulence behind the scenes of the previous season – much of which didn’t make Jordan look great. The book claimed Jordan punched center Will Perdue during a practice, and said on numerous occasions he “was going to get Jerry Krause fired.” Krause was so furious that he called Phil Jackson into his office and forced him to read every quote.
In the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls faced the Knicks, who had “replaced the Bad Boy pistons as the team Chicago hated the most,” according to Michael Wilbon. Patrick Ewing documents the brutal games, in which New York employed a similar strategy as the late-80s Pistons teams. “It was extremely physical. It wasn’t really a foul until you drew blood,” Ewing said.
The Bulls lost the first two games, and after Jordan had a sluggish start to the series, news leaked that he went gambling in Atlantic City after Game 1. Questions emerged whether Jordan has a gambling problem, and hilariously, the doc shows Mike Francesa calling him out on the radio:
“It shows a lack of commitment to what is the goal right now, and that is to win a third championship,” Francesa said.
Of course, Jordan came back and dominated, leading Chicago to four straight wins and the NBA Finals (in a series that, to Knicks fans’ ire, featured the infamous sequence where Charles Smith was blocked four times to close out Game 5). Even amid a media frenzy where all anyone could talk about was Jordan’s gambling, he rose up and stepped on the Knicks’ throats.
The Bulls played Charles Barkley, Danny Ainge and the Phoenix Suns in the 1993 Finals. Barkley had won the MVP that year, and Jordan, ever the competitive maniac, felt slighted. “I was a little bit upset that I didn’t get the MVP that year. But, okay fine, you can have that, I’m going to get this.” It didn’t help the Suns that Dan Majerle, who Krause talked up as a “great defensive player,” was guarding him.
Jordan averaged 41 points per game in that series, which Chicago won in six. “That was 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. Sports are like a gunfight, and we lost to the fastest gun.”
Overall, night three is a fascinating dive into Jordan’s insanely competitive nature. He could never turn it off, not when he was playing basketball, not when he was playing golf, not at the casino. “I don’t have a gambling problem, I have a competition problem,” he said in 1993. It’s what made him so uniquely hungry, so dominant.
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