By STEPHEN WILSON
Be Like Mike.
Remember that jingle from the Gatorade commercials of the 1990s?
Well, that catchphrase has hurtled back into public consciousness over the past few weeks with the airing of The Last Dance, the documentary series chronicling Michael Jordan’s illustrious NBA career with the Chicago Bulls.
Michael Jordan earned the nickname His Airness. (Flickr)
The 10 episodes - aired by ESPN over five Sunday nights and distributed globally by Netflix - have been must-see viewing for millions of people around the world desperate for compelling sports programming during the coronavirus lockdown.
As a basketball junkie myself, I was swept up by each new installment featuring behind-the-scenes footage of the greatest player in NBA history – a legend who built the Bulls into a dynasty in the 1990s, won two Olympic gold medals and helped transform basketball into the global sport that it is today.
For me, the documentary elicited mixed feelings about Jordan the man, a domineering personality who bullied teammates and who, more than 20 years later, still harbors bitter grudges and berates former teammates and rivals alike.
Yet, while the image of Jordan is not always flattering, I gained new appreciation for the relentless drive, competitive fire and sheer commitment that set MJ apart.
Jordan defending against Kobe Bryant in the 1990s. (Flickr)
The series focuses on the 1997-98 “Last Dance” season in which the 36-year-old Jordan carried the Bulls to their sixth NBA title in eight years – and their second “three-peat” after previous consecutive championships from 1991-93.
The episodes also rewind to Jordan’s youth in North Carolina and trace the entire arc of his NBA and Olympic career, interspersed by interviews with teammates, coaches, rivals, friends, family, reporters and His Airness himself.
While basketball fans of a certain age already know how great Jordan was as a player, it’s still hard not to be dazzled by replays of his gravity-defying dunks, mid-air, switch-of-hands reverse layups and title-clinching jump shots.
The series has also brought Jordan to the attention of younger fans who have grown up idolizing Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. While LeBron may be the better all-round player, The Last Dance enhances Jordan’s reputation as the GOAT (greatest of all time).
It’s the portrayal of Jordan as a man and competitor that makes the series so engrossing. Even after 10 episodes the real Jordan remains somewhat of a mystery. Some viewers may dislike him after watching the series; others may love him more than ever.
The sit-down interviews with Jordan, now 57, make for fascinating theater. His face looks bloated and eyes blood-shot. A glass of tequila and a cigar are within his reach. He uses expletives freely. He belittles certain players and recalls the slights, real and perceived, that motivated him in the 1990s and still eat at him today.
It’s not all about the winning: Jordan’s penchant for high-stakes gambling, the murder of his father James in 1993 and his first retirement from the Bulls to play professional baseball are all also covered by the documentary. Jordan’s reluctance to speak out on political and social issues (he downplays his famous quote “Republicans buy sneakers too’’ as a throwaway line) is touched upon as well.
The emotional moments provide some of the most poignant drama. One scene shows Jordan sobbing loudly as he rolls on the floor in the locker room and cradles a basketball to his face. This occurred in June 1996 after Jordan had just won his first championship without his father.
Naturally, not everyone is happy with the documentary. Acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns was deeply critical of the fact that Jordan’s production company, Jump 23, was involved in the project.
“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 said.
Some players – notably former Bulls stars Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant -- are angry about how they are depicted.
Jordan won Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1992. (USA Basketball)
Jordan’s Olympic experiences frame part of the series. When the Games were still only for amateur athletes, Jordan led the U.S. to the gold medal in Los Angeles in 1984. In 1992, he was a star of the Dream Team that transfixed the world and won gold in Barcelona.
We see footage of that legendary pre-Olympic inter-squad practice game in Monte Carlo in ’92 where Jordan single-handedly propels his team to a comeback win over a team led by a trash-talking Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley.
We see Jordan strolling by himself into Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium. Later, we see him staring up at a giant poster of himself covering the entire side of a building in downtown Barcelona, testament to his status as a global icon.
We are reminded of Jordan’s bitter feud with former Detroit Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas, who was left off the Dream Team. We see how Jordan and Pippen went out of their way to shut down Croatian star Toni Kukoc in their Olympic opener to spite Bulls general manager Jerry Krause and his decision to draft the hot young prospect.
And who can forget that Jordan – the face of Nike -- refused to display the Reebok logo at the gold medal ceremony in Barcelona. Jordan is filmed riding in a car and griping: “Harvey Schiller, what a d---’ after receiving a message from the USOC executive saying he was required to wear the official team uniform.
Jordan got around the rules by draping an American flag over his shoulder to cover up the Reebok logo. Creative, yes. In the Olympic spirit, maybe not.
Jordan’s celebrity status inevitably had its drawbacks. He is shown surrounded by security guards wherever he went, mobbed by fans in the streets and hotel lobbies and cornered by throngs of media. To escape the frenzy, he is seen holed up in hotel rooms in a form of self-isolation.
It’s no wonder Jordan struggled to form emotional bonds with teammates over the years.
“It’s funny,’’ he says during a video shoot as a player. “A lot of people told me they’d like to try to be like Michael Jordan for a day or for a week, but they don’t understand that it’s no fun.’’
Jordan is the principal owner of the Charlotte Hornets. (Wikimedia Commons)
Jordan drove his teammates hard. He intimidated them. He was merciless to Scott Burrell. He got into a fight with Steve Kerr in practice. He demanded that they accept the same standards he set for himself.
“You ask all my teammates,’’ he says. “The one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn’t f------ do.”
For many, including myself, the defining emotional moment of the series comes in Episode 7 when Jordan opens up about how he is perceived by others.
“When people see this, they’re going to say, ‘He wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant,’” Jordan says. “No. That’s you. Because you never won anything.’’
He starts to choke up and gets teary eyed.
“Look I don’t have to do this,’’ Jordan continues. “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 way, don’t play that way.”
He then declares “Break’’ and gets up from his chair to end the interview before breaking down.
You may come away questioning Jordan’s likeability. You may wonder if he has any close friends from his playing days. You may ask if he has any regrets about how he treated others.
But you also come away marveling at how Jordan made his teammates better players, how he worked harder and cared more than everyone else, how he willed himself year in and year out to be the very best on the planet.
Because, after all, who wouldn’t want to Be Like Mike?
Stephen Wilson is the former long-time Olympic correspondent and European Sports Editor for The Associated Press. Contact him at email@example.com
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