In the most vivid and moving scene of the recently concluded ESPN documentary “The Last Dance,” Michael Jordan grapples with the fact that his hard-driving ways likely alienated his Chicago Bulls teammates and kept him from being perceived as a nice guy.
“Look, winning has a price,” an emotional Jordan says. “And leadership has a price.”
“The Last Dance,” at its core, is a stark delineation of that price — more so, even, than it is a paean to the sheer greatness that was His Airness. We already knew that, though it was indeed instructive to teach a new generation why those of us of a certain age will go to our graves believing he was, is, and always will be the GOAT.
What was driven home to me was how profoundly lonely that existence was. The price Jordan paid for his single-minded obsession with winning was a steep one. In some ways it seemed to suck the very soul out of him, leaving him with few close friends (most of whom were the people who worked for him) and devoid of deep thoughts that weren’t devoted to getting the very best out of himself and his lesser-talented teammates — which was all of them.
Coaches will show their players Jordan’s “price of leadership” soliloquy for the rest of time. And athletes will draw inspiration from it for just as long. The six NBA titles speak eloquently to the success of his methods — maybe. I can’t help but wonder if Jordan wouldn’t have coaxed the same results by being supportive of his teammates rather than — and this word is accurate — bullying them. After all, they still would have had Michael Jordan to pull them to the promised land.
A quarter century later, Jordan still seems trapped in the grievances — real or imagined, profound or petty — that he clung to with maniacal tenacity to summon some extra level of brilliance. The two most-repeated phrases by Jordan in the documentary are “it became personal to me” or “that’s all I needed to hear.” And there’s some dark psychology in that kind of mindset.
According to the director, Jordan fretted before “The Last Dance” came out that people would think he was “a horrible guy” because of the way he rode teammate Scott Burrell (and Burrell wasn’t the only one who felt the sting of Jordan’s barbs).
That wasn’t my take-away at all, however. If anything, my admiration for Jordan rose after consuming the 10-hour product. Yes, as numerous people have pointed out, it was in many ways hagiography because of Jordan’s deep involvement in the production. The filmmakers didn’t dive deeply enough into less-savory aspects of his life, such as his compulsive gambling or his unsuccessful stint as a head of basketball operations (in Washington) and owner (in Charlotte). And the one-sided bashing of the Bulls’ late general manager, Jerry Krause, was unseemly.
But you still get a good feel for the imprisoned life Jordan led, unable to venture out publicly, feared more than revered by teammates, so solely focused on the next title that there wasn’t much time to enjoy the one in hand.
Maybe that’s why so much of the genuine emotion we see from Jordan comes in the immediate aftermath of the championships, when he finally allows himself to let go and let loose. The most moving example is when we see him on the locker room floor sobbing after wrapping up the 1995-96 title over the Sonics on Father’s Day, his first since his father’s murder.
There were enough touches of Jordan’s humanity to convince me that there is indeed a nice guy lurking within, one that he by choice sublimated for the cause of athletic success. And you can’t help but admire the sheer will that drove him on and off the court, which combined with his transcendent talent made Jordan an unstoppable force, which in turn made him a brand, and then a cultural touchstone.
What is also inescapable is the sheer charisma of Jordan (even now; when they handed him a tablet and let him react to someone else’s words, his facial expressions were absolutely riveting). And also his astonishing, balletic genius on the basketball court. I could truly watch 100 hours of Jordan highlights just to revel in the artistry of him floating through the air, seemingly change directions en route to the basket, and then defy all laws of gravity by hanging there, suspended in time, until his defenders touch ground.
The thrilling nostalgia of rediscovering Jordan in his prime made me love “The Last Dance,” even if it exposed (or soft-pedaled) some flaws in the man and all but ignored his post-basketball career, his family and his life away from the court.
As for Jordan the man, I came away with a deeper understanding that being an iconic superstar — one of the very few people in the history of sports for whom that term is not hyperbole — is a burden as much as a gift. And Jordan’s willingness to take on that burden in the manner he felt was most conducive to success, both personally and team-wise, is what ultimately defined him.
Yes, he paid a heavy price for the manner in which he pursued winning and leadership (or his inability and/or refusal to forge another direction). It made him an island unto himself. But it also made him Michael Jordan.