Michael Jordan reminds us who he really is with 'The Last Dance' — and it's not someone you want to be like

Leander Schaerlaeckens
·7 min read

Over the course of several decades, Michael Jordan built a kind of Michael Jordan Exceptionalism. And then he hid behind it.

This mythos more or less held that any of his bad behavior toward teammates was fine because he was Jordan and because that behavior was exactly what made him Jordan. This tautological reasoning gave Jordan the cover he needed to be considered the greatest basketball player of his time – or all time, but that’s beside the point here – without an ugly blemish on his body of work.

The mindset that he could do no wrong, even when he was plainly wrong, was foundational in building the Jordan brand. If the highest plane you could reach was to “Be like Mike”, then whatever Mike was must have been fine. More than fine, in fact. You were supposed to aspire to his mindset.

Yet there’s a moment at the end of the seventh episode of “The Last Dance” when it stops careening between hagiography and mild revelation and even Michael Jordan himself seems to arrive at a moment of genuine introspection, after we’d watched hour after hour of him treating his peers like dirt. It’s a quick, fine flash, really, in the context of the entire 10-hour thing. Jordan is asked if his success came at the expense of being perceived as a nice guy.

Michael Jordan's continued lack of self-awareness is one of the biggest takeaways from "The Last Dance." (JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images)
Michael Jordan's continued lack of self-awareness is one of the biggest takeaways from "The Last Dance." (JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images)

“Winning has a price and leadership has a price,” Jordan responds. “So I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. And I earned that right because my teammates who came after me, they didn’t endure all the things that I endured.”

Here, a clip plays of Jordan writhing in pain after a few hard fouls — suggesting that Jordan suffered the most physical punishment on the court and was therefore entitled to pay that abuse forward.

“Once you joined the team, you lived in a certain standard that I played the game,” Jordan continues. “And I wasn’t going to take anything less. Now, if that means I had to go in there and get on your ass a little bit, then I did that.”

The music crescendos. We see footage of Jordan lifting weights, of Jordan out ahead of his teammates in a running drill during practice. The pacing of Jordan’s words in the voiceover slows down. Then, the crux of the matter.

“When people see this, they’re gonna say, ‘He wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant,’” Jordan says, followed by a little pretend moan. “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.”

Then Jordan snaps to and considers his words and his entire participation in the documentary. “Look, I don’t have to do this,” he says, raising the palms of his hands. “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.”

Tears gather in his eyes, his voice breaks. Jordan calls for a break in filming.

The Last Dance” was entertaining — a pleasing, unchallenging amble down memory lane. As an act of journalism, it was feeble. But it added to our understanding of an extraordinary period in sports, even if it filtered that information through Jordan’s own, agenda-driven prism.

But the amazing thing about the series was that Jordan, with almost total editorial control, took no issue with the way it depicts him, that he signed off on this vantage point of his personality going out into the world.

There is precious little joy in “The Last Dance.” Jordan seems incapable of drawing much satisfaction from the six NBA titles he won in 6 1/4 seasons. Instead of marveling at the inarguably amazing things he did, he still seems to fixate, all these years later, on the things done to him – the slights, perceived or real.

He spent much of those 10 hours of prime TV time settling scores, writing people like Sonny Vaccaro out of history and diminishing his enablers. Jerry Krause, the general manager who snagged Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc, putting the pieces around Jordan that he needed to succeed, is reduced to a short, awkward, sniveling little man. (Krause also died in 2017 and isn’t around to defend himself.)

Imprisoned with an ego that towers even higher than his talents and accomplishments, Jordan seems to exist without self-awareness. Which is what makes the above snippet so revealing. Somewhere in there, he knows there is something for him to justify, behavior for him to excuse.

Yet the documentary goes to enormous lengths, hours of them, to make all of it, the bullying, the belittling, the punching of teammates, fine and dandy because they won a half dozen titles. Even Steve Kerr says he’s now OK with Jordan’s unprompted sucker punch to his face. Jordan never really reckoned with his flaws, and doesn’t want to now either.

With the likes of Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabar and LeBron James also in the GOAT debate, one wonders if Michael Jordan's remorseless behavior is actually an outlier when it comes to winning championships, and not the rule. (Brian Bahr /Allsport)
With the likes of Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James also in the GOAT debate, one wonders if Michael Jordan's remorseless behavior is actually an outlier when it comes to winning championships, and not the rule. (Brian Bahr /Allsport)

The fact that Bill Russell and LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or any of the other men in the conversation with Jordan as the greatest, weren’t nearly so cruel to their teammates isn’t entertained. Nor is the fact that very few of the transcendent stars in other sports felt the need to be such domineering colleagues, either. The possibility doesn’t seem to even occur to Jordan that he, and by extension the team he bent to his will, was great in spite of a consuming need to win that sometimes made him reckless.

If Michael Jordan has anything to do with it, we will never get a full and complete accounting of his life. One that actually acknowledges his marriages; that offers more than a cameo to his children; that delves deeper into his relationship with his father. Or the fact that he didn’t appear to have any friends beyond people who worked for him or worked with him or were in business with him. We will not get a more comprehensive accounting of Jordan’s career that passes through Jordan himself, and since he seems to have a stranglehold on all of the footage that makes a documentary worthwhile, that seems like a non-starter.

Still, what we got was a portrait of him, that he willingly signed off on, sketching an unhappy, petty middle-aged man carrying his grievances around like an anvil with no place to put them. Evidently, his triumphs and victories from two decades ago don’t sustain him. “We could have won seven,” Jordan says in the final minutes of the last episode about retiring and the team being broken up. “I really believe that. … Not being able to try, that’s something that I just can’t accept.”

In the end, the second-most revelatory thing about “The Last Dance” is what a one-dimensional, unamiable man Jordan was and remains. If he knows this about himself, he doesn’t care. But the real surprise is that after all these years, Jordan still buys into his own it-was-all-fine-because-we-won nonsense.

That this is the Michael Jordan he wanted us to see.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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