Sports

Michael Jordan Is Exactly Who I Thought He Was

Michael Jordan sits in a chair and gesticulates.
Talking about what it takes to win, probably, in The Last Dance. ESPN3 • NBA

There is a scene in The Last Dance, ESPN’s documentary on Michael Jordan and the Bulls, that has stuck with me. It was 1993, and the Bulls had just won the NBA Finals again. In a dark and quiet corner of the America West Arena in Phoenix, Jordan took a seat and rested his chin in one of his famously large hands, nearly alone in his triumph for a fleeting moment (or as alone as Michael Jordan can ever be). He wore a white cap and an oversize white T-shirt decorated with caricatures of himself and his teammates in celebration of their first three-peat, but he didn’t seem particularly gratified. “Do I have to do anything else?” he asked his handlers, the agitation apparent in his voice. “Can I just sit here for a few minutes?”

Someone off camera holding a phone asked Jordan if he wanted to speak with his wife. He nodded, reached for the phone, and then the scene was over, before he could speak. It was the documentary’s first direct acknowledgment that Jordan even had a wife, and it was Episode 6. Five months later, Jordan retired from basketball for the first time, citing his loss of desire for the game.

For a 10-part documentary that promised unprecedented access into Jordan’s world, that scene says it all: There is no getting to know “the real Michael Jordan.” Or, more precisely, this is who he is: an emotionally walled-off, dickish, phenomenal basketball player who doesn’t have much to give off the court. The big question I had going into The Last Dance was, “Is there anything more to Michael Jordan than basketball?” If this documentary is the final word on his legacy, the answer is: apparently not.

Jordan himself might agree. In a February 2013 ESPN the Magazine profile on the occasion of his 50th birthday, Jordan hinted that he was still searching for meaning, for a fulfilled life away from the court.

“His self-esteem has always been, as he says, ‘tied directly to the game,’ ” wrote Wright Thompson, author of the story. “Without it, he feels adrift. Who am I? What am I doing?”

Michael Leahy’s 435-page book When Nothing Else Matters, which documents Jordan’s second attempted basketball comeback, this time with the Washington Wizards, feels instructive here: Leahy finds Jordan again in search of success and adoration, three years removed from his final season—the last dance, eh?—with the champion Chicago Bulls. When Leahy, a Washington Post journalist, starts his reporting, Jordan is in a bit of a midlife crisis, as his new career running the Wizards’ basketball operation had been a disappointment. The Wizards’ co-owners and other NBA front-office types suspected Jordan didn’t have the work ethic necessary for success in that role. The team went 36–89 with Jordan as an executive in two seasons, neither of them resulting in a playoff berth. So Jordan gave in, again, to his apparently unquenched desire for basketball, or at least returned to the only thing that really made him feel like himself, descending heroically from the executive suite to restore the fortunes of the Wizards and his own flagging reputation.

Jordan “said to me that nothing compared to playing, nothing. It was a kind of plea,” Leahy wrote in the first chapter of the book. The title of the book is literal.

When Nothing Else Matters confirms a lot of what The Last Dance presents, but it also busts a central idea that Jordan and his doc (Jordan’s own production company produced the series) put forward: Jordan’s abusive behavior to his teammates and unmatched nursing of grudges were just what it took to win. This theory is most succinctly expressed at the end of the seventh episode, when Jordan seems to tear up as he explains why he was such a hard-driving asshole to his teammates, menacing them both physically and mentally.

“When people see this they’re going to say he wasn’t really a nice guy—he may have been a tyrant,” Jordan says over a montage of inspiring championship moments in Chicago. Then he turns it back on the skeptics. “Well that’s you. Because you never won anything.”

Which brings us to the Wizards, a franchise that ranks 25th among 30 NBA teams in all-time winning percentage.

Diminished by age, injury, and three years of inactivity, Jordan’s old motivational tactics held little sway over his new teammates in D.C. In the past, he could casually destroy old teammates like Dennis Hopson and Scott Burrell because his greatness gave him wide latitude. He was just demanding excellence of others because he demanded it of himself, the line goes. But in D.C., Leahy faithfully documented Jordan’s ungracious and often abusive treatment of the other players. It was Leahy who reported on the then-scandalous news that Jordan referred to former No. 1 draft pick Kwame Brown—the first player out of high school to be picked so high in the draft—as a “fucking flaming faggot” during practice.

One of Jordan’s former coaches, Tex Winter, saw a seething resentment that rarely served Jordan’s teams well: “I think he expects too much from teammates. No doubt, an awful lot of the players that he’s played with in the past, at least in their own minds, believe he alienated them; they’ve resented the treatment they’ve received.”

While The Last Dance ultimately presents Jordan’s treatment of his teammates as necessary (even that blissful Bulls season after his first retirement didn’t end in a championship win), Winter told Leahy that he “didn’t think the humiliations had been good for morale” and he “worried that a new generation of superstars now emulated Jordan’s criticism of lesser teammates.” Winter knows what he’s talking about: He saw what Jordan’s influence wrought while working for the Los Angeles Lakers, where Kobe Bryant was then attempting his best Jordan impersonation.

Another piece of evidence that cuts against Jordan’s mythmaking: At the end of his first season, the Wizards traded promising young shooting guard Richard “Rip” Hamilton because Jordan and head coach Doug Collins doubted his toughness and sturdiness. If Jordan’s cruelty and championship pedigree were supposed to rub off on him, it fell far short: Hamilton became the leading scorer for an NBA champion in Detroit two years later.

“His lashings exceeded some threshold now. His words sounded like a threat. Something broke in his young teammates,” Leahy wrote of Jordan’s time with the Wizards. In the end, his teammates largely resented him. When Jordan retired again, they didn’t even buy him a goodbye present.

In any case, he was always alone. In both Leahy’s honest portrayal of Jordan’s final attempt at greatness and The Last Dance’s ultimately unsuccessful bid at romance, Jordan made becoming a champion seem like such a grueling, solitary performance. You can see why remembering how it isolated him from others might bring him to tears. Be Like Mike? It doesn’t seem worth it if you consider anything other than fame and wealth.

Though most of his former Bulls teammates seem to revere him publicly, there’s little warmth in their recollections. “He couldn’t have been nice,” said former Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong in Episode 7. “He made it so guys were rushing to their agents saying, ‘You have to move me,’ ” said former Bulls forward Jud Buechler. Even former Bull Dennis Rodman wonders if Scottie Pippen, the only teammate whom Jordan respected as something of an equal, has a relationship with Jordan. “I’ve asked him in so many words, ‘What’s up with you and Michael?’ He doesn’t really answer,” Rodman said recently.

Jordan’s distance from others turns up in slightly more significant ways in The Last Dance. In the fifth episode, Jordan doubled down on his refusal to get involved during the 1990 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina between incumbent Republican Jesse Helms and Democrat challenger Harvey Gantt. “I never thought of myself as an activist,” Jordan said. “I thought of myself as a basketball player.”

But that’s not the image Jordan and his team sold for the last 30 years. His talent and drive were supposed to be a model for the rest of us civilians, from the court to the boardroom to the warehouse. “Be Like Mike” was never about developing a midrange jumper and defensive intensity. But Jordan sincerely didn’t give a shit about anything but the scoreboard.

“What idea had he ever expressed beyond winning games?” Leahy asked in his book years ago. The Last Dance might be the final word here, but it hasn’t revealed anything about Jordan as a man that Leahy didn’t already tell us way back in 2004. Perhaps because there’s really nothing else to tell.

Listen to Joel Anderson discuss The Last Dance with Stefan Fatsis and Josh Levin on Slate’s sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen, below, or subscribe to the show on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.