At ‘Last Dance’ midpoint, pressure of being like Mike takes air out of Jordan

Dominic Menor, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 04 2020 11:18 AM | Updated as of May 04 2020 12:01 PM

A fan holds up a sign alluding to recent gambling allegations against the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan during Game 1 of the NBA Finals in Phoenix on Wednesday, June 9, 1993. John Swart, AP/file

Editor's note: This story contains spoilers. Episodes 5 and 6 will be available on Netflix Philippines at 3 p.m., Monday, May 4.

When Michael Jordan said he thought he’d come off as a “horrible person” at the sight of him shaming a teammate in the first episode of “The Last Dance,” that apparently was a mere appetizer to the full-blown version of a flawed sports icon that was to be depicted in this documentary.

At the series’ midpoint, director Jason Hehir pulled the curtain so far back that Jordan is almost unrecognizable to someone who looked up to him as an idol, a hero.

Whew, there’s a lot to unpack here.

The gambling

It had become an addiction, the press asserted. What were once murmurs about that one habit he couldn’t kick became national news when a major US daily detailed a trip Jordan and his family took to an Atlantic City casino prior to the Chicago Bulls’ Game 2 loss to the New York Knicks in the 1993 Eastern Conference finals.

That incident forced to the surface a 1991 case, in which Jordan was a witness and he acknowledged that one time he wrote a $57,000 check for what turned out to be payment for money he owed a golf hustler. Another man alleged he and Jordan gambled in golf matches and that Jordan hadn’t paid him a debt that stood at $1.2 million.

Jordan’s defense? In the documentary, he explains he was golfing so much he didn’t know the character of the people he was playing with. As for the Atlantic City side trip, Jordan said he momentarily wanted to get away from the spotlight after the Bulls fell 0-2 in their series against the Knicks and that it shouldn’t have been made a big deal. Chicago won 4 straight after that to advance to the finals.

“The act of gambling, I didn’t do anything wrong,” says Jordan, whose penchant for card games is showed prominently in this part of the series.

In a televised interview in 1993, Jordan said he had no gambling problems but acknowledged, “I have a competition problem. A competitive problem.”

The “Jordan Rules depicted Michael Jordan “more concerned with personal glory and his multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts than with the success of his team.” Courtesy of Netflix

The ‘Jordan Rules’

The best-selling book by investigative-reporter-turned-sportswriter Sam Smith, chronicling the Bulls’ 1990-91 season, dove deep into Jordan’s heart of darkness, revealing Jordan, in the words of a New York Times review, “as a spoiled, selfish whiner, more concerned with personal glory and his multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts than with the success of his team.” Ouch.

Jordan’s explanation for why the book received so much attention?

“When you do books like that, you gotta have controversial things, you gotta have things that are, you know, people would not suspect or know,” he says, without denying or confirming the contents of the book.

“Everybody got tired of seeing the McDonald’s and the Cokes and all the other stuff. They really wanted to see something other than something positive.”

Not an activist

In perhaps the most revealing part of this series so far, Jordan sets the record straight behind his infamous comment “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” his response for staying neutral in a North Carolina state election that featured a black candidate and the widely known racist incumbent.

Jordan’s defense? He says it was a quote made “in jest” with his teammates, and that he actually made contributions to black senatorial bet Harvey Gantt. 

For someone whose cultural transcendence was compared to “The Greatest,” Jordan disappointed in the wokeness category for sure.

“I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in, but I never thought of myself as an activist,” he says.

“I thought of myself as a basketball player. I wasn’t a politician when I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy, that’s where my energy was.”

Episodes 5 and 6 show Michael Jordan at his most vulnerable. Courtesy of Netflix

The scrutiny

When one sports drink launched the “Be Like Mike” ad campaign in 1992, that’s how most everybody felt. After watching this latest installment of “The Last Dance,” that’s maybe one big nope.

Those 4 minutes to begin Episode 6 capture what it was like to be the most famous man on the planet: It’s taxing, it’s toxic, and it can be very lonely.

Before Jordan, no sports figure had his image been meticulously manicured so that he passed off as this universally liked real-life hero. But the facade could only cover inherent warts and tuck away what makes him human for only a given period of time.

Every corporate obligation Jordan needed to fulfill, every personality flaw of his that he had to defend, every 35 points he scored and the Bulls racked up wins, and how he reacted in public, at media scrums, and to every overblown public opinion about him were all critical in building Jordan’s global reputation and keeping his financial empire going. 

And yet, as those 4 minutes to begin Episode 6 showed, there’s nothing like having a glass of wine, smoking a cigar, and kicking back in a room away from the harsh spotlight, a foreshadowing of what people familiar to Jordan’s career trajectory know already — his abrupt retirement in October 1993. 

Episode 6 starts and ends with Jordan, 30 years old and at the clear-cut peak of his basketball powers, declaring he’s ready to leave the circus all behind.

“This is not a one of those lifestyles that you envy,” Jordan says first, “I’m ready for getting out of this life.”

Later he insists, “If I had a chance to do it all over again, I would never wanna be considered a role model. It’s like a game that’s stacked against me. There’s no way I can win.” 

(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website).