Michael Jordan’s legacy in the NBA is more complicated than you might think, and that was most evident in episode five and six of The Last Dance.
The latest drop on Netflix showed Jordan winning his second and third titles and documented his rise to become a brand, but it also encapsulated his gambling problem, pettiness and his desire to protect that brand.
The remarkable thing about the power of Jordan is his lasting impact on the league, both good and bad.
‘It’s gotta be the shoes’
In episode five, we learn that when Jordan signed his first signature shoe deal with Nike, it was worth $250,000.
Last year that came full circle when the NBA’s top draft pick, Zion Williamson, signed with Jordan Brand for a deal worth $75 million.
When Jordan was fresh into the league in 1984, he immediately (after some consternation) signed a deal with Nike to make Air Jordan 1, and it can’t be overstated how big a deal it was to have this rookie link up with what was then considered an “upstart” in the sneaker game.
Up until 1980, there were players still wearing Converse All Stars in the NBA. Yep, those canvas high tops that you would only go for a brisk walk in were sported in actual NBA games until the early 80s.
Most of the biggest NBA stars stayed with Converse long after the heyday of the Chuck Taylor, meaning Jordan wouldn’t be their signature athlete. So he tested the market and was urged by his mother to take the meeting with Nike, even though he preferred Adidas.
Their new air soles dovetailed perfectly with Jordan’s persona, and the Air Jordan 1s were born, selling $126 million worth in one year.
Five years later, he did an ad with Spike Lee where he had the cajones to explicitly tell people his success had nothing to do with the shoes, but that only sold more of them.
Fourteen years and 13 shoes later, Jordan laced up the 1s during the eponymous last dance of 1998 for his final game at basketball’s “Mecca”, Madison Square Garden in New York, playing out the game despite the antiquated sneaker leaving his feet bloodied.
That sort of brand awareness just wasn’t the way things were done until he came along. These days, everyone from LeBron James to Matthew Dellavedova has a pair of kicks with their name on them, thanks in no small part to Chicago’s number 23.
We take it for granted these days that the best basketball players in the world will be at the Olympics — most of them playing for Team USA — but it wasn’t always that way.
The story of the 1992 Dream Team has been told ad nauseam, but just think about the fact that America’s team full of college stars had only won gold at one of the past three games leading into Barcelona, and two of the past five.
While any other country would be happy with that record, especially considering that includes a farcical 1972 gold-medal match against the Soviet Union and the boycotted 1980 Moscow Olympics, it wasn’t good enough for the US, so they called in the heaviest of hitters.
The squad had to be led by Jordan because if they couldn’t get the NBA’s best player on the team, then why should anyone else take it seriously. But he signed on and was joined by veteran superstars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
The OG Dream Team was genuinely unbeatable (apart from by a team of college stars who won a scrimmage during those legendary practice sessions, before being bounced once the NBA guys woke up) and won the 1992 gold medal with an average winning margin of 44 points.
These days, when LeBron, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and James Harden turn up at the games, they’re still the biggest fish even in an ocean that includes the world’s greatest runners, jumpers and swimmers.
Title or bust
The NBA merged with the American Basketball Association in 1976, and as of the early 90s no team had three-peated.
There had been dynasties in the pre-merger days, like the 11-time champion Celtics of the 50s and 60s, but since the merger, through the 80s owned by Bird and Magic, no-one could win three straight.
Magic’s Lakers and Isiah Thomas’s Detroit Pistons did two in a row, as we talked about last week, meaning three became the latest arbitrary yardstick for measuring greatness, which Jordan reached twice — 1991-93 and 1996-98.
Since then, three straight titles has been a pretty solid (if still arbitrary) high-water mark for differentiating between outlandishly good NBA teams and dynastic juggernauts — with only the Lakers of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal climbing that mountain since, while teams led by Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have all either stumbled at that last hurdle or never even had a look in.
Jordan’s approach to winning championships also paved the way for one of the most pervasive forms of sports punditry — the notion that titles are all that matter.
In 1993, Charles Barkley was named MVP ahead of him and Jordan admitted he was “upset” by that.
“With that said, fine, you can have that, I’m gonna get this,” Jordan said, referring to the championship.
Unfortunately, the notion that titles are all that matter is moronic in a team sport and it has had some adverse effects.
After years of being told that titles were all that mattered, Durant — an MVP and four-time scoring champ — chased one (and got two) by joining a Golden State Warriors team that already had an MVP (Curry) and had gone 73-9 the previous season. That meant rather than getting to watch both of those players at 100 per cent of their powers, we saw both on a team that only had to give 80 per cent effort most nights.
Not only that, Durant got hate for winning his titles, because he did it in the “wrong” way.
It’s just the wrong way to look at team sports, and even seeped into the conversation around Johnathan Thurston towards the end of his career in the NRL.
But Jordan had no control over commentators twisting his need to win into a barometer for brilliance. By his own admission, he did have control over his gambling.
Despite regularly being told he was an addict and all evidence to the contrary, Jordan assures us in episode six he could stop at any time, but his love for betting on everything definitely got him in some awkward situations.
He was called as a witness when a man named Slim Bouler was up on drug and money-laundering charges in the middle of the 1991/92 season.
Jordan reportedly missed the Bulls’ 1991 White House visit because he was off gambling with Bouler, and a cheque for $57,000 from Jordan was uncovered during the trial. Despite initially saying it was a loan, the NBA star had to come clean under oath.
Two years later, a book titled Michael and Me: Our Gambling Addiction was written by Richard Esquinas, who claimed Jordan owed him more than $1 million.
All of this came as Jordan was becoming a champion and the world’s biggest athlete, but no-one is squeaky clean and it was always just a matter of time before someone dug up dirt on Jordan.
The fact of the matter is the Esquinas book and Sam Smith’s Jordan Rules — which detailed some of the tensions Jordan had with teammates, like allegedly punching Will Perdue during practice — are relatively small blips on Jordan’s record. Although, it has been rumoured that his gambling debts are what forced him into retirement the first time (but no doubt episodes seven and eight will get into that quagmire).
If he was doing the same stuff today, with a more saturated media market and everyone with cameras and access to social media, we may remember Jordan differently.
Sticking to sports
There is one knock on Jordan that has endured, particularly as athletes like LeBron James and Megan Rapinoe make social justice and civil rights a part of their personalities.
Jordan is remembered as a great athlete and brand name, but that’s where it ends.
In the early 90s, Harvey Gantt was trying to become North Carolina’s first African-American senator. He was running against a man named Jesse Helms, who voted against having Martin Luther King Day and defended segregation.
Jordan didn’t publicly back Gantt (he privately donated to his campaign) and threw out the line “Republicans buy sneakers too” during an interview. In episode five, even Jordan admits he was selfish and we see a clip of Washington Post writer Nathan McCall joining the chorus of criticism.
While we know that is nonsense, it does raise the point that Jordan, despite being arguably the most recognisable African-American athlete of all time, has never been particularly vocal on issues off the court.
“Any African-American in this society that sees significant success has an added burden,” former US president Barack Obama says on The Last Dance.
“A lot of times America is very quick to embrace a Michael Jordan or an Oprah Winfrey or a Barack Obama, so long as it’s understood that you don’t get too controversial around broader issues of social justice.”
While Jordan took the path of least resistance on that front, the notion of athletes with his sort of profile “sticking to sports” is hard to imagine in an era when championship teams are refusing to go to the White House because of the man living there.
Security guard John Michael Wozniak for hitting Jordan with the MJ shrug after winning $20 off him in a game that involves throwing quarters at a wall.
He was also a veteran of the Chicago Police Department and US Army who died earlier this year. His family surely has plenty of memories of him and now The Last Dance has given us this iconic moment.
Any time there are superstars in a sport, there are great players who get lost in their shadow, and Clyde Drexler is one of them.
A Hall of Famer, an Olympic gold medallist, an NBA champion, a 10-time All Star and five-time All-NBA player, but he’s perhaps best known for Jordan dropping six threes on him in the first half of game one of the NBA Finals.
The Michael Jordan ‘Horrible Guy’ award
While doing press for The Last Dance, Jordan said people would think he was “a horrible guy” after they watched it. Let’s test that theory.
As previously mentioned, Jordan was a hellish teammate and a lot of that was documented in Jordan Rules in 1992, but he wasn’t just a pain for his teammates. He never missed an opportunity to get one over on general manager Jerry Krause.
- He and Pippen beat up on Croatia’s Toni Kukoc at the ’92 Olympics because Krause had publicly touted him as the future of the Bulls and drafted him in 1990. The trio would later become very successful teammates, but their first interactions were two batterings at the games.
- Jordan also decided to steal the soul of Phoenix’s Dan Majerle during the ’93 Finals because, as he puts it in the documentary: “I knew that Jerry Krause loved Dan Majerle. And just because Krause liked him was enough for me. ‘You think he’s a great defensive player? OK. I’m gonna show you that he’s not’.”
That’s vendetta levels of hatred for the man in charge of your team.
This award goes to the subject who bursts onto the scene in each episode after nil, minimal or underwhelming involvement in past editions.
Episode five was dedicated to Kobe Bryant and started with their battle in the 1998 All Star game, when Bryant was just a teenager.
Bryant speaks about Jordan the same way that so many of the current stars speak about the late Laker — a fierce on-court competitor who was a mentor and inspiration at the same time — and says he wouldn’t have five championships if not for Jordan.
It was a fitting moment that didn’t artificially inflate Bryant’s role in Jordan’s career, while still acknowledging the bond the two shared.
We’ll be back next Tuesday to wrap up episodes 7 and 8 of The Last Dance.