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For the past five Sundays, an average of 5.6 million domestic viewers tuned in to ESPN to watch “The Last Dance” documentary, but that doesn’t really tell the story. More watched on Netflix, and after each episode, the story of Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls became the central topic of sports debates, podcasts, articles, YouTube wormholes and tweets — a mix of reviews, fact-checks, hagiographies and untold stories.
With live sports paused in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, “The Last Dance” became a cultural event. It was exhausting, and yet it wasn’t exhaustive.
So it goes for one of the world’s most famous men.
Media coverage multiplied in the ’90s, ballooning and converging around Jordan for over a decade. He became the subject of countless books and news stories. Through the course of covering “The Last Dance,” I came across a series of anecdotes I assumed would come to life either in the documentary itself or in its coverage. Jordan was both a well-covered and willing participant in his creation, coming off as far more candid than the image of the careful corporate pitchman would suggest. But so much of what he said and did, despite our unfettered attention, remained on the cutting room floor.
I cannot overstate the sheer immensity of Jordan content in the world. What I can do is share some of the anecdotes that, for a basketball fan who was too young to remember the dynasty, best illuminated the world of Jordan and his Bulls.
Jordan’s ambivalent musings on fame
In 1989, two years before Jordan first hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy, the Chicago Sun-Times published a feature on his megastardom. He told reporter Lacy J. Banks, “Sometimes I wish I could be Michael Jackson, but just for a day. Just for a day to see how much worse it could get.”
In a few years, he wouldn’t have to imagine. More from the feature:
“He’s a man who just can’t say ‘no,’” said close friend and Nike PR representative Howard White. “He loves people. People love him.”
”Michael is extremely conscious of his looks,” [manicurist Linda] Woohlner said. “Especially his hands. He plays basketball with them. He shakes his fans’ hands. He wants everything about him to be first class. I have about 100 regular customers. By far, his hands are the biggest. They are soft, but very lean. No body fat. The gift was given to the right person.”
Jordan is starting to feel the weight, though. With his leadership, the Bulls are playing better than ever. The league is also prospering because of him.
”And I see myself cutting back starting this summer,” Jordan said. “Presently, I intend to renegotiate all my contracts. But within a year or two, I plan to start cutting back. I need more time for me, more time to be with my family.”
Here’s what Jordan told ESPN’s Rick Telander nine years later during the 1998 playoffs.
“I've heard people say I'm the Babe Ruth of this half of the 20th century. I don't know. Most recognized athlete? It seems that way. But, man, it's lasted a lot longer than I anticipated. I never thought it would go on like this. I'll tell you, to remain a positive model in the public eye for so long, it takes a toll, it takes a big chunk of you. You want it to die out, but now it's so deep, it's a big responsibility that just goes on and on. I see other players, other NBA stars, who can take some of the responsibility. Grant Hill. Kobe Bryant, to some degree. But still, a lot of that burden is on me.”
In 1989, Jordan sounded like a swimmer who kept giving it his all because he thought the lap was almost over. But he wasn’t even a quarter of the way through. Jordan seemed bent on capitalizing what he figured would be a momentary burst of attention, but his 15 minutes of fame turned into 15 years. Even after he left the sport for the first time in 1993, his fame continued to peak, dying down only when he left basketball for good.
It had to be exhausting. Jordan approached celebrity with a perfectionist’s mindset. He wouldn’t just be famous. He would be the best damned famous person they ever saw. His nails would be immaculate, his head would be shiny, his teeth would glimmer. The only thing that could pierce through that veneer of happiness was the thought of a scandal. Jordan understood what it took to be seen as perfect. It seems like he welcomed the challenge. But the process made him weary, and he wasn’t afraid to admit it.
Jordan’s high school coaches had to tell him to be more selfish
Jordan, who just cracked 6 feet in his junior year, was a far cry from the young renegade who thought he could do it all in the NBA. I’ll let Roland Lazenby’s Michael Jordan biography, “Michael Jordan: The Life” tell the rest:
“Jordan listened closely to his coaches but was hesitant to change. He still believed that basketball was a team game, and he was going to look for his teammates. Finally, [coach] Pop Herring turned to James Jordan and asked for his help. The father was at first reluctant, explaining that he never cared much for the kind of father who didn’t leave the coaching to the coach. Getting involved would violate that principle. Ultimately, though, he relented and urged his son to do what his coaches asked. At this urging, Michael began to take on more individually, which in turn revealed even more of his gift. It was then that the pattern was established: the more he did, the more his coaches and his audience wanted him to do. And the more it began to please him to discover just what he was capable of doing. His game and his image then began to feed on themselves, still only subtly in those early days of his career. But it would soon enough become clear that everything about him was beginning to multiply.”
When Jordan first retired, Bulls coach Phil Jackson accepted it but told him he’d be robbing the world of witnessing his gift. The blossoming of his individual game was accompanied by a revelation that would define his destiny: people could not get enough of Jordan, and he could not get enough of them.
The origin of the ‘Rabbit’ nickname
Which, coincidentally, we never hear anymore. His Little League teammates gave Jordan that nickname, which he repurposed as a professional athlete.
More from Lazenby:
Jordan, who had been catching, began talking trash as [his teammate David] Bridgers whiffed on some pitches. He told Bridgers that if he tried swinging at the ball with his big ears he might actually have a chance of getting a hit. “Mike was lying on the ground, with all his equipment on, and David was on top of him just pounding away on the mask,” [Dick] Neher, [Jordan’s baseball coach] recalled. “Like hockey players. They used to get into it all the time.” Neher separated the two. He recalled the tears rolling down Bridgers’s face. When the coach heard what had caused the brouhaha, he laughed and asked Jordan if he’d looked in a mirror lately. Jordan’s own unusual ears had been the subject of [Jordan’s brother] Larry’s taunts during their backyard battles. Neher had nicknames for all his players. So he nicknamed Jordan “Rabbit” in honor of the jug handles on the side of his head, and the anger was apparently diffused. “The kids liked that,” the coach said. “We were messing around with Mike. Mike’s ears lay real close to his head, just like a rabbit. So we all were standing around one day trying to decide, ‘Why don’t we call him Rabbit?’ Those ears lay real close. Everybody laughed. Mike was fine with it. When they were in Chicago, [Michael’s father] James [Jordan] told the reporters that Mike was nicknamed Rabbit because he was so fast. That didn’t have nothing to do with it.”
As someone who thinks a ton (read: too much) about how athletes brand themselves, this passage was fascinating, revealing twin pillars of Jordan’s psyche and skill.
To fuel his own fire, Jordan often took compliments and turned them into slights. But here, his father does the opposite for him, taking a story about how his Little League teammates teased him and turning it into a story about his athletic gifts.
To this day, Jordan is aware of the magnitude his voice carries in his own mythology, the way he can use it to decide what’s true and what isn’t. Jordan was driven by his ego, but he projected confidence.
‘Motivating’ his teammates
Jordan was upset when his friend and enforcer, Charles Oakley, was traded from Chicago for Bill Cartwright. It was another on a laundry list of decisions Jordan felt general manager Jerry Krause made for the expressed purpose of personally wronging him. In response, Jordan turned his ire to Cartwright. Jordan called him Medical Bill, referencing his injury history. He even told teammates to freeze him out.
And according to David Halberstam’s “Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made,” there’s this:
“Jordan, as if to emphasize Cartwright’s clumsiness, began to lay out banana peels for Cartwright to slip on.”
That is high-grade pettiness: premeditated, piercing, even cartoonish. To brandish his point, Jordan took a move straight out of “Mario Kart.”
Jordan was infamous for betting on everything, from golf to cards. In 1993, he even trekked to the casinos of Atlantic City, New Jersey, the night before a playoff matchup against the New York Knicks. Here he is, courtesy of Halberstam’s book, sniffing out bets at the airport with his teammates. The rub: Jordan greased the dealer.
“Mark Pfeil, the [Bulls athletic] trainer, saw Michael reach in his pocket and pull out a fifty-dollar bill and give it to one of the baggage handlers. “Michael,” Pfeil said, “there’s no need to do that. That’s my job — I’m the one who takes care of the tips.” “Mark, just watch this,” Jordan said. So Pfeil made his way to the baggage conveyor, and there he found his team gathered around the mouth of it. He watched as Michael Jordan reached in his pocket and pulled out a hundred-dollar bill and put it down on the conveyor belt. Soon, the other players were putting their hundred-dollar bills alongside it. The bet was on whose baggage would come out first, and of course it was Jordan’s. Jordan made about $900 on the bet, and he had a huge grin on his face when it was over. “Not a bad return on a fifty-dollar investment,” he told Pfeil.”
Cut to a deep fake of Jordan telling his detractors that it’s not gambling if you know you’re going to win.
Basketball still misses Jordan
Popularity is extremely difficult to quantify, but when Jordan retired in 1993, he answered a question it would be impossible for anyone to isolate for: “What would the NBA look like without Jordan?”
For a lot of viewers, it would look like another channel. From Sam Smith’s “The Jordan Rules:”
“The television ratings climbed fairly systematically in [Jordan’s] earlier appearances in the Finals, reaching an unheard-of 17.9 in his third visit, against Phoenix, in 1993. That rating translated into an estimated 27.2 million Americans. But what was interesting about these numbers to [NBC president] Dick Ebersol was that so great a percentage was directly attributable to Jordan. The network and the league learned the truth of this the hard way a year later when Jordan was on his baseball sabbatical and the Bulls did not make the Finals. The ratings of most of the other playoff games stayed about the same, but the Finals’ ratings dropped dramatically to 12.4, or about 17.8 million Americans. That meant that roughly a third of the audience had been there essentially for Michael Jordan. Two years later, when he returned to basketball and brought the Bulls to two more championships, the ratings went back up to 16.7 in 1996 and 16.8 in 1997, or roughly 25 million people.”
Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals — Jordan’s final game in a Bulls uniform — remains the most-watched Finals game of all time.
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