Because ESPN is so terrible at keeping 30 For 30 on at a consistent schedule, we're again running this review in advance of tonight's episode, which airs at 8 p.m. Eastern, as a reminder to check the episode out.
When the 30 For 30 projects were first announced, Ron Shelton’s Jordan Rides The Bus was the one I was most excited to see. On paper, it sounded like the perfect marriage of filmmaker and subject matter: Shelton directed Bull Durham, far and away my favorite sports movie of all time, and one that dealt with life in the minor leagues with humor, truth, and a lot of affection its quirky players, managers, and rituals. He’s never been a filmmaker given to starry-eyed sentiment or big-game theatrics—a problem with all sports movies, baseball especially—and he seemed like the right guy to give a clear-eyed take on Michael Jordan’s season-long misadventures in the minors. Here would be the spin-free, no-bullshit version of the oddest chapter of Jordan’s career and one of the odder sports stories of the last 30 years period.
Alas, no. Jordan (and Jordan’s people) have been cowing reporters for years—Charles Pierce’s nasty little book When Nothing Else Matters, about Jordan’s time with the Washington Wizards, is the one exception that comes to mind—and Shelton can’t get past the glossy mythos. Though offbeat in a few respects, Jordan Rides The Bus nonetheless has the feel of typical ESPN hagiography, never credibly accessing the man and his motives, and even falling short in evoking his sensational impact on the minor leagues. It’s hard to blame Shelton too much for the result; sometimes, a great story simply doesn’t yield a revelatory documentary, especially when your subject is such a tough nut to crack.
On the other hand, the documentary does counter the accepted media narrative on Jordan’s dalliance with baseball and for that alone it has value. The common line on Jordan the baseball player was that he was a outright failure, someone who hubristically entered a sport he hadn’t played since high school and embarrassed himself (and the game) in the process. If you saw any highlights of Jordan as a Birmingham Baron outfielder that summer, you usually saw him flailing pitifully on an offspeed pitch or dropping a gimme in the outfield. At best, this was to be viewed as a silly footnote in Jordan’s career; at worst, he was taking a roster slot from a worthier young player and making a mockery of America’s most storied game.
Jordan Rides The Bus asserts, repeatedly and convincingly, that Jordan did not enter into this experiment lightly and in fact made great strides over the course of a season. As someone who hadn’t played baseball at a high school level, much less a professional level, since he was 18, Jordan had to be considered the rawest of raw talent. And though his sporting benefactors helped him make the pursuit of his baseball dreams come true, he clearly worked hard to recalibrate his athletic skills for another game. That he would grow to become a viable baseball player—and strike permitting, who knows?—runs against what the media had led most of us to believe. Perhaps the desire to get Jordan back to basketball was too much for sports writers to overcome, but the media in general could not be shaken from the notion that Jordan was a colossal failure as a baseball player and it was time for him to come to his senses.
I’ll confess that some fraction of my disappointment in Jordan Rides The Bus was that its conclusions were so flattering to Jordan, whose legacy has been tarnished in recent years by gambling and relationship problems, a less-than-stellar reputation as a front-office guy, and a seemingly unscripted Hall Of Fame speech that revealed the ugly side of his legendarily competitive nature. Also, I allowed myself to be seduced by the theory—embraced with a Delonte-slept-with-LeBron’s-mom-level fervor by 30 For 30 mastermind Bill Simmons—that Jordan’s minor league sojourn was part of an unofficial suspension given to Jordan for gambling. Shelton’s movie shoots that theory down with extreme prejudice, reminding us that the NBA wasn’t anxious to lose the greatest cash cow in its history and that such an arrangement couldn’t possibly be kept secret. But you have to admit: It’s a juicy rumor.
As for the story Jordan Rides The Bus does tell, Shelton simply doesn’t get a lot of good material. He’s smart to seek out some unconventional voices—the realtor that showed Jordan some houses in Birmingham, the local bar-owner who witnessed him playing four pool tables at once, the driver of the (new) team bus—but they don’t give him any memorable anecdotes, nor do the hitting coaches, managers, friends, and other Barons players who offer their thoughts on the man. If nothing else, the film should convince people to reconsider their preconceptions about Jordan’s minor league season. I just wish the film were better than “if nothing else.”
• Shelton could have gone further into the hold that Jordan’s father had over him. For Jordan to pursue this other sport as a tribute/appeasement to his father is remarkable, and I wonder if that relationship was an entirely healthy one.
• “He’s no Stan Musial, but he’s trying.” Is Spike Lee open to bringing Mars Blackmon back? I miss those commercials so much.
• God was the NBA was terrible the year Jordan left. I hope people who checked out then have checked in now. The league, recent LeBron silliness aside, is in much better shape.