Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Last Dance asks, You wanna be like Mike?

Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson during a 1996 game against the Miami Heat.
Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson during a 1996 game against the Miami Heat.
Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/ESPN

Last night’s airing of episodes V and VI of The Last Dance takes us to halftime in the 10-part ESPN docuseries on the 1990s Chicago Bulls. The A.V. Club team got a stern talking-to in the locker room after a late-night trip to Atlantic City, but we’re fired up now and ready for the second half and another Bulls Session. A lot goes down in these two episodes, much of it related to Michael Jordan’s off-court activities, including his savvy shoe deal with Nike—unprecedented at the time for a basketball player—and his refusal to be a role model, get political, or forgive Isaiah Thomas for… whatever it is he can’t forgive Isaiah Thomas for, even three decades since the two last played against each other. Perhaps most notably, Jordan has a competition problem, not a gambling problem (though maybe also a gambling problem), and confronts mounting scrutiny from the media. (Talk about a full-court press.) On the court, the Bulls face off against the new Detroit Pistons—the New York Knicks—and they repeat and then three-peat the NBA championship in 1992 and ’93. Plus, new Jordan (Kobe Bryant) meets old Jordan (Michael Jordan) in the 1998 All-Stars Game; the Dream Team takes it to Croatian Sensation Toni Kukoc in the 1992 Olympics; and is it just us, or was cigar smoking as popular in the ’90s as all those Stop Making Sense-size suits? How much you wanna bet we discuss nearly all of this below?

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Laura Adamczyk: Well, Nothin’ But Danette, you warmed up? Ready to go?

Nothin’ But Danette Chavez: Yep!

LA: First things first: Which table on the bus/plane, during the ’97-98 season, would you gamble at? The John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong, and Will Purdue table, where they played blackjack for a dollar a hand? Or with Pippen, Jordan, and Ron Harper playing for thousands of dollars?

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DC: Oh, definitely the blackjack, dollar-a-hand table. The Jordan/Pippen/Harper table would be far too rich for my blood. I also don’t think I have the nerves to play high stakes anything (see: my performance in our now-defunct Game Of Thrones Deadpool).

LA: But we’re of course assuming you’re an NBA player and make, you know, just a tad more than an employee at a digital media company.

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DC: Even then. It’s funny because I have definitely made bad/frivolous purchases, but I find it really unnerving to hand over money and watch it disappear that way. What about you? Would you have been throwing down racks of cash to hang with the superstars of the team?

LA: Probably, perhaps sadly, yes. While I think I’d hate to play with someone like Jordan, because he’s such a dick of a competitor, that might also be the allure. If I’m playing cards, I want it to be a little bit of a stretch, a little scary. A dollar a hand just isn’t enough. In real life, thousands is way too much for me, but in this scenario, I’d probably try to take Jordan’s money.

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This episode gets into his gambling “problem.” What do you make of how the doc treated it?

DC: I’m glad that the filmmakers didn’t try to avoid or otherwise gloss over it. If The Last Dance really wants to take us back to the early to mid-’90s and steep us in Bulls history, then the documentary makers have to address what dominated the news cycle back then. As Ahmad Rashad notes in a talking-head interview, the incessant inquiries about the gambling and, in particular, what seemed like an ill-advised trip to Atlantic City in 1993 before game two of the Eastern Conference finals, really wore on Michael Jordan. Not to jump ahead, but at the end of the sixth episode, which fades out post-three-peat victory, Jordan seems ready to throw in the towel because of the overwhelming scrutiny he faced.

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As far as how the press treated Jordan, I’m of two minds—on the one hand, they were just doing their jobs. On the other hand, they also seemed eager to tear down the pedestal and the man on top of it, who, let’s face it, they helped put there. Maybe they felt personally betrayed or let down by Jordan’s actions, though it doesn’t seem like most of his fans did. But between Sam Smith’s book The Jordan Rules and the badgering, I think episodes V and VI start to address your concern about the dullness of Jordan’s seeming perfection, while also reminding us that for many people, the only thing better than looking up to someone is looking down on them.

How are you finding the back half of the docuseries? Did these two episodes add dimension to Jordan’s single-minded competitive drive for you? Also, it’s pretty funny that your instinct is to compete with Michael Jordan, given that you think he’s defined only by his competitive instincts.

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LA: It takes one to know one. And I think you’re right. These journalists were just doing their jobs, but there’s also that feeling of tearing down what they helped build up. With the Bulls being the undeniable champions at this point, their story has become less interesting. They’re no longer the underdogs, they’re no longer on the come-up. These writers need to find what else is there, and it turns out Jordan’s a huge gambler. Bingo.

I’m not quite sure how compelling I find it all as a subject here, though—at least not enough to spend as much time with it as the doc does. They spend more time with Jordan golfing than John Paxson hitting that three-pointer in game six against Phoenix. Which is really a shame, because that is way more exciting than Jordan’s gambling. Moments like those could have been teased out way more instead of watching Jordan smoking cigars and teeing off.

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These episodes added a tiny bit more dimension to Jordan, but perhaps in the way that it further reveals a certain flatness in him. He tells Rashad, I don’t have a gambling problem, but a competition problem. That feels like the most insightful he gets, but he could have gone way deeper. Where does it come from? I just want him to go to therapy! Another part I found interesting was when he was being interviewed by Connie Chung. She said that people wondered if he was gambling with his good name, because of all the gambling. He responds, “What would they consider my good name?” Jordan makes clear here that he’s only a spokesperson for himself. Like he said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Right now might be a good time to mention just how much control Jordan had over the ’97-98 footage being released and this doc being made right now. He only allowed access at the time because ESPN agreed nothing would be released without his permission. Danette, do you think this doc was ever going to be something Jordan didn’t want it to be? Do you notice gaps in the coverage? A skewed view?

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DC: There’s no denying the influence Jordan wielded when the ’97-’98 BTS footage was shot, and I’m sure he didn’t do the sit-down interviews with director Jason Hehir without certain… assurances. But to its credit, The Last Dance doesn’t shy away from such unflattering developments as Jordan’s “friendship” with James “Slim” Bouler and the publication of Richard Esquinas’ Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction… My Cry For Help! The inclusion of these accounts, along with Sam Smith’s own investigative sports reporting, adds some objectivity to the series.

The stuff about the Harvey Gantt campaign and wanting to represent only himself further reminds us that Michael Jordan was never comfortable being a role model. (I was surprised that, given the introduction of Charles Barkley this week, Hehir didn’t include the former Phoenix Sun’s own thoughts about being a role model). That was the price of his stardom, though, along with the lack of privacy.

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But going back to press coverage, a bigger missed opportunity for the series is how it overlooks (or otherwise avoids) race. When I saw that archival photo of Jordan, swarmed by press on the court, I was reminded of just how white journalism—here, specifically sports journalism—is. Beyond Barack Obama’s thoughts on the matter, I don’t think The Last Dance ever interrogates what it was like for a Black man to become a role model for a country with such a fraught history. I had hoped that having Todd Boyd, author of Young, Black, Rich, And Famous: The Rise Of The NBA, The Hip Hop Invasion, And The Transformation Of American Culture, among the experts/interviewees meant that the series would actually engage with this discussion. It has yet to really dig in, though, to its detriment.

To all of those ready to shout “not everything is about race,” you can’t look at who makes up the roster of team owners and who makes up the team rosters—especially back in the ’90s—and tell me that race isn’t a factor. Chris Rock summed it up years ago:

LA: It highlights all the pressure Jordan was under as one of the most famous people in the world at the time—the press junkets, the Make A Wish Foundation appearances, etc.—and the expectations that come along with that. Not just one of the most famous people in the world, but one of the most famous Black men. While some people might be disappointed that he was never going to be a Muhammad Ali, he does make it clear that he mostly just wanted to play basketball. He was only ever going to be a spokesperson for himself.

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A number of people have asked me if the doc has changed the way I think about Jordan, and I say no. The insatiable competitiveness, the excellence of his play, the fact that a number of his former teammates don’t seem to quite like him—it all just shades him in a little without changing what I felt like I already knew. And him maintaining the kind of control he has over the doc reveals as much as it conceals. What do you think? Has The Last Dance changed your thoughts on Air Jordan?

But also, there are some lighter moments in these episodes, too. I’ll also ask you the question you usually ask me: What was your favorite archival footage?

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DC: I still think Michael Jordan is the best to ever play in the NBA, but The Last Dance has given me a greater appreciation for what he brought to not just the game of basketball, but also the wider culture. Sneakerheads wouldn’t exist without Michael Jordan. The NBA wouldn’t have the international cachet it does without Michael Jordan. A lot of people wouldn’t be rich without Michael Jordan. I’m not saying anything new here—several articles on The Last Dance reference how it captures the last of the monoculture (sorry, Game Of Thrones). The Chicago Bulls brought my family of nine together, while Michael Jordan united people around the world.

My highlights reel pick would have to be Jordan “shrugging off” the Portland Trailblazers in the 1992 NBA Finals game where he made six three-pointers. There really is something about seeing someone at the height of their power, and Jordan was reveling in his skills.

LA: It reminds me that we get to see the Dream Team here. I love how Jordan says that some of the best basketball he ever was a part of was during a Dream Team practice. Unlike a lot of what’s looked back on, Jordan seems to express some actual joy in this memory. And then of course there’s the Croatian Sensation himself, Toni Kukoc, and how Jordan and Pippen really let him have it during the first Olympic game against Croatia. Poor Kukoc—he absolutely gets it from the strongest pairing in the NBA, and nobody can pronounce his name right.

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But as far as my favorite footage goes, I was happy to get to relive the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals against the Knicks. As we’ve discussed, the Knicks were my Pistons—with their scrappy, super physical style of play (noted quote from Patrick Ewing: “It wasn’t really a foul till you drew blood”). Those games felt more charged for me than the actual finals that year against Phoenix. Speaking of Phoenix, maybe my true favorite footage is of Barkley singing the “Be Like Mike” song to Jordan during Olympics downtime. I like it when the players razz each other. (I’m really just here for the shit-talking.)

DC: It’s clear that Toni Kukoc still feels he was treated unfairly by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. I feel for him, especially since it seems like, once again, front-office meddling was the real culprit. I know managing a team is very different from coaching one or playing on one, but Jerry Krause’s decisions so often come across as “personal,” not “business.” He seemed determined to make Pippen feel like he was expendable. That could just be framing, and Krause is not here to defend himself or offer any other explanation. But I feel bad for everyone in that situation (except for the team owners and managers).

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Obviously, The Last Dance still has one eye on the ’97-’98 Bulls, but now that we’ve cleared the first three-peat, it’s time to party like it’s 1994—the year that there was no championship party (in Chicago, anyway). Is there anything in particular from the ’93-’94 season you’re looking forward to reliving (or not)? This was the last season played at the Chicago Stadium, so as much as it might hurt, I await the “building go boom” demolition footage (assuming there is any).

Before we go, I just want to drop this into the chat:

LA: I’ve never liked Jordan more than him wearing the sunglasses in that interview with Ahmad Rashad about his gambling. Just really hammers home the point you have nothing to hide. It’s such a fuck-you move! I love it.

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I’m honestly looking forward to seeing the team without Jordan. There’s no way to overestimate the impact that a player of his caliber leaving would have on a team, and I want to see how they adjust. Because they were still a good team! And that was the season they picked up Steve Kerr. I love to see that wild-haired man running up and down the court.

DC: Steve Kerr—you mean, me?

LA: At long last, it’s your turn to shine.

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