The Last Dance

Not seeing Michael Jordan play live and in his miraculous prime remains one of my biggest regrets as a sports fan.

I wrote that goal down some time in the early 1990s on the sports-events-I-need-to-see-before-I-die list I still check from time to time.

Like almost everyone else on this planet, I knew he was one of the greatest athletes ever to play any sport. Thanks to the ESPN/Netflix production of The Last Dance, now I think I know why.

“His gift was not that he could jump high, run fast, shoot a basketball. His gift was that he was completely present, and that was the separator,” said Mark Vancil, author of Rare Air, a Jordan biography and one of 69 people interviewed for the 10-part series.

His singular focus stayed so intense throughout his career that he once set his sights on Washington Bullets LaBradford Smith because the rookie had said, “Nice game, Mike” after scoring 37 points against the Bulls in Chicago. The next night, in a follow up game in Washington, Jordan said, “In the first half, I’m gonna have what this kid had in the game,” apparently infuriated by the slight. Jordan did score 36 points in the first half, mostly going straight at Smith. It could be a great story of retribution and the old guard standing up to cocky young punks. Except, Jordan admits in The Last Dance, Smith never said those words. Jordan made that story up in an effort to psych himself up.

There’s a great scene in episode one of a rookie Jordan folding his laundry and talking about how his main focus was basketball. At that time, his drink of choice was orange juice and 7up and he had no interest in any road game shenanigans.

The drink evolved (throughout the bulk of the gorgeously shot present-day interviews, Jordan nurses a large tumbler of whiskey), but the focus remained. He maintains an intense, possibly one-sided rivalry with Detroit’s Isiah Thomas, though the two haven’t shared a court in nearly 30 years.

“You can show me anything you want. It’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an assh–e,” Jordan said in the recent interview.

The series deftly moves from the 1998 season, during which an NBAE film crew was allowed unprecedented access to the Bulls in and out of the locker room, and today, including interviews with all of the main characters.

And, speaking of characters, Dennis Rodman provides another interesting look into Jordan’s focus and the kind of off-the-court behavior he was willing to overlook if the on-the-court performance didn’t suffer. At one point during the 1998 NBA finals, Rodman disappears and no one, not even Coach Phil Jackson, has any idea why he isn’t at practice. Turns out, Rodman had taken himself to Michigan to attend a WWE wrestling match with Hulk Hogan. He pops back to Chicago in time for a shoot-around before game 4 and plays well enough that none of his teammates, including Jordan, stayed mad at him for leaving.

Jordan and the Bulls won six NBA titles during his run. He was named to 14 NBA All Star teams during his 15-year career, and earned MVP honors five times. He also still holds the record for career shooting average (30.1 points per game) and holds 10 scoring titles.

I highly recommend the Last Dance, which definitely did not make me regret any less not seeing Michael Jordan play the game in person, but it did make me glad to be a sports fan during the era he dominated.

(If you want to read more about the Last Dance, check out this and other posts by our friend, sports writer Luke Askew.) You can catch up on The Last Dance through the ESPN app and, hopefully, on Netflix soon.

I didn’t get to see Jordan play during that storied Last Dance Season, but we did celebrate it on our Christmas card that year. That’s three-month old Molly sporting the Jordan jersey. Charlie, then 11, is wearing a Luc Longley jersey, nine-year old Katherine is wearing Steve Kerr, who is another fascinating character profiled on The Last Dance, and six-year old Vinnie is wearing Toni Kukoc’s jersey.
I really would have loved to have seen him play.

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