Archive for May, 2020

May I Cut In? : A Critical Examination of Michael Jordan’s ‘The Last Dance’

27 May

In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic ESPN decided to move up its ten part Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance, in order to help fill the void in the lives of millions of sports fans. While the documentary was originally set to air in late summer 2020 after the NBA playoffs concluded ESPN decided to capitalize on a sports starved market and air the MJ project over five weeks beginning on the 19th of April 2020.

While The Last Dance was intended to be a documentary, it can be more appropriately be considered a ten hour highlight tape of MJ’s achievements and a propaganda piece meant to keep Brand Jordan squarely in the spotlight. Not only is the documentary process normally an objective piece whose content is not controlled by the subject (something that is not in place with The Last Dance), but even the timing of when the project was green lit somewhat dubious. According to the project’s director it was not until Lebron James did the (seemingly) impossible and won a title for Cleveland did Michael Jordan finally allow the documentary to be made. Incredibly on the very day the Cavs victory parade. Given that Michael Jordan last played a meaningful basketball game almost twenty years prior to the Cavs championship (just like the documentary I am deciding to forego MJ’s Wizards years), the timing was not only suspect, but something that speaks to Michael Jordan’s long history of pettiness and brand consciousness. But more on this later.

Although there was a significant amount of anticipation when ESPN not only announced the documentary but decided to move up its release date, I could not believe the near universal love-fest Jason Hehir’s endeavor enjoyed, particularly by the mainstream sports media and the talking heads. While I have long believed that Michael Jordan’s continued presence in the sports world and media was unjustified, again, due to MJ long being removed from the actual game of basketball and it could be argued that the reason for his continued presence is the result of Nike’s efforts to help keep their golden goose in the spotlight. However, regardless of the reason why he remains a fixture and one would be hard pressed to go a day without some reference to Michael Jordan being the greatest basketball player of all time or at the very least figure into some discussion about who the greatest of all-time was with Michael Jordan figuring prominently into the discussion. This of course was even before the airing of The Last Dance, and since its aired, forget about it, the sports media will have you believe that Michael Jordan is the greatest thing to ever happen to sports and any opinion to the contrary is pure blasphemous lunacy. To be fair there have been a couple of journalists who have been brave enough to air a few pieces which have questioned the central messages / themes that have emanated from the MJ doc, but they are decidedly in the minority. As such, I believe it is important to critically examine elements of the documentary and how (most of) the media has decided to interpret these messages in deciding to place Jordan on the highest of sports pedestals.


Michael Jordan as the Greatest of All-time

One thing that the documentary tries to repeat over and over, evidenced through Jordan’s dunking montages and obsequious interviews, is that Michael Jordan remains the greatest basketball player who ever played. While this position has not only been a longstanding one amongst several in the media even prior to The Last Dance, since its debut not only have sports personalities lined up to double down on this but many are also taking this proposition to radical new highs proclaiming that Jordan is not just heads and shoulders above everyone who played the game of basketball, but the greatest of all time in any sport!

While I have long had to endure segment after segment from the sports talking heads about how great Michael Jordan is, this documentary did nothing for me. While I can entertain the argument that Michael Jordan remains the best basketball player who ever played given that Lebron James’s legacy is still a work in progress, I refuse to acknowledge that Michael Jordan is so far ahead of every other basketball player that the discussion is rendered moot. As such, while the media would have you believe, especially after The Last Dance, that MJ is light years ahead of everyone else, a critical examination of the facts reveals this to be untrue.

First, while Jordan might have six championships, which is the most common argument pro-Jordan advocates highlight, Jordan is dwarfed by Bill Russell’s championship total and is tied with Kareem for most championships. And while Jordan-heads also highlight the fact that MJ never lost in the finals, well the truth is he has lost a number of notable playoff series that prevented him from getting to the Finals in the first place. As such, I submit that a lost playoff series should count against a player’s legacy regardless of when it came.

Second, while MJ might have six championships a number of other NBA players also have a comparable number of championships and have appeared in just as many finals, if not more, than Jordan has. For example, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Magic Johnson all have five championships. Should Jordan be routinely touted as the greatest ever because of the number of championships he has simply because he has one more title than any of those players? For example, in Magic Johnson’s case he was forced to retire at 32 because of HIV and at 32 MJ had fewer rings than Magic. Who is to say Magic would have not one another ring or two if he was not forced to retire especially given the known team assembly prowess of Dr. Jerry Buss. A Magic and Shaquille O’Neal combination would have surely spelt doom for the rest of the league, but alas we will never know.

Third, while championships are important anyone with any basketball sense knows they are only part of any GOAT equation (because if not technically even Robert Horry and his 7 championships could be considered greater than MJ). As such, another important element in any GOAT argument is who you beat. In Jordan’s case he went almost an entire decade without a ring because the competition in the NBA was just too great for him. More specifically, he never even got out of the East while the Celtics and the Pistons dominated the 80s, and when he finally did get out of the East and faced the Lakers, who were indeed part of the great 80s dynasty teams, played the Bulls without Kareem Abdul Jabbar (retired), James Worthy (retired) and without Pat Riley at coach (departed). As such, when Jordan started winning titles he did so by beating teams that in no way compared to the awesome force of the great 80s dynasty teams of the Celtics, Pistons, or Lakers. Even Jordan-heads concede that the level of competition Jordan beat in his championship runs in no way compares to that which existed when Jordan could not even sniff the Finals.

Fourth, the way Jordan’s legacy is presented it is almost as if the Chicago Bulls won all those titles in the 90s solely because of Jordan. However, as some journalists have pointed out is that Jordan’s decades of dominance was due in large part was because he played alongside the second best NBA player of the day (Scottie Pippen), always had an amazing defensive minded number three (Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman), was surrounded by a terrific supporting cast (Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr etc.), had arguably the Greatest GM in NBA history working behind the scenes to create miracles (Jerry Krause) despite the constraints of a notoriously tight-wad owner (Jerry Reinsdorf) and was coached by the greatest coach of all-time (Phil Jackson). Not only was Pippen able to guide the Bulls to a hair away from the NBA finals after Jordan’s first departure, but when Jordan was without some of the league’s best reinforcements Jordan rarely came anywhere close to success on the basketball court (i.e. his pre-1991 Bulls, his Wizards run).

As such, while I can entertain the argument that Jordan might currently be the best basketball player of all time based on combination of his individual achievements and number of championships, no one should ever believe the narrative that Michael Jordan is so much better than everyone else who ever played or that his legacy is so far removed from everyone else that he could not be eclipsed by Lebron James or any future star. For fucks sake Lebron won a title for the Cavs and that should count for at least 10 titles!

Another narrative that no one should believe is the one that has Michael Jordan as the greatest sportsman in any sport. Again, while one can legitimately argue that Michael Jordan might be at present the best basketball player who ever played the game, the difference between him and the next man up is nowhere near the chasm that exists with Wayne Gretzky and the next guy in his sport, Usain Bolt and the next guy in his sport or Tom Brady and the next guy in his sport. So this idea that Jordan is the greatest sportsman across any sport is truly ludicrous and really needs to end. And while I have seen an uptick in the Jordan v. Brady debate, especially when Brady did the unprecedented and won his sixth Superbowl, I am still amazed when the debate swings Jordan’s way. While it is true Brady has lost three Superbowls he plays in a one game championship title game. As such, if you figure the fact that MJ played in a best of seven championship format, his actual win percentage across championship games is very much comparable to Brady’s (Jordan 24-11= 68.5% v. Brady 6-3= 66.7%). Add to this that Brady influence has to be of such magnitude that he must carry a team of 22 starters (instead of 5) to win, and there should be no question that Tom Brady has a better case for GOAT amongst all sports than Jordan does.

Jordan’s Competiveness and Leadership

Another narrative that continues to be perpetuated and certainly augmented since the airing of The Last Dance is that his ruthless approach to the game and loathsome treatment of his teammates is not only justified, but something that is to be admired. Jordan has relentlessly been praised as an assassin on the court and that his ability to motivate himself by taking the smallest of slights as fuel is somehow a wonderful quality to possess and therefore justifies his approach to the game, complete with the merciless bullying of his teammates. I submit that this is hogwash. If Donald Trump is (rightly) routinely chastised for his small and petty nature and his bullying of individuals to get what he wants, surely Jordan or anyone who utilizes this approach in their daily life should be criticized in the same manner. Real leadership is finding a way to positively motivate yourself and inspire those who surround you to greatness, not this petty small man shit that is somehow ok for Jordan to do. While it is understandable that leaders must utilize harsh motivation tactics at times, real leaders have other tools in their tool box other than just hate and pettiness.

In addition, while Jordan is also routinely praised for his competitive nature, and this of course certainly featured in the documentary, one question I kept asking myself while watching The Last Dance was if Michael Jordan is such a relentless competitor why did he quit the only thing he was ever exceptional at not just once, but twice? At the end of the documentary Jordan claims that he laments the fact that he did not win a seventh ring and that had he known about an alleged 11th hour offer to Phil Jackson from Jerry Reinsdorf and that there was a real possibility the Bulls core could have remained intact that he would have stuck around for at least one more season with the Bulls. While claims relating to bringing Jackson and the Bulls core back have been debunked like some of Jordan’s other lies (and dry snitching) during the documentary (i.e. not keeping Isiah Thomas off the dream team), if Jordan was such a relentless competitor why did he choose to walk away from basketball in 1998? Surely as evidenced by his (dismal) two year run with Wizards in the 2000s he had something left in the tank, so why walk away if you are the ultimate competitor who is always chasing greatness?

Michael Jordan the Activist and Legacy

Unlike other prominent athletes who have a number of memorable quotes attributable to them (see Muhammad Ali, Joe Louise, Wayne Gretzky etc.), you would be hard pressed to come up with even one timeless line attributable to Michael Jordan save for his “Republicans buy sneakers too” quote he is alleged to have said in the early 1990s when he was questioned about his lack of social activism. For years this Jordan quote remained a myth as it was unconfirmed until, ironically it was confirmed by The Last Dance. While Jordan legacy remained largely untarnished despite several media personalities and prominent athletes like Kareem Abdul Jabbar accusing Jordan of selling out and remaining on the sidelines in regards to his notable absence with regards to social issues over the years, the confirmation about his “Republicans buy sneakers too” was an incredible blow to Jordan’s legacy and his alleged GOAT status, or at least it should have been. While several notable athletes like former Chicago Bull Jay Williams have gone on record to state that what athletes do off the court matters to their legacy and that a lack of social activism is a significant strike against any claim to GOAT status (Williams himself believes for this reason is what separates Lebron James from Michael Jordan when ranking James over Jordan in terms of GOAT- 1:55 mark), I was astonished how so many in the media seemingly gave Michael Jordan a pass for, as Kareem Abdul Jabbar puts it, “Choosing commerce over conscience.” In fact, when Jordan was asked to lend his support to North Carolina Senate hopeful Harvey Gantt who was running against notorious racist Jesse Helms in 1990 Jordan has openly admitted he declined to do so despite his platform because as Jordan puts it, he considers himself only a basketball player and not a role model. When these revelations came to light after The Last Dance not only did many members of the media excuse Jordan’s decision largely due to the 1990s being a different time than today, not one prominent talking head explained why even if the 1990s were a different time than today, why Michael Jordan continues to remain silent today when many contemporary athletes like Lebron James or Dwayne Wade openly address important social issues. Moreover, certain media personalities like ESPN’s Max Kellerman even tried to defend Jordan’s 1990s silence by bizarrely claiming that the 1990s was a relatively peaceful time in relation to race relations despite the obvious fact that the 90s included the LA riots, the OJ trial, the murder of Latasha Harlins and host of other significant events.

While this is the United States and as such Michael Jordan is free to comment or not comment on social issues as he pleases, two things must be acknowledged given Michael Jordan’s silence on social issues. First, that it is hypocritical to chastise certain athletes like OJ Simpson for forsaking the black community while praising other athletes like Michael Jordan who conduct themselves in a near identical and apathetical manner as Simpson did off the field (or court in this instance). Second, a significant number of prominent athletes, media personalities and members of the public (myself included), believe that in order for anyone of prominence to truly be considered timeless or great in the all-time context that that person of prominence must utilize their platform to advocate for social causes, justice and the betterment of humanity (see Muhammed Ali, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Jim Brown, Bill Russell etc.). It cannot be all about the money or personal accolades alone. As such, while people will no doubt continue to engage in greatest of all-time debates for the foreseeable future, in the Michael Jordan context, while a number of people already have LeBron James ahead of Michael Jordan it is important to recognize that no matter what other achievements James adds to his legacy from a basketball perspective, that a significant number of people have already recognized that James has dwarfed Jordan in a category that is of extreme importance in GOAT criteria vis-à-vis his off the court social contributions and that as such, for this significant and growing segment of people, the argument for Jordan’s GOAT status is not only crippled, but mortally wounded.

All Hail the King.

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