Sometimes the greatest player of all time looks all alone on ‘The Last Dance’

There’s a cost to being Michael Jordan. That comes out very clearly in ESPN’s documentary.

SHARE Sometimes the greatest player of all time looks all alone on ‘The Last Dance’
jordanlastdance.jpg

Michael Jordan appears on “The Last Dance,’’ ESPN’s documentary about the Bulls’ 1997-98 championship season.

How alone Michael Jordan sometimes seems. Alone with his memories, his accomplishments, his slights and his private wars.

That surely was not the intent of “The Last Dance,’’ ESPN’s documentary on Jordan’s Bulls, but it’s there nonetheless. Perhaps the stark setup of the interview sessions adds to the perception of isolation — Jordan sitting in a chair, a cocktail by his side, talking about the things that happened years ago. Sometimes he’s prompted by a muted question from behind the camera, but other than that in those segments, it’s just his voice and his thoughts. He tries to explain himself, his competitiveness and his sometimes-cruel behavior toward teammates. At least once, he’s to the point of tears.

“That’s how I played the game,’’ he says at the end of Episode 7. “That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.”

“Break,’’ he says, choking up and calling a stop to taping.

This is not the opening scene of “Citizen Kane.’’ There’s no Charles Foster Kane uttering “Rosebud,’’ but sometimes . . . sometimes the greatest, most famous and wealthiest basketball player of all time looks all alone in “The Last Dance.’’

There’s a cost to being Michael Jordan. That comes out very clearly in the documentary. There’s a price to pay if you want to win six NBA titles and six NBA Finals MVP awards. Jordan certainly saw it that way. He was merciless with teammates he didn’t feel were playing to their potential, which meant there was a price to pay for anyone who put on a Bulls uniform. He was heartless to some teammates for what seemed like no apparent reason. Certainly no good reason.

Now, 22 years after the final championship, you look at a 57-year-old Jordan. You don’t ask whether it was worth it, but you look at him and think you see the cost of it. He’s still carrying some of the same anger, the same resentments, the same disdain. Maybe the world doesn’t understand what it takes to win. That’s embedded in his face, too. But somewhere in there, somewhere where those tears came from, he doesn’t seem to like this perception of him as callous. Is that his brand talking or him? I think it’s him. As we get older, we look back on some things with regret.

But are his former teammates his close friends? I haven’t felt that bond at all during “The Last Dance.’’ That bond is there between Jordan and a few media members. Strange.

There’s a whiff of Bob Knight in some of this, without the infamy. Doesn’t the winning excuse the means? That’s what Knight’s defenders would say whenever someone brought up the coach’s poor treatment of Indiana players. Were the three NCAA titles worth it? Was Jordan’s unpleasantness worth the Bulls’ titles? Sure, but that doesn’t erase the unpleasantness.

Knight was famous for cutting off communication with certain friends for years, sometimes for no discernible reason. There’s some of that with Jordan, who eight years ago ostracized TV analyst Charles Barkley, one of his best pals, for criticizing his work as owner of the then-Bobcats. Barkley is still bothered by the split.

“Listen, if you’re famous, and Michael at one point was the most famous person in the world, everybody around you is either on the payroll or letting you buy drinks and dinner and flying around on your private jet,’’ he recently told ESPN 1000’s “Waddle and Silvy’’ show. “Very few of your friends are going to be honest with you. And that’s very hard for any celebrity, but especially somebody of his stature.

“But I thought that was one of the reasons we were great friends. Like, ‘I can ask Charles anything, and I know he’s going to give me a straight answer.’ But part of my job [as an analyst] is, because I can’t go on TV and say another general manager sucks, then just because Michael’s like a brother to me say, ‘He’s doing a fantastic job’ — that would be disingenuous.”

Barkley is a national treasure, full of insight, humor and a devotion to telling the truth, or at least what he considers the truth to be. Jordan is an icon. One is touchable and approachable, the other isn’t.

Whom would you rather be, Barkley or Jordan?

What would you rather be, loved or feared?

What you see is what you get with Barkley. For the longest time, we didn’t get much in the way of substance from Jordan the person. It didn’t matter a whole lot. He gave us everything on the basketball court. That’s what’s so nice about “The Last Dance.’’ We finally get to see some of him. Not all of him. Some.

It’s Jordan, on top of the world, by himself.

The Latest
Bruce Groeper is a massage therapist at “the beach to see and be seen” who will tell you he’s a bit of an unknown legend. He may be right.
As a desperate woman embracing her dark side, actor does richly layered work in neo-noir thriller.
King is chair of the Chicago City Council’s Progressive Caucus. Her husband, Alan, an attorney and house music DJ, is a close friend and basketball-playing buddy of former President Barack Obama.
Before the game, the Sky honored Bird with a pregame video and a pair of custom-made Nike Air Force 1 sneakers.