Someone asked me recently if I thought “The Last Dance’’ would have been as well-watched if it had been competing against the NBA and NHL playoffs, as well as early season major-league baseball games. You know, if the planet hadn’t been wearing a mask.
The question was asked by a huge baseball fan, clearly with a “no’’ in mind for an answer. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to believe that the ESPN documentary on the 1997-98 Bulls would have beaten most anything in its path, coronavirus or no coronavirus.
I don’t want to say there’s something sad about Jordan’s staying power because the word “sad’’ is busy with the pandemic. But there is something telling, and perhaps incriminating, about his popularity 22 years after the last of the Bulls’ six titles.
Except for the recent e-mailer who told me that Bob Cousy was better than Jordan, I think we can agree that MJ was transcendent as a player and, because of it, as a pitchman. He did things with a basketball that no one had done before or has done since, and he continues to sell products like no athlete ever has. That he’s still a go-to guy whenever a corporation wants to add class to whatever it’s trying to sell is beyond impressive. That his Air Jordan shoes still fly off shelves borders on the ridiculous.
The first instinct is to say, “Really? No one else has taken his place in the NBA and in the marketplace? Come on, guys, step up your games!’’ The second instinct is to say, “It makes perfect sense that a man who could hang in the air could hang around so long in our collective imagination.’’
LeBron James is an incredible player, certainly in the discussion for best ever, but everything he does is viewed in the context of what Jordan did. Some of that is our doing. We hold on to our heroes with a steel grip. Some of it is the doing of the ultra-competitive Jordan, who still thinks he’s playing one-on-one against himself in the “best-ever’’ category and isn’t shy about throwing shade at would-be rivals.
Jordan has to be amused that James will be starring in “Space Jam: A New Legacy,’’ a sequel to Jordan’s 1996 hit movie “Space Jam.’’
Everything in the NBA still seems like a pale sequel to Jordan.
The success of “The Last Dance’’ is another indication that the public fascination with MJ has no limit. For those of us in Chicago, there was very little new in the documentary, yet we couldn’t take our eyes off it. Phil Jackson and Jerry Krause didn’t get along. Scottie Pippen and Krause didn’t get along. Jordan and Krause didn’t get along. Jordan was mean to his teammates. He gambled, and he played baseball.
We knew all this, but watching it played back all these years later was still fascinating. We read history books even if we already know the details.
Pippen isn’t a tragic figure, but the documentary reminded us that he can’t win. His team can pile up six NBA titles, but the man can’t win. He can’t get his big-money contract. He can’t get the last shot in the big game. He can’t be considered a true great, not with Jordan around. And Jordan is always around, referring to his teammates as his “supporting cast.’’
There were quiet heroes in the documentary. There was Steve Kerr, who described so eloquently that Pippen’s giving personality was a needed counterweight to Jordan’s demanding nature. There was Bill Cartwright, who cried in the locker room after Pippen’s 1.8-second boycott, telling Scottie in front of the team that he had quit on his teammates.
The biggest revelation from the documentary, which ended Sunday night, is that Jordan, the person, exists. Since his playing days ended, we’ve known him as NBA executive and then owner. We’ve known him as obsessed golfer and inveterate cigar smoker. We’ve known him as product mover and personal brand builder. But other that? Very, very little. He hasn’t given many interviews over the years, certainly not any in which he bared his soul.
So to see him tear up at the end of Episode 7 as he tries to explain his poor treatment of teammates is to see a curtain being pulled back.
But earth-shattering? No. The series was comfort food, especially during these difficult times. Mostly, it was a reminder of how big Michael Jordan is, was and will continue to be. And that’s more than enough.
Now, when will the rest of sports catch up with him?