There’s a moment late in ESPN’s 10-part series on the 1997-98 Bulls championship season when Michael Jordan looks ready to cry.
“Break,’’ he tells the camera crew. He abruptly gets up and moves out of the frame. There had been tears in his eyes.
A viewer can speculate on why he was upset. But I think I know.
He had been trying to explain why, yeah, maybe he was a jerk to his teammates, a bully who was always pushing them, ridiculing them, humiliating them, giving them grief for being mortal. The self-admitted cruelties — and thus the ensuing criticism from others — were there because that’s what Jordan felt he needed to do to drive his team to win. To not one, but six crowns.
Now he seemed overwhelmed trying once again to justify his brutal behavior back in the day.
Didn’t the world understand he was doing what had to be done?
Didn’t his haters — be they teammates, coaches, executives, media, foes — understand that the only reason you play a game is to win? That’s it. No other reason.
And if Jordan was willing to sacrifice so much to win, why wasn’t everybody else? Why did he have to explain his compulsion to those who couldn’t understand?
With the crazy success of ‘‘The Last Dance’’ — driven by a captive virus-lockdown audience — the scrutiny of the project and the superstar at its center has been intense.
Critics point out, accurately, that two listed producers of the series are Jordan business accomplices Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk. And certainly there are topics that are being breezed over, perhaps because the Jordan camp decreed as much.
But if anybody thinks the on-court/locker-room Jordan is being painted with rose petals, they’re wrong.
And Jordan, who just maybe had more pure physical talent than anybody ever in the game, does not appear like a saint or wizard or anything other than the Jordan I witnessed during his 13 seasons here in Chicago.
His mean-spirited Hall of Fame speech?
Pure Michael. He needed to dis everybody — including his sophomore-year coach at Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina, the man who dared not to put him on the varsity — so they could be his windmills, his bogeymen for spearing and pummeling en route to the top.
Why can’t people see what I had to do to climb to the peak and stay there?
Then, too, don’t forget Jordan was very close to being a bad kid before basketball took over. We used to talk about it, and he’d say he saw some of that mischievousness in younger son Marcus but not so much in Jeffrey, the older son who was quieter.
Much of Jordan, even his gambling, which could spin out of control, was just him being him.
He always ripped on his lessers, and when it came to basketball, that was everybody.
I remember him goofing on deep bench guy Jack Haley and even the Bulls’ dumb-looking new mascot, Da Bull. Jordan told Da Bull that if he didn’t get his act together, he would make sure that the Bulls traded him and Haley to the Suns for the Gorilla.
There was the mid-April game in 1996, with the Bulls en route to their record-breaking 72-10 regular-season record, when Jordan came out of a rout, sat on the bench, turned to the press behind him and pointed out four fans with pink hair sitting nearby.
“They’re from Hamburg, Arkansas,’’ he said wickedly. Of course, that was copilot Scottie Pippen’s hometown.
It must get lonely at the top. I’m sure it does get that way. It might even be pretty sad at times.
Only the king knows for sure.