Episodes seven and eight of The Last Dance featured much of what basketball fans wanted from this project. We got the look into a shockingly vulnerable side of Michael Jordan, we got tons of practice footage, and we got an extended look into his final years with the Chicago Bulls. On the merits of what is good television, night four of the doc might have been the best yet.
Worst: Conspiracy Theories
The first half hour or so of Episode 7 is the heaviest part of The Last Dance thus far, as they delve into the murder of James Jordan and the impact that had on Michael’s decision to retire and play baseball. It’s something they were always going to address, but the question was whether they would discuss two of the most prevalent conspiracy theories about Michael Jordan’s career. They did just that, with Jordan discussing how it “hurt” hearing people in the media and beyond speculate about whether his gambling habit led to his father’s murder. Sam Smith, Bob Costas, and others slammed those who wrote columns they described as “cheap shots” with “no evidence.” There are still some who parrot those theories and it’s clear that bothers Michael — and understandably so, as he likely wouldn’t have addressed it in this format if it didn’t. It is an incredibly serious allegation to assert someone’s gambling led to their father’s death, particularly when there’s nothing beyond blind speculation to put the two together.
The other theory that gets addressed is a more popular one and, in the grand scheme, less salacious, which is the “secret suspension” conspiracy, in which people theorize that Jordan was suspended by the league in 1993. This, they claim, is why he took 18 months off to play baseball. Then-commissioner David Stern addresses that head on, saying it’s false and there is “no basis in fact” for that assumption. The idea that Stern would secretly suspend the league’s biggest draw and best player, devaluing the league he was in charge of, is pretty ridiculous when you think about it critically for too long. If you were to do such a thing, it would make you and the league look much stronger and take a “no player is bigger than the league” stance by making that suspension public knowledge. To do so secretly provides no benefit.
On top of that, Jordan’s trainer, Tim Grover, notes they completely changed his workouts to put his body into baseball condition rather than basketball condition, which he told Jordan would have adverse effects if he tried to return to hoops. If there was an 18-month suspension to be served, it’s hard to imagine Jordan saying yes to that knowing it’d take time to get his body back to hoops shape.
In all, Episode 7 was a tough one for Jordan conspiracy theorists, but it surely won’t stop them.
Best: Cat Chow
Michael Jordan calls Scott Burrell a “ho” on multiple occasions in practice clips, but the most vicious burn he hit Burrell with was after a rough game in the locker room he told that man to go home and feed his sick cat some Purina Cat Chow. Michael Jordan is, without a doubt, my favorite asshole in sports history.
Best: Top Dog Scottie Pippen
Scottie Pippen, during his time with the Bulls, was the most underpaid superstar in NBA history. He was underappreciated, to an extent, in that he legitimately might have been the second-best basketball player in the world on a given evening, with the issue being that the best basketball player in the world was on his team for the entirety of his career up until he retired.
Pippen got his chance to take the Bulls by the horns (sorry) after Jordan retired, and with the chance to lead a team finally in his grasp, he delivered. Chicago won 55 games, Pippen set career-highs in scoring (22 a night) and rebounding (8.7 per game), tied his career-best mark in steals (2.9 a game), and served as a facilitator within the Triangle offense beautifully. His more relaxed style of leadership was apparently a breath of fresh air after Jordan’s more demanding approach.
The Bulls weren’t quite able to win a ring with Pippen at the helm, but it’s a testament to him (and the coaching job Phil Jackson did) that Chicago was still a really, really good basketball team despite Jordan’s retirement.
Best/Worst: Baseball Mike
The best is because Michael Jordan decided to give up on being the best basketball player in the world, at the height of his powers, to play a completely different sport, in part because he thought that was a way to honor his father after he was murdered. There is something about Michael Jordan’s brain that just works differently from everyone else’s (more on this later!), and even before experiencing a level of grief that no human should ever have to experience, the thought came into his mind that it was worth saying “welp, see ya later” to the thing he was better than any other human at to go play baseball because … well, because. He, Michael Jordan, an athletic and cultural icon, was so over playing basketball that he was willing to go kick it in the minors in Birmingham, Alabama.
The worst is, obviously, because Jordan wasn’t a particularly good baseball player, but I do believe that requires some amount of context. Jordan was dropped into AA ball, putting up numbers that were not good on the surface — he hit .202, had an OPS of .556, and struck out 114 times with 88 hits and three homers tucked in there — but it is kind of wild that he just did that after getting sent head-first into a good level of baseball after like 15 years of not playing the game. The comparison that pops up here is Tim Tebow, who performed admirably in AA before struggling in AAA last year, but even Tebow got to go through the Mets system over several years and learn the game. Jordan retired from the NBA in October of 1993 and reported to Spring Training four months later.
So yeah, Jordan wasn’t a good baseball player (yet), but considering the circumstances that led to him putting up bad numbers and not absolutely cataclysmic numbers, things could have been much worse.
Best: Scott Burrell
Finally, after numerous clips in this documentary of Mike dunking on him verbally and literally, we got some redemption for Scott Burrell. It came on a night where we also saw the worst of Jordan torching him on the practice court, but we got it and we should celebrate that. I’m glad that they built the Burrell section around, eventually, showing the highlight of his Bulls tenure, a 23-point outing to help the Bulls win a playoff game against the Nets.
Not only that, but Burrell comes off pretty great when talking about the prodding he took from Jordan, who even seems to really like Scott for taking all that and rolling with it, even if he couldn’t goad Burrell into fighting him “in a good sense,” as he put it. Burrell seems to look back on it with a level understanding few excellent athletes — Burrell was also a highly-rated baseball prospect coming out of UConn — would after being humiliated at times. In the practice footage, we see him trading barbs with Jordan and not backing down from the challenge, even if Jordan would give him hell on the court. In the interview, he talks about how Mike tried to lift guys to his level, even if Jordan didn’t fully understand not that no one else could actually get to that level.
Best: Cigar/Baseball Bat Mike
making up stories just to drop 36 points in the first half on someone pic.twitter.com/bTaien7rn6
— whitney medworth (@its_whitney) May 11, 2020
If it wasn’t already extremely clear from everything we’d seen in the six episodes before this or the books written about him or stories passed down as urban legends or his Hall of Fame speech, these two episodes very clearly outlined how Michael Jordan was, and I mean this in the best way possible, a psychopath. He had a psychotic drive to not just win, but to humiliate anyone that dared doubt him or slight him in any way, shape, or form. He wanted to destroy Clyde Drexler because the media dared put them in the same tier. He wanted to destroy Dan Majerle and Toni Kukoc because Jerry Krause liked them. He still hates Isiah Thomas to this day for the walkoff and [gestures at the existence of the Pistons].
In this episode, B.J. Armstrong, his former teammate and a fairly close friend when they were teammates, dares to celebrate beating the Bulls in a playoff game in which he plays very well. The result is Michael clutching a baseball bat in the locker room the next day, swinging it very calmly while smoking a cigar, and insisting he’s not mad. It’s such an incredible visual and I’m so glad they put it in the documentary. For one, it can’t be overstated how f*cking cool Michael Jordan was. Also, it’s somewhat terrifying how calm he was when he was discussing all of this. Poor Armstrong got the clamps put on him in the next game and for the remainder of the series that the Bulls would go on to dominate.
Worst: Mike’s Pants
These look like a parachute. Not parachute pants, it looked like he fashioned these out of a parachute. ‘90s fashion was wild.
Worst: LaBradford Smith
This is not a new story, but it’s one of my favorite Jordan stories. After LaBradford Smith put up 37 on the Bulls in Chicago, Jordan made up that Smith told him “good game.” On the next night, the Bulls and Bullets met again on a back-to-back. Jordan made it his sole mission to embarrass Smith, scoring 36 in the first half and trying to personally humiliate LaBradford by going at him all night. Again, Jordan was a psychopath, but in I guess the best possible way because he used it to simply try to beat people mercilessly in sports and cards.
Best: The Scottie Shoe Point
It’s one of the most iconic images of the Bulls dynasty, Scottie Pippen wearing a pair of Jordan 10s and pointing to the Jumpman logo and doing the “come back here” finger motion to a camera while on the bench during a game in 1995. If this happened today, it would melt Twitter and Stephen A. Smith’s head would explode on First Take the next day.
Best: Jud Buechler’s outstanding watch/apartment combination
Jud Buechler has a very nice apartment and that is a nice watch.
Best: LeBron James
Hey look it’s LeBron! He decided to live-tweet this week, including this tweet about the Knicks after we saw Jordan’s legendary “Double Nickel” game.
Man Ain’t nothing like Madison Square Garden! 🏟
— LeBron James (@KingJames) May 11, 2020
Mike and Bron are connected forever for a number of reasons, No. 1 of them may be the fact that they both take a special kind of joy in tormenting the New York Knicks.
Worst: Nick Anderson, B.J. Armstrong, and everyone else who ever trash talked Michael Jordan during the playoffs
If you were not an elite player and you dared to speak out of turn to Michael during a playoff series, I’m really not sure what you were thinking. As the LaBradford Smith story shows, Jordan could make up motivation all on is own, you didn’t need to make yourself the target of this. The good news for Nick Anderson is that the Magic were the better team in 1995 and were able to beat the Bulls, but in Game 2, after Anderson stole the ball from Jordan to seal Game 1 and said “45 isn’t 23,” Mike broke out the No. 23 and put 38 points on Orlando in a win. I appreciate the gumption and it is an incredible quote, but, like, let Penny and Shaq do the talking you do not need to bring that attention on yourself from Michael Jordan.
Best: Don’t Mean A Thing Without The Ring Merch
Well sure, but it's not like a team with that many wins could NOT win a ring, right
That would be really amazing pic.twitter.com/XQBRu156S4
— Jason Kirk 🤠😇 (@thejasonkirk) May 11, 2020
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) May 11, 2020
It’s extremely badass that the Bulls were wearing this stuff during the playoffs, as they would’ve been laughed at forever if they hadn’t won. Instead, they won the ring against the Sonics (we’ll get to them momentarily) and two decades later it was made even funnier by the fact that the 73-9 Warriors broke their record and then blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals to LeBron James and the Cavaliers. My only wish is that we could have found LeBron that Bulls hat to wear at the Cavs parade. Honestly, Jordan should’ve overnighted him one for the cause.
Worst: George Karl
YOU HAVE GARY PAYTON WHY ARE YOU NOT PUTTING GARY PAYTON ON MICHAEL JORDAN AND ON THAT NOTE WHY ARE YOU PISSING OFF MICHAEL JORDAN AT A RESTAURANT GEORGE KARL COME ON MAN WHAT ARE YOU DOING. I am not even a Sonics fan and for all Sonics fans, I am sorry, but these two moments were particularly infuriating.
Best: Legalize Kemp
An absolutely elite fan sign. Also, extremely on brand for the pacific northwest.
Best: Gary God Damn Payton
Man, Gary Payton is so cool, man. He’s like the one person who can legitimately say “I did a pretty good job checking Michael Jordan,” and his breakdown of how he guarded Jordan was nothing short of enthralling, even if it did cause MJ to laugh a lot. We have had two Gary Payton cameos in this — this and the Rodman episode — and both have included lots of swearing while GP gives legitimately insightful analysis that is caked in his very unique way of breaking things down. We need as much Payton in all things that we possibly can get. Put him on Guy’s Grocery Games or something, I do not care.
Best: Human Michael Jordan
One of the weirdest elements of this entire project — and I want to stress that this is not necessarily a critique, because while Ken Burns is correct when he says it’s not journalism, I don’t think that’s a bad thing — is that everything you see is essentially what Michael Jordan wants you to see. There are obvious upsides to this, namely that Jordan is and was hilarious and his highlights are so good that Kevin Durant literally makes people watch them when they go to his house, but the downside is that the doc does sometimes feel like they’re only getting close to capturing the essence of Jordan before the brakes get pumped. The bar that ESPN set for these monster docuseries projects is its five-part O.J. Simpson series, and The Last Dance just does not explore the space it is given as well as O.J.: Made In America did, which would have been really hard regardless, because that was a masterpiece.
Having said that, Jordan’s armor of immortality cracks every now and then, with two moments from each of these episodes revealing emotions that he seems hesitant to ever let bubble to the surface. The less interesting one — which, to be clear, I adored — was him laughing at Gary Payton like he was Charlie Murphy after Prince suggested going and playing basketball.
— ESPN (@espn) May 11, 2020
We’ve seen this side of Jordan a few times, the basketball assassin who cannot wrap his head around anyone believing they could ever even think about knocking him down a fraction of a peg. His resentment for Isiah Thomas earlier in the show was a good example of this, but I’d argue this was even better — Jordan does not obviously hate Payton like he does Zeke, but the mere suggestion of GP playing good defense against him 24 years ago caused him to yell laugh and make funny faces and scream “THE GLOVE” condescendingly.
One of my big issues with this doc is that, on so many occasions, we can see Jordan’s mask start to slip, only for him to catch it before his internal desire to be the alpha dog to end all alpha dogs completely comes through. The Payton moment, however, represents the rare occasion where Jordan cannot catch the mask, and as a result, we get an absolutely wonderful bit of television and a meme that is on your Twitter timeline right now.
But the far more interesting moment and the purest distillation of Michael Jeffrey Jordan that we get in this entire documentary is the final scene of episode seven, in which Jordan is moved to tears based on the mere suggestion that anyone would not play the game of basketball with the same drive and intensity that he would.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 11, 2020
Jordan doesn’t exist in the world of basketball as much as his spirit looms over it. He is the bar to which everyone is measured, basketball’s one truly immortal player. It inadvertently reminds me of a theory that I have about stand-up comedians: Being told you’re funny and brilliant, over and over again, over the course of decades does something to your brain that most of us cannot comprehend, and the second that you hear someone say you are not funny, you lash out and blame things outside of your control, because you cannot rationalize that a person could think that you lost your fastball. (See: most older comedians who complain about PC culture because college students don’t find weird, vapid jokes that people liked in 1993 funny.)
Jordan’s brain is wired in a similarly weird way. He was a hyper-competitive child, he won at literally every level of basketball he ever played, and even before his first retirement — which came after only playing nine seasons in the NBA — he was already considered the best player ever. It’s caused the mythology surrounding Jordan to grow and grow over however many decades, but the thing is that Jordan hears all of this, too. That is going to do something to a person.
This entire project is based around that idea: Jordan is immortal because he is the greatest basketball player ever, and that legendary drive led to him winning six championships. Everything surrounding that mythology not only shaped Jordan, by now, that is literally who he is. There is no separating Michael Jordan the basketball player from Michael Jordan the person or Michael Jordan the businessman, there is only Michael Jordan, the cutthroat, ruthless icon who transcends any normal definition of what it means to be a human.
As such, everything in this doc has to be viewed through that lens, because this doc is a project Jordan had creative control over, and also, that is just who he is. He lost sense of how to be a human like you or me years ago, because he literally could not be where he is today if he was. It is impossible to understand what it is like to be Jordan, but in this particular moment, we get a glimpse into a portion of Jordan’s soul that we never really see: Michael Jordan, the person whose existence is defined by competition. I’ll leave the deep psychological analysis of him to those who dedicate their lives to psychology, but it should not come as a huge surprise that his most human moment was tied to this. It is who Jordan is, and will be until the day he dies.
But even when that day comes, and he goes to the big basketball court in the sky, the mythology surrounding him has made it so this is who Michael Jordan always will be.