Gatorade’s iconic 1992 “Be Like Mike” TV advertisement verbalized a feeling shared among the global public: everyone wanted to be Michael Jordan, the most famous basketball player, and perhaps person, in the world. Spotlighted in the fifth and sixth episodes of “The Last Dance,” the commercial becomes almost ironic as the documentary details what it truly was like to be Mike and be one of the most famous — and scrutinized — people in the world. Here are a few of this week’s takeaways.
“What You Get From Me Is From Him”
The fifth episode opens with the 1998 NBA All-Star Game. Jordan, making what was expected to be his last All-Star appearance, is seen in the locker room discussing his supposed heir: 19-year-old Kobe Bryant. It then cuts to 41-year-old Bryant, sitting on his living room couch discussing the relationship he had with Jordan. In an episode dedicated to Bryant after his tragic death, the sight of Bryant is both sobering and joyous.
Back in 1998, clips of Jordan and the Eastern Conference All-Stars reveal their jabs at Bryant, calling him the “little Laker boy” who “don’t let the game come to him.” The highlights then show Bryant and Jordan connected at the hip throughout the game. Their intense play, however, had two distinct motives. Jordan was determined to knock the young phenom down a notch, but Bryant simply relished the opportunity to learn. After the game, Jordan commended Bryant, telling him he’ll “see him down the road.”
Dubbed as a “next Jordan” early in his career, Bryant drew constant comparisons to his mentor. Bryant is one of the few players that have been said to match Jordan’s intense competitiveness and obsessive detail for the game. That similarity birthed a bond between the two — Jordan mentored Bryant throughout his career. Jordan saw himself in Bryant, and Bryant saw Jordan as a model for greatness. The two are widely considered the greatest shooting guards of all time, and Bryant was pestered throughout his career with questions about who was better between him and Jordan. In the documentary, he said he was irked by such questions because his success as a player is attributed to Jordan’s guidance. “What you get from me is from him,” Bryant says in the episode, thinking it wrong to pit himself against his teacher.
Now, Jordan is currently enjoying his second act, his life after basketball. Bryant’s life after basketball was brief, but with his Oscar win and promotion of women’s basketball, it was arguably more impressive than his mentor’s. But their unique bond was born in that All-Star Game, and until recently, no one fully realized just how deep that bond truly was. In the documentary, Bryant says, “Michael’s like my big brother,” and in his speech at Bryant’s memorial service, Jordan, through tears, said, “Rest in peace, little brother.”
Chinks in the Armor
Jordan was universally admired; he was an international icon that grew the game of basketball to a cultural touchstone. Despite his unmatchable skills and fame, however, his reputation was far from perfect. The fifth and sixth episodes open the door to the darker sides of Jordan’s career.
Some athletes, like boxer Muhammad Ali, built their legend partly through their activism. Jordan, however, was notorious for his aversion to politics. In 1990, his home state of North Carolina was in the midst of a historic Senate race in which Democrat Harvey Gantt was hoping to unseat Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to become the first African American senator from North Carolina. While many expected Jordan to endorse Gantt, he never did, and was reported saying “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Drawing large amounts of public ire, Jordan was criticized for being selfish by concentrating on his business interests. Jordan always exceeded his on-court expectations, but when he failed to live up to public expectations, people were shocked and disappointed.
The episodes also highlight Jordan’s gambling habits. It was no secret that Jordan liked to gamble; he would speak openly about bets he had with people, bragging about his golf game and the large sums of money involved in his bets. What started as a slight public concern boiled over when Jordan was spotted gambling with his father in Atlantic City the night before a playoff game against the New York Knicks in 1993. The Bulls lost the following night, and rumors swirled that Jordan was losing interest in playing and was not committed to the season.
The constant coverage of his gambling sparked a fraught relationship between Jordan and the media. It became much worse after the publishing of Sam Smith’s famed 1992 book “The Jordan Rules,” which tracked the 1990-91 season with the Chicago Bulls and put Jordan in an unflattering light. It detailed his constant fights with his teammates, portraying him as a domineering bully who pushed people past their breaking points. After the book’s release, negativity surrounded Jordan that season to the point he admitted he was not only physically exhausted but also “way past exhausted” mentally.
In the first four episodes, “The Last Dance” tracks the building of Jordan’s larger-than-life persona. These two recent episodes shine a new light though, showing that it was not all sunshine and roses for Jordan and the Bulls. On top of the media’s relentless pestering, Jordan’s fame had an adverse effect on his off-court life. We see him confined to his hotel room, unable to walk outside without hordes of people following his every move. Jordan savored any time away from the cameras, evidenced when he pulled teammate Scottie Pippen away from the media requesting an interview, telling Pippen they will miss their tee time.
Jordan was an otherworldly talent, a charismatic and commanding presence, and an idol. But the constant scrutiny took its toll on him. The next episode will likely focus on his retirement after the 1993 season, showing when the greatest basketball player ever stepped away from the game in his prime for reasons these two episodes explain. Nothing for him was ever normal, and that lack of normalcy was his cause for stepping away.