We’ve bobbed and weaved through six episodes of The Last Dance more smoothly than a Jerry Krause celebration dance. Over the course of the last couple of episodes, we’ve witnessed the politics of the Dream Team, the politics of North Carolina in the early 90s and the politics of Totally Fucking Up An Endorsement Deal with Michael Jordan (*cough* Adidas *cough*).
Here are this week’s winners and losers from ESPN’s mega-doc.
Loser: Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan’s politics is either the most boring subject in the world, or the most fascinating, depending on your point of view. This week, we got the story of Jordan’s relationship with activism and, truth be told, it was a pretty short story.
“Republicans buy sneakers, too,” was Jordan’s infamous 1990 slogan, as he declined the opportunity to publicly back Harvey Gantt in his quest to become the first African American senator elected in North Carolina. Gantt’s opponent was the sneaker-loving, Civil Rights-hating Republican, Jesse Helms.
“I said it in jest on a bus with Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen and it was, you know, thrown off the cuff,” Jordan says in The Last Dance.
Jordan goes on to say that he made a private financial contribution to Harvey Gantt, but denied a request from his own mother to vocalise his support publicly. For this decision, there is plenty of criticism to go around.
“You would have wanted to see Michael push harder on that,” says Barack Obama.
“Michael did lose some credibility with an African American audience and people were disappointed,” says Roy Johnson of Fortune magazine.
“Everybody in the world respects Muhammad Ali. You know why? Because he stood for something. He stood for something even if it meant sacrificing a pay day. We respect that. Ultimately, Michael Jordan may be forgotten. Muhammad Ali won’t be forgotten,” says author Nathan McCall.
Jordan, though, gives his explanation, saying, “I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player.”
It is reasonable to believe that Jordan reserves the right to separate himself from politics entirely. He is not getting the ‘loser’ tag because of his apolitical behaviour. Michael Jordan is a loser this week because the documentary failed to help us truly understand why he thought of himself as a basketball player only.
Jordan’s former Bulls teammate, Craig Hodges, is conspicuous by his absence in The Last Dance. Hodges claims he was ‘blackballed’ by the NBA after airing outspoken political views in the 1990s. Would he not have been the perfect voice to hear in this week’s episodes, to properly illustrate the risk that a vocal, political athlete takes?
The NBA Championship title for the Bulls in 1991 - like every title - provided the opportunity for the team to go visit the White House. 1991 was the year Rodney King was brutally beaten by police, it was a year that saw 922 murders in the city of Chicago and it was a time when 32% of African Americans in Illinois were living below the poverty line. Hodges made sure to raise these social issues in a letter he presented to George Bush during that White House visit.
In episode six of The Last Dance, former ESPN reporter David Aldridge briefly touches on this visit.
“Jordan didn’t show. He said, “Time with the family I gotta be...” No, he was out gambling with Slim Bouler,” says Aldridge.
The sound bite is used in the section that focuses on Michael Jordan’s gambling habit, and we hear no more about this White House visit.
However, we do get a brief glimpse of Hodges on the left of our screen here, dressed in a Dashiki. Hodges is unsure if Bush ever read the letter presented to him, but in his autobiography, ‘Long Shot”, he suggests that Jordan’s reason for avoiding the White House was less to do with Slim Bouler and more to do with George Bush:
During the finals against the Lakers, when it was all but assured that we had the championship sewn up, Michael Jordan—who everyone thought did not have a political bone in his body—said, in the locker room, “I’m not going to the White House. Fuck Bush. I didn’t vote for him.” True to his word, Jordan didn’t join us that day. The Chicago Tribune and the New York Times wrote mildly critical articles about Jordan’s decision to snub the president, but most of the media ignored the move.
A year later, rioting erupted in Los Angeles after four LAPD officers - who had been charged with the beating of Rodney King - had been acquitted. Michael Jordan was asked for his view on the story, and shirked the question. In an interview with the New York Times on June 4th, Hodges accused his teammate of “bailing out” with his lack of comment on the story.
On July 1st, 16 days after the Bulls had won the 1992 NBA Finals, Hodges was released from the Bulls. He got dumped by his agent, while the rest of the main representatives involved in the NBA wouldn’t return his calls. He never played in the league again.
Hodges didn’t play the ‘game’, and instead paid the price.
What did Jordan really think, when Craig Hodges made those comments about him in the summer of 1992? Does Jordan believe Hodges was ‘blackballed’ for being so outspoken in his views? Did the Craig Hodges situation dissuade other politically-minded players from speaking out? Those are just some of the questions we won’t have answered in this series.
The Craig Hodges story is a well-known tale and the viewers aren’t stupid. His non-existence in The Last Dance does not reflect well on Jordan.
Speaking of non-existence, Isiah Thomas popped up for a brief cameo once again this week. This time, it was to talk about why he was left out of the ‘Dream Team’ for the 1992 Olympic Games. “I met the criteria to be selected, but I wasn’t,” says Thomas.
The legend is as follows: In 1992, Michael Jordan went full Regina George and said to Isiah Thomas, “you can’t sit with us,” thereby ensuring he wouldn’t be included in the USA’s march to a gold medal.
In The Last Dance, here is Michael Jordan’s version of events:
“Before the ‘92 Olympics, Rod Thorn calls me and says “we would love for you to be on the dream team.
“I says “who’s all playing?”
“He says, “what does that mean?”
“I said, “who’s all playing?”
“He says, “well the guy you’re talking about or you’re thinking about is not gonna be playing.”
“It was insinuated that I was asking about (Thomas), but I never threw his name in there... It wasn’t me.”
I’m sorry, Michael, but I am calling bullshit on that.
Let’s consult ‘Dream Team,’ the bible on the subject written by Jack McCallum:
Rod Thorn, who as general manager of the Bulls in 1984 had drafted Jordan, was assigned the most important task: pulling the prize catch into the boat. Thorn called Jordan directly sometime during the summer, after the Bulls had won their first championship.
Let’s be clear right now about what Jordan said in that first phone call.
“Rod, I don’t want to play if Isiah Thomas is on the team,” Jordan said.
I wrote that in Sports Illustrated at the time, not because Jordan confirmed it, which he didn’t, but because at least two reliable sources did. At the time, Jordan more or less denied that he would stand in Isiah’s way.
But he did confirm it to me in the summer of 2011. “I told Rod I don’t want to play if Isiah Thomas is on the team.” That’s what he said.
Oops. Turns out Michael Jordan has been wildly inconsistent with his story on this matter. But who cares? It’s his documentary.
Winner: Jerry Krause
Can you believe it? Two straight weeks of winning for Jerry Krause.
In between getting bullied for not being tall, Jerry Krause is putting his neck on the line in episodes five and six of The Last Dance, particularly when it comes to Toni Kukoc.
Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen teamed up to crush Kukoc at the Barcelona Olympics, with a double-teaming job that sent a fairly clear message to Krause: Do not sign this guy.
“If he’s that nervous he can’t come to the NBA and play two games,” said Pippen at the time.
Most managers at that point would look at the message being sent by the team’s best players and say “yeah, well, I would like to not piss off my entire franchise, so I will obey your wishes.”
But Jerry Krause is no ordinary manager. The most stubborn GM in the history of sports cracked on with bringing Kukoc to Chicago and he turned out to be an important cog in the wheel.
A “great teammate,” is how Jordan described Kukoc.
God job, Jerry. Bust a move.
— Tony "Baccala" (@TonyBaccalaNY) April 27, 2020
Loser: Clyde Drexler
Oh Clyde, oh Clyde, oh Clyde. What on earth did you do that for? Didn’t you know that you can’t even record more steps on your Fitbit than Michael Jordan without him wanting to come and hunt you down in vengeance?
“We're the two best in the game, but I'm not getting in a war of words with Mike,” said Drexler ahead of the 1992 NBA Finals.
No, you’re not getting into a war of words with Michael Jordan. You’re probably going to get into another sort of war, though, didn’t you know? He’s pretty bloody good at basketball and he’s one of the most competitive human beings that has ever existed. DIDN’T YOU KNOW?
“You know what’s going to happen tomorrow - I’m going to give it to this dude,” Jordan said to Magic Johnson the night before game 1.
“I attacked him every single night,” he said. “Me being compared to him, I took offence to that.”
Cue PG-rated scenes of Michael Jordan running rings around Drexler.
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) April 30, 2020
Winner: John Michael Wozniak
It would be easy for the creators of The Last Dance to paint Michael Jordan as some sort of god who defeated all opponents.
It would be easy for them to say “hey, this guy is immortal and his greatness knew no bounds.”
But they can’t say that. Because Michael Jordan is not immortal.
Sure, he took care of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley and Isiah Thomas and Clyde Drexler and John Stockton.
But he could not conquer his greatest nemesis, John Michael Wozniak.
John Michael Wozniak might be the greatest penny pitcher Chicago has ever seen, flinging quarters up against an office wall at a level never seen before and never seen since.
“Watch this roll right into my pocket,” he said of Jordan’s money as we bear witness to one of the great pitching moments of our times.
Congrats Mr. Wozniak. You possessed the keys to Michael Jordan’s mortality.
— Graves (@_dGRAVES) May 4, 2020
Imagine being the Adidas guy who should have signed Michael Jordan.
“Hey honey, how was your day?”
“Ah not too bad. Quiet, thank god. A bit ropey after last night, so I cancelled that meeting with the Jordan kid.”
“What was your excuse?”
“Something about us not being able to make a shoe work. Doesn’t matter, I heard he can’t even properly pitch a coin up against a wall. Anyway, what’s for dinner?”
Winner: Kobe Bryant
Without question the best footage we’ve seen so far is from Kobe Bryant’s first All-Star game, where Jordan is assessing the youngster in the locker room.
“That little Laker boy’s gonna take everybody one-on-one,” Jordan tells his East teammates.
“I’m going to make this shit happen. Gonna make this a one-on-one game.”
Of course, Jordan embraced putting someone in their place when that is what was required. On this occasion, though, a very different relationship emerged, something akin to a teacher-student dynamic.
“I had a question about shooting this turnaround shot, so I asked him about it,” Bryant says in The Last Dance, speaking about his early days in the league.
“He gave me a great detailed answer. But, on top of that, he said, "If you ever need anything, give me a call." He's like my big brother.”
Kobe Bryant might be the only person we’ve seen throughout this docu-series who isn’t terrified of Michael Jordan, and the cold opening to episode five of The Last Dance is a perfect tribute.
I could write something sneery and snide here, but really, is there any need?
Winner: Dennis Rodman
It was a relatively light week for Dennis Rodman, but you don’t need much from Rodman for him to get the win. With most of his teammates golfing, Rodman finds himself at a loose end one sunny afternoon.
“You going to swimming pool, guys?” asks Phil Jackson.
Rodman: “No, I’m going to Hooters.”