Michael Jordan’s ruthless pursuit of winning
‘The Last Dance’ reveals an MJ who challenged teammates and was motivated by slights
By the end of episode seven of The Last Dance, everything you wanted to know about Michael Jordan was demystified. The reason he pushed Scott Burrell and Scottie Pippen so hard; the reason he was willing to start fights in practice; the reason he went after former teammates B.J. Armstrong and Horace Grant after they briefly dared defy him in battle; the reason he crushed poor LaBradford Smith for something that never even happened.
It was all laid bare when Jordan, asked essentially whether he was a “nice guy,” answered by saying, “Winning has a price. Leadership has a price. I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged.”
You could put Jordan on the couch for a million hours with the finest minds in the history of psychology and they’re never going to elicit greater insight into why Jordan was who he was as an athlete, or for that matter, why he decided to say yes, after all these years, to cooperating with these documentarians.
If you don’t want to see him as a nice guy, even now, you can at least understand why he did what he did the way he did it, why, to Jordan, the ends justified the means.
The testimony, from one former teammate after another, revealed they didn’t always know what was going on in real time themselves. There was Jud Buechler saying, “We were his teammates and we were afraid of him. There was just fear.” And Will Perdue saying of Jordan, “He crossed the line numerous times … but as time goes on … you’re like, ‘Yeah, he was a helluva teammate.’ ”
For someone who had a front-row seat to Jordan’s career, episode seven of The Last Dance is the payoff. There was nothing subtle about his reasoning for being as ruthlessly devoted to winning as he was. “My mentality,” he said, “was to go and win at all cost. If you don’t want to live that regimented mentality, then you don’t need to be alongside of me, because I’m going to ridicule you until you get on the same level … and if you don’t get on the same level with me, then it’s going to be hell for you.”
Apologies in advance for anyone who doesn’t like comparing an American sports icon to one of America’s notorious gangsters, but particularly when the shared ground is Chicago, it was impossible to look at Jordan swinging that bat while smoking a cigar and not reflexively think of Jason Robards playing the movie version of Al Capone in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Or if you want to confine the analogy to sports, former teammate Steve Kerr says of Jordan, “His thing was, ‘If you can’t handle pressure from me, you’re not going to be able to handle the pressure of the NBA playoffs.’ ”
And that, of course, is one of the things the doc does so well: examine through Jordan the pressure of championship-level pro basketball, right down to Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl, a North Carolina Tar Heel just like Jordan, not going over to say hello to Jordan in a Chicago restaurant the night before Game 1 of the ’96 NBA Finals, and whether that provided Jordan with more motivation.
Those of us around for the long haul all have our favorite Jordan stories: Mine is the LaBradford Smith “Good game, Mike” episode, one that lasted for years and years. The doc tightened up the tale, necessarily, but the details are fresh in my mind and always worth retelling in the exercise of figuring out Jordan.
Jordan, after allowing the then-Washington Bullets guard to score 37 points one night in Chicago Stadium, vowed to get all 37 back in the first half the very next night at the Capital Centre in Maryland, essentially because Smith allegedly taunted Jordan afterward by saying, “Good game, Mike.” Chicago Bulls players confirmed that Jordan was fuming on the team flight to Washington later that night.
Well, Jordan got 36 in the first half the subsequent night and wasn’t happy when Bulls coach Phil Jackson took him out with enough time left to get that extra point as he vowed. Lesson finished? Not yet. Years later in a Bulls-Bullets 1997 playoff series, after Washington guard Brent Price seemed to get under Jordan’s skin, Price said when asked what happened, “Nothing, I didn’t say anything to Michael. We remember LaBradford Smith.”
It didn’t end there either. Sometime in the last 10 years, more than 20 years after “Good game, Mike” was allegedly uttered, David Aldridge, who covered the whole thing, soup to nuts, for The Washington Post and our dear departed friend Bryan Burwell of USA Today nudged Jordan on whether it really happened, whether Smith had actually said anything even remotely objectionable. Jordan, unable to hold out any longer, said with a smile, no, there was no “Good game, Mike” from Smith; Jordan simply needed something to get himself going after giving up 37 to the kid and concocted this doozy to motivate himself.
So, the No. 1 takeaway from this is what, that Jordan could work himself up over a story he knew wasn’t true? That players on the opposing team believed the story and figured the lesson should be avoid angering Jordan at all costs? How about Smith, owing nothing to Jordan, simply not telling reporters he said nothing of the kind, as if he, like Buechler, found Jordan too scary to cross?
One of the few players of the era who relished actually going after Jordan on the grandest stage was Seattle’s Gary Payton. The back-and-forth between The Glove and Jordan in the doc was irresistible. It’s easy to forget (which too many of today’s players do too often) how many great players were in the league in the 1990s, chief among them Payton and Pippen.
Yes, Pippen. For my money, in hindsight, he’s the most underrated player of his generation. It’s not possible to tell the story of the Bulls in the Jordan era, even the 18 months he missed, without addressing Pippen’s rebelling against Jackson for calling on rookie Toni Kukoč (not Pippen) to take the final shot in that 1994 playoff game against the New York Knicks. You can’t ignore Kerr saying even now, “He quit on us; it was devastating.”
Kerr also said that the most difficult thing about the entire episode was, “We knew that wasn’t Scottie’s character. We knew it wasn’t him.”
And Pippen’s body of work should lead everybody to conclude that while it was an indefensible moment, his worst moment, it shouldn’t define his career. It’s taken far too long, maybe until this doc, to realize Pippen was an extraordinary player. He wasn’t Robin to Jordan’s Batman as much as he was Lou Gehrig to Jordan’s Babe Ruth. Maybe not statistically. Part of the reason the partnership with Jordan was so successful was that Pippen, once they all stood up to the Bad Boys Detroit Pistons, had perhaps the perfect temperament and certainly the perfect skills to complement Jordan. If you told me I couldn’t have Jordan defensively from 1990-1998, then I’d take Pippen or Payton defensively and be content to battle anybody.
When Jordan retired after the 1993 season, Pippen increased his scoring to 22 points per game in 1993-94, and if not for a preposterous referee’s call against the Knicks in Game 5 in Madison Square Garden (which I would like to have seen addressed in the doc), Pippen’s Bulls would have advanced to the Eastern Conference finals even without Jordan.
Of course, Pippen was better cast as Jordan’s lieutenant, as James Worthy was to Magic Johnson. But it’s not some crazy coincidence that Jordan and Pippen were tag team partners for all six of Chicago’s NBA championships, while John Paxson, Armstrong, Grant and Bill Cartwright were essentially swapped out for Kerr, Ron Harper, Dennis Rodman and Luc Longley/Bill Wennington. My dear friend Stephen A. Smith has made the case that the Bulls would have won at the end of their run without Pippen, as long as they had Jackson.
As great as Jackson was — and he has to be on anybody’s Mount Rushmore of NBA coaches (with Red Auerbach and Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich) — the Bulls would have won if Doug Collins had remained head coach, with Jordan and Pippen figuring out how to get past the Pistons regardless.
But the cast of Bulls characters seemed perfectly suited, as is, to have been everything Jordan needed. They understood Jordan and his extremely demanding ways. They came to the conclusion — even though they didn’t necessarily want at the time to be dragged or challenged — that Jordan was accurate about the price of winning. And the whole lot of them are glad he demanded they pay it.