During Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls, he and coach Phil Jackson granted unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to an NBA Entertainment film crew. Cameras followed the most iconic sports team of the 1990s and the biggest superstar in the world for almost every waking moment—from the practice court to the post-game locker room to Jordan’s hotel room to Dennis Rodman’s mid-season hiatus in Vegas with Carmen Electra. But the deal ensured that Jordan controlled the destiny of the footage. He had to grant permission to release the footage, and for twenty-two years he would not do so. Over 500 hours of footage remained sealed in a vault in Secaucus, New Jersey. Until now. ESPN is airing the 10-part documentary The Last Dance on Sunday nights. Episodes 1-6 aired over the last three weeks, but are available on the ESPN app, and the entire series will be on Netflix in late July. If you tune in with kids around, be sure to watch on ESPN 2 for the language-censored version. Appointment television does not exist for me anymore (especially since there are no Atlanta Braves games right now), but The Last Dance has made it a thing again. The film combines the defining sports team of the 1990s, compelling back-narratives of how the team came to be, and childhood nostalgia for a kid who grew up doing the Jordan shrug after sinking another three-pointer in the driveway and still owns a nylon button-up Bulls warmup jacket circa 1986. For all the interesting tidbits and side stories—for example, did you know Scottie Pippen started off as the team manager for the University of Central Arkansas?—Michael Jordan is the story. For the 1990s Bulls, Jordan is always the story. And the story that emerges from The Last Dance about Michael Jordan is one of unredeemed glory. The Glory When God created Adam and placed him in the garden, he commanded him to subdue the earth and have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth. Men subdue and take dominion in small ways and large. We make our beds and command armies. We tend small summer gardens and pump oil from the depths of the earth. We discipline children and rule nations. Michael Jordan exercised dominion on the basketball court. He put an entire professional sports league under his feet and sometimes, at least for a moment, seemed to subdue gravity. Winning six NBA championships and five league MVP awards, Jordan was the best player of his generation and is considered by most the greatest player of all time. Jordan accrued the glory that comes from ruling. He ruled the NBA, such that they could not even release this film’s footage without his consent. Other stars bent to his will. Magic Johnson tells a story in episode five about a certain Olympic Dream Team practice where he and Charles Barkley trash-talked Jordan very hard while up thirteen points. Jordan then took over the scrimmage, hitting shot after shot until his team won. The best basketball players in the world boarded the team bus without saying a word, either too angry or afraid to speak. Magic broke the ice, saying, “well, Charles, I guess we shouldn’t have pissed the man off,” to the laughter and relief of the whole team. Jordan’s glory was evident in his discipline. Self-government is a foundation of masculine glory, and Jordan disciplined his body to win. His relentless competitiveness drove him to extraordinary hard work, a high standard he demanded of teammates. Episode four shows how after losing again to the brute force of the Detroit Pistons in 1990, Jordan’s Bulls skipped vacation and immediately hit the weight room. He put on fifteen pounds of muscle and defeated the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals the following year. Jordan came to rule the league because he first, at least physically, ruled himself. Episode five tells the story of Jordan’s famous “Republicans buy sneakers, too” comment. In 1990, Jordan refused to endorse candidate Harvey Gantt, who was vying to become North Carolina’s first black U.S. senator. Journalist Sam Smith put the quote in The Jordan Rules and cast Jordan as choosing commerce over conscience, selling out the African-American community for more Nike dollars. Whether Jordan should have used his influence for political causes or not, the glory here is that Jordan did not give into the mob. He had decided that he would not publicly comment on something he knew nothing about, choosing to focus on his craft—and business—instead. To this day Jordan has not backed down on that decision, refusing to apologize or correct himself. In this way, Jordan reminds me of President Trump. Right or wrong, in a world of Jello spines, you admire the backbone. Jordan also amassed the trappings of earthly glory in terms of fame and money. Though he preferred to sign with Adidas, his mother insisted he go hear Nike’s pitch. He signed with them when they offered him more than double what established big-name NBA players were getting for shoe deals. Nike hoped to sell three million dollars in Air Jordans in the first four years. But in year one, episode five explains, Nike sold $126 million in Jordan shoes. A global commercial icon was born, and Jordan attracted massive adoring crowds–and dollars—wherever he went. Unredeemed But Jordan’s glory is tainted. The Last Dance not only reveals Jordan’s legend but also his besetting sins and faults. The GOAT was also petty. He felt every slight and even made up a few. If a journalist cast another player on his level, he would take out a vendetta against that player and aim to humiliate him. He ridiculed general manager Jerry Kraus repeatedly for being short. He is unforgiving, declaring his hate for Isaiah Thomas and the Pistons remains to this day. He hasn’t been on speaking terms with his good friend Charles Barkley for eight years because Barkley commented negatively on Jordan’s performance as an executive with the Charlotte Bobcats in a radio interview. Worse, episode five captures a moment of blasphemy. Bulls guard Randy Brown was asking for tickets and remarked it didn’t matter where the seats were located. “They could be in the locker room next to God,” Brown said. Jordan handed him tickets.
Jordan: Next to who? Brown: God. Jordan: You just got them from Him.
He quickly said just kidding, but the candid moment revealed Jordan was comfortable laughing at blasphemy. Episode six casts Jordan in the darkest light, probing his alleged gambling problem, which, if nothing else, betrays a man never at rest. Never satisfied, never content. But how could he be at rest? He never gives his fame, success, and glory to Someone greater than himself. Rather, his glory is always turned onto himself and it suffocates him. There is a scene where the film crew enters his hotel room. The most iconic athlete on planet earth spent his days alone in a hotel room, lying on the couch, smoking cigars, and watching television. He stayed in there because it was quiet. Anywhere else he went, he had to be “on.” Somebody wanted something from him. An autograph, a photo, tickets, money. Always something. Even Michael Jordan didn’t always want to be like Mike. Media pressure, in part, drove him to his first retirement. Episode six portrays public adoration as leading to his second. It turns out the man who joked about being God could not withstand the burden of godhood. So many idolized him, but he could not be their god. He was not designed to be the object of the praise of men. The weight of glory can crush a man if he will not give it to the One who can bear it—and to whom it is due. Next Episodes Episodes 7-8 will air Sunday night on ESPN and ESPN 2 at 9:00 (EST).
Rhett Burns (@rhett_burns) is an associate pastor and small business owner living in Greenville, SC with his wife and four kids. Photo Credit: clutchpoints.com