‘The Last Dance’: How Michael Jordan proved winning takes everything

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ESPN’s television documentary “The Last Dance,” which features Michael Jordan and the historic 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, came to its conclusion Sunday evening as the final two episodes of the 10-part sequence aired.

In the documentary, it is abundantly clear that Jordan left a lasting impression on players, fans and professionals of all kinds across the globe. As the series progressed, however, I began to pick up on the impact Jordan’s life under the spotlight had on his own identity and emotional experiences on and off the hardwood.

“The Last Dance” presents viewers with the good, the bad and — more so than originally anticipated — the ugly parts of Jordan’s time with the Bulls. One detail the docuseries makes sure to emphasize is that no other basketball player has had an on- and off-court presence like His Airness did. By allowing an oppositely intimate glimpse into Jordan’s psyche, the documentary also makes it clear that being the greatest basketball player in history was emotionally costlier than the grandeur, fame and six championship rings made it seem.

Jordan painted us a picture of what it takes to be great in the NBA by depositing time into his craft while aggressively pressuring his teammates to become better and crave the same honors he pined after. I believe, however, that he figured out early what most of us are now starting to discover as we admire his godlike capabilities in a new light — the success of Jordan and the Bulls had a price.

Phil Jackson, Chicago’s former head coach, made Jordan trust his teammates on the court. The rival Detroit Pistons forced Jordan to become physically and mentally untouchable by pushing him to adapt. But given the particularly vicious NBA and the multitude of championship-hungry teams awaiting Chicago, Jordan understood that if the Bulls were to pull off a three-peat again, he’d have to galvanize his team on his own somehow.

Through often emotional and sometimes physical bullying, much like what Steve Kerr was subjected to before he earned his stripes with MJ, Jordan elevated the entire squad’s level of play by pushing it to new heights. Although his teammates eventually garnered his respect, he needed to be certain that they, too, would do whatever it took to win.

Jordan, I presume, also knew the only way he was going to be respected perpetually in the sport of basketball was if he was feared — not just by his opponents, but by everyone. This leads me to believe that Jordan made the ultimate sacrifice of his personal life: happiness.

Fans had showered MJ with praise, but his critics morphed him into the ultimate executioner we’re so used to seeing in his highlight reels — a player who had no regard for anyone. His addiction to winning had become more important than his own emotions, until tragedy and adversity forced Jordan to reckon with them.

James Jordan, his father, was murdered in 1993, forcing the basketball sensation to reevaluate his entire career. Jordan’s infamous gambling problem was inaccurately and unreasonably linked to his father’s death by media outlets, which, despite the falsehood of the claims, is still a burden many of us could not make sense of. His etiquette in his celebrity life was challenged on numerous occasions, all while being critiqued on how he played basketball, a game that had given him the world, and then some.

So he left. Not just to take a break from the sport, but to get away from his monumental fame. When he made his comeback, it seemed as if he understood something about himself that we, the audience, don’t and that fans at the time didn’t.

I credit his comeback to the self-realization he made about his time in the NBA — that winning takes everything out of you, on and off the court. If you want to be the greatest, you have to find the extra energy to be the icon people perceive you as even without actually having a basketball in your hand.

I believe Jordan came to peace with these terms, and his second three-peat stands to prove it.

His teammates outrightly admit they were afraid of him, and Jordan confesses he may have been looked at as a tyrant. However, those who don’t understand his methods wouldn’t comprehend them, nor would they be a part of the madness at the end of the postseason for failing to keep stride with the monolithic Bulls.

His Airness proved that in order to win, to become the greatest, he had to become a completely different person and drive all of his teammates to be the best they could be. This meant becoming the villain inside the locker room in order to avoid facing the music of criticism and failure from the outside.

Some of his admirers may have different thoughts on Jordan after watching this particular documentary, which puts a spotlight on the closed doors that sheltered the real MJ from the world. What one has to give Jordan praise for, no matter the complexities of his life on and off the court, is his demeanor — no player, past or present, has carried with them more criticism on and off the hardwood than the fabled Air Jordan did.

“The Last Dance” is a culmination of MJ’s career, serving at the same time as a showcase of his true emotions. Turning anger and sadness into fuel and trading in his happiness for more accolades is astonishing — even his teammates admit they, too, forgot he was human.

The conclusion of Jordan’s stellar career and the documentary’s principal detail is that Jordan conquered any and every obstacle that came his way while achieving feats that countless people dream of, but in return, he often had to offer his humanity.

Lucas Perkins-Brown covers lacrosse. Contact him at [email protected].