“Sorry, kid. I am only taking pictures with kids that I know today.”
That was how the only conversation that I’ve had with Michael Jordan ended. Alright, I know that sounds pretty dramatic, but there are some conversations that just tend to stick with you.
It was the 1993 Magic Johnson Mid-Summer Night’s Magic All-Star Game at the Los Angeles Forum. At the time, Magic was using the game to raise money for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) each summer. Our family lived in Southern California, and a good friend of our family, William Allen, was Vice President of the UNCF at the time. That meant we got to sit courtside for a game that included Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller, Chris Webber, Magic, and my idol, at the time, Michael Jordan.
It was a thrilling game that ended with Magic hitting a game-winning layup at the buzzer. The game raised $1.25 million for UNCF. For me, the game itself was mostly the subscript. I was going to make sure I got a picture with MJ.
My Great Disappointment
As you can see I was all decked out in my Bulls gear. This always pained my dad, being a die-hard NY-native and thus a Knicks fan (he was still reeling from the 7-game loss at the hands of the Bulls in the 93’ Eastern Conference Semi-Finals). He also knew that I was just shy of 7-years-old, and like many young boys being introduced to basketball in that era it was hard not to love MJ. He prayed that it was a phase, and, ironically, it was a phase that would end that day.
I seized my opportunity at a post-game event. MJ was sitting by himself, and I approached him, with my father behind me, and asked if I could take a picture with him. That’s when he blew me off. My night was crushed. The comedian Sinbad, who was standing nearby, overheard what happened and offered to take a picture with me. I was so crushed that I refused, so my dad slid in and took the picture with him (one we still have up at the house). Sinbad was even nice enough to make sure I took a picture with John Starks as well as Magic (a picture I regret to this day because I was frowning). My MJ phase was over. It was time to embrace the Knicks and the heartache that fandom has brought me ever since.
“The Last Dance”
So, truthfully, when I heard about this pending documentary during the pre-COVID era, I wasn’t excited at all. I lived through the heartache of my team finishing second to MJ, I didn’t need to watch an extended reminder. In a recent interview when former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy was asked what good memories he had of coaching against MJ-led teams he responded, “what do you mean good?” Yeah, I feel you Jeff.
Quarantining changed everything, including my attitude towards this documentary. After a few weeks of having no sports entertainment, not even my distaste for Jordan prevented me from taking in “The Last Dance.” In fact, the April 19th premiere couldn’t come soon enough. But even in the midst of my excitement, there were still reservations. There had already been eight Michael Jordan documentaries of some sort. Would we learn anything new? Would this just be more MJ revisionist history, or self-aggrandizing (see his Hall of Fame induction speech)? Would he answer the tough questions about the legacy he left behind? With those and other questions in mind, the sports world went on a journey, over five consecutive Sunday’s together, and the general consensus is we want more.
If I attempted to break down all of the critical moments that were included in the documentary, it might take longer to read this than for you to just watch it. Whether it was the legendary “Space Jam” pickup games, Jordan calling Horace Grant a “snitch” (while also dry snitching on a few teammates himself), his interesting relationships with his security guards (shout out to Gus & John), the deep dives into key role players like Steve Kerr, Dennis Rodman and “co-star” Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant’s moving Jordan tribute to kick off episode 6 (bringing back memories of this tear-inducing moment), the various rivalries, shots, and championships, or the questions around his gambling, we were given more than enough to digest.
As the weeks went on, and the documentary continued, I started to confront some of my ill-feelings toward MJ. There were moments in the documentary that reminded me why those feelings still have merit, and then there were others that now, as a 32-year old adult, I can process much more rationally than I could when I wasn’t even 7 yet. There were two moments in particular that solidified this juxtaposition.
Michael Jordan’s Aversion to Politics
In the fifth episode of the documentary we were reminded of Jordan’s now infamous comment: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” He made this off-the-cuff comment to explain, in-part, his decision not to publicly endorse Harvey Gantt (something his mother, Delores Jordan had asked him to do) who was the 1990 Democratic nominee for senator in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina. At the time, Gannt was trying to become the state’s first African-American to hold the office. An important note is that Harvey Gannt was also the first African-American student to enroll at Clemson University in January 1963. During the 1990 election, Gantt was also running against the incumbent, racist and segregationist Jesse Helms who, among other things, opposed making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday. After defeating Gantt, Helms infamously stated “well, there is no joy in Mudville tonight.”
“Was that selfish? Probably, but that’s where my energy was.”
Jordan stated that activism just wasn’t his thing, but instead his main focus was on his craft (and selling a lot of shoes). “Was that selfish? Probably, but that’s where my energy was,” says Jordan in the 10-part documentary. Former President Obama weighed in and remarked, that as a young lawyer in Chicago at the time, he would have liked to have seen Jordan endorse Gantt rather than just make a monetary contribution, which MJ did at the time. At the same time, former President Obama, and even Gantt himself, sympathized with the fact that Jordan was wrestling with his budding global image and the potential fallout of being labeled as too political.
In a time when players like LeBron James have openly endorsed candidates like President Obama in the 2008 and 2012 elections, along with Secretary Hilary Clinton in the 2016 election, Michael Jordan has spoken up a bit more on issues of justice. Unfortunately, these moments are overshadowed by his apolitical legacy and are thus tainted by his past inaction.
A Grieving Michael Jordan
The other moment – the one that really helped me see MJ with new eyes – was the death of his father. This tragedy led Jordan to try baseball, return to the NBA, and ultimately win a championship on a highly emotional Father’s Day in 1996. MJ’s father, James Jordan, was tragically murdered on July 23, 1993. His body was not found until Monday, August 3 and was not officially identified via dental records until August 13.
Of way less life significance was my realization that my encounter with MJ at the Magic Johnson All-star game occurred on Sunday, August 2. On that day, one which I have looked back on with frustration for 2+ decades, it is very likely that MJ was wondering where his father was. That is a lot more important than playing in an all-star game, or taking a picture with a fan. In retrospect, I cannot even fathom how he was able to still show up for his friend, Magic Johnson, to support this UNCF charity event given all that he was going through at the time.
Michael Jordan would subsequently announce his first retirement from the NBA on October 6, 1993. This announcement came, in large part, as an effort to honor the memory of his father and his life-long wish for Michael to pursue professional baseball. Jordan returned to the NBA midway through the 1994-1995 NBA season. He won his first of three more titles during the next season thus producing a heap of emotions at the conclusion of the 1996 Father’s Day championship game.
Even GOAT’s are Human
This emotional moment of Michael Jordan weeping on his locker room floor after winning that title made so much more sense to me now. I was able to bury the hatchet with MJ. I’m still a die-hard (extremely hard) Knicks fan, so the slander will never be completely gone. However, I have to give it up to Michael Jordan. The insane drive to be great, the weird yet effective motivational tactics he used for himself and teammates, and the love for those closest to him are just a few of things to admire about him, more than I have ever cared to admit.
Although director Jason Hehir insisted that this was not exclusively a Michael Jordan documentary, something that MJ also insisted on, placing him at the center of “The Last Dance” narrative was unavoidable. That decision made us all better understand the game and what it takes to be great. I would even suggest that we are better basketball fans for having seen it. Now, we can more definitively and inarguably say: Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time (G.O.A.T.) – and sometimes great people make mistakes. Even GOAT’s are human.