Nearly two months ago, when the NBA announced the 2020 Hall of Fame class, and in the midst of having no sports to televise, ESPN ran a series of important games from Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan’s careers. For Duncan, ESPN played his near quadruple-double to seal the 2003 NBA Finals. In the fourth quarter, when the Spurs needed buckets, the New Jersey defense collapsed in on Duncan, who kicked to a wide-open, third-year NBA player named Stephen Jackson. Jackson hit three big three-pointers, Spurs win. For many, some combination of that performance (being the secondary star in a non-primetime, 17-year-old basketball game) and his All The Smoke podcast with Matt Barnes was the most thought given to Stephen Jackson in quite some time. Jackson went on, after a brief stint in San Antonio, to play for six franchises in eleven years before retiring in 2015. Many would call him a journeyman for his travels in the NBA, and assumed his life would settle down after that.
Last week Stephen Jackson put himself, and his cause, in front of everyone. Following the brutal murder of George Floyd by four police officers, Jackson took to his Instagram to let the world see and hear the pain he had for his lost friend. Floyd grew up in Houston, Jackson in Port Arthur. For those not acquainted with Texas’ geography, the two went to high school just over an hour apart. Many in Port Arthur residents, like Jackson as a child, go into the city of Houston when they need things you’d find in the city. Port Arthur is a tough-minded oil town that functions as both a suburb of the city of Beaumont and the city of Houston. It’s produced the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Pimp C, and Bun B… but Stephen Jackson is the only notable NBA alum that cites it as home. You can see Port Arthur’s toughness in Johnson, Charles, and Jackson. You can see its swagger in Pimp C, Bun B, and Jackson.
And now, you can see him representing Port Arthur, and making a difference.
Everyone ended their Memorial Day weekend watching the same horrifying viral video. It hit everyone differently. For some, it was a wake-up call to the deadly realities of police brutality. To others, it was an anger-inducing “another one?!” To still others, it was horrifyingly close to home, with a mirror-like reality. And to Jackson? It was his lifelong friend. His “twin.”
Jackson and Floyd have known each other since childhood. Both were active athletes from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds, but the “twin” moniker came not only because they were figuratively brothers, but because they look eerily similar to one another. The two played pick-up basketball in the Cuney Homes housing complex of Houston’s Third Ward. (Jackson has, in the last week, really done an intentional job of pointing out how talented of an athlete Floyd was. To be frank, it is very important. The difference in Floyd’s life cut short and Jackson’s life in the NBA can come down to a few breaks or ball bounces here and there.)
While much of the nation’s initial anger over George Floyd’s murder was in their own homes for the initial twenty-four hours, Stephen Jackson’s was cast for the world to see.
In the following days, Jackson continued to post homage to Floyd while he made his way to Minneapolis to lead protests. Once there, he made his message clear: no one was going to diminish Floyd’s name. No one was going to rest until action was taken. Change was coming, and Jackson was ready to work for it.
Jackson was surrounded by the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie, actor Jamie Foxx, Houston area rap artist Trae the Truth, amongst other protestors. After speaking to the crowd, Jackson and others went outside marched to the Hennepin County Government Center.
Protests and marches have been commonplace all over the United States of America this week. In an effort to combat police brutality, communities are banding together to have their voices heard. Both in-person and online, at the forefront of these protests continue to be high profile athletes and celebrities. In North Carolina, Dennis Smith Jr. and J. Cole were mixed into the marches like everyone else. Jaylen Brown did the same in Atlanta. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an op-ed for the LA Times. It clearly did not take being connected to the situation like Stephen Jackson to take the lead in the community.
In the week since publicly sharing his pain, Jackson has become the face of NBA players involved in the protests, and his movements are seeing results. Within hours of his statements in Minneapolis, the police officer who murdered Floyd was arrested. Protests have continued, calling for both the arrests of his three partners who watched him idly, and for their four convictions. Since Jackson spoke out, major shoe brands, EA Sports, and even Adam Silver have come out in support of the protests. Jackson, who made a career as a reserved tough guy, pushed much of the NBA world to the point of speaking up. While COVID quarantine certainly helped further the cause (everyone is stuck at home with little other distractions, searching social media), Jackson’s activism is the inspiration we look for.
What’s both fascinating and disturbing is George Floyd was not the first unarmed black man murdered on camera. He wasn’t even the first of such since the COVID quarantine started, and the violent reaction to the protests imply he won’t be the last victim of police brutality either. But, his name and case are pushing people to a protesting brink at a national level. There are several factors, but Jackson and the ensuing NBA involvement is certainly a big one.
The murder of an unarmed person at the hands of the police shouldn’t need celebrity grief to become a tragedy. NBA players shouldn’t have to remind the public they’ve been wearing “I CAN’T BREATHE” tee-shirts since 2014. The news should sting on its own and, if you’re paying attention, it always does.
However, in Jackson’s grief he helped elevate this particular case. The NBA, and pro sports, can humanize black people for many white audiences that otherwise don’t get to interact with people that don’t look like them. For decades neighborhoods, schools, and public spaces have been (intentionally or unintentionally) segregated through various means. As pointedly illustrated in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowe, these systems can perpetuate cyclically and lock people into only being around folks that look like them. Humanized professional athletes can bring new faces into white neighborhoods, as they connect with and idolize people on their team. Jackson is one of those faces, and he isn’t just “involved” in the ongoing fight in Floyd’s name. In his own words, he’s “all in.”
Jackson’s activism can bring those conversations into white homes, neighborhoods, and families. It can help force the issue and conversation. Recent generations of NBA players have been very socially active, and time after time we see the issues they take up carry significant weight. It’s sad to admit, but in many ways it’s vital. It makes the stories human to more people, because Jackson is a human known by more people.
Jackson has spent the last week publicly riding an emotional roller coaster. He mourned the loss of his friend, was firm in pursuing justice, and was open in sharing his story. As we enter week two of Jackson’s journey, he has accepted being the leader of the current athlete activists.
“Like, I’m honest with you: I did not expect to have the role and to have so many people waiting to see what I have to say and what’s the next move,” Jackson told ESPN. “Like, I didn’t ask to be in this position, but I’m embracing it. I’m embracing it.”
But what does that mean? What does embracing it look like for Journey Man Jackson?
“We got to vote,” Jackson continued. “I’m not just talking about the president. I’m talking about the local city council. I’m talking about your police chief, your fire chief. We need to vote for all that type of stuff because all that stuff’s going to matter at the end. And what we’re doing now as far as protesting everywhere around the world, we got to use that same energy when it’s time to vote.”
“Coming into this, I’ve seen so many situations not pan out right,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen the impossible happen also. And I think this is that situation. I think this [is] going to be the change. My brother’s death is going to be change. I think we’re going to get convictions for all of them. I think they’re drawing it out right now because this is the typical system. That’s why we got to change the rules — they look out for each other. They try their best to look out for each other. So this is expected by me.”
“But we’re going to fight. This is a marathon. And we’re going to continue this fight, and we’re going to outfight them. We’re not going to stop. We’re going to keep this thing going. They’re going to get tired of hearing about George Floyd. They’re going to get tired of hearing his name.”
The word “journey” carries a lot more positivity than “journeyman.” A journey can be life-changing, and it can be historically impactful. A journeyman is a wanderer; he’s lost or he has no home. A journey is going to be important. Calling someone a journeyman implies they weren’t important enough to stick in one place.
However, in the NBA journeymen are often beloved by other players because they have to be good teammates to survive. Journeymen change clubhouses frequently, and they’re more appealing to more teams if their past teammates can attest to their characters. But to fans, and outsiders, they tend to be the periphery of the storylines of the league. Sure, Stephen Jackson hit a barrage of three-pointers in the 2003 NBA Finals, but they were off of Tim Duncan’s assists. He’s an emblem of toughness, but Jackson never stayed in the same organization for more than two complete seasons (though he did have two separate two year periods in San Antonio).
Players love Jackson, that’s evident in his podcasting and TV appearances. But he was never integral to the NBA’s story throughout his journeyman-days. He was always going to be remembered as the guy who scored on Duncan’s kick out, or the teammate that got traded, or the veteran on a one-year deal. If you watched the NBA in his 14-year career, you knew who he was… but his playing days didn’t indicate he’d be an unforgettable piece of the story of the league.
But as the latest chapters of Jackson’s story is being written, he’s looking more like a man on a journey than a journeyman. If you persist he is a journeyman, he’s clearly chosen to focus on the breakdown of the word regardless of your perception.
And his leadership has proven far more than necessary in connection to the story of America in 2020 than it ever was in connection to the NBA.
If you have the means to, or would like to donate to help the cause Jackson is at the front of, please consider the following places to start:
Damian Lillard Named Cover Athlete for NBA 2K21
There aren’t many players in the NBA that are as exciting to watch as Damian Lillard. The Portland Trail Blazers point guard can drop 50 points on any given night, putting up statistics only seen in video games.
Due to his gaudy play this year, Lillard has been announced as the first of three players that will grace the cover of the NBA’s premier video game franchise, NBA 2K.
Lillard was in the midst of a remarkable season prior to the league shutdown, as he averaged a career-high 28.9 points and 7.8 assists per game. If the season resumes next month, Lillard will look to close a 3.5 games gap across an eight-game schedule to get his Trail Blazers into playoff position.
Regardless of how this season ends for Lillard though, it will still go down as another incredible campaign for the five-team All-Star. One worthy of his first selection as the cover athlete on 2K.
Lillard will be on the cover of NBA 2K21 for all the current-gen gaming consoles including PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC and Google Stadia systems. 2K still needs to announce another cover athlete for the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles.
For the 29-year-old point guard, this honor is very gratifying as it continues to solidify his status as one of the game’s most elite players.
Due to the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still unclear whether NBA 2K21 will be released at it’s regularly scheduled drop-date in September, or if it will be pushed back to accommodate the league’s changed schedule.
If the season is played in it’s entirety, many don’t expect the 2020-2021 NBA season to start until late November, if not some time in December.
#ThrowbackThursday: Game 6 Klay
Games in an NBA playoff series are interesting in how there seems to be something notable about each one. Game 1 is important because you’ve got to have a good start. The home teams need to protect, the visitor needs to split. Game 2? Well, you can’t go down 0-2. And if you’re up 1-0? You’ve got a chance to “take care of business” in Game 2. Game 3 comes with a change of scenery. The new home team needs to get that one. The now-visitor? If you’re up 2-0, you can put the nail in the coffin. Tied 1-1? Well, you have to get homecourt advantage back… and down 0-2? See up 2-0, then flip the script. Game 4 can literally be the last game in the series, or can be the vital chance to tie it up. Every game 5, you’re either looking at a team with a chance to win the whole series right then, or someone ready to split the tie. And we’ve all seen the ESPN stats about the winner of Game 5 in a 2-2 series…
And Game 7? Best two words in sports. It’s all the marbles, the entire series comes down to the final moments.
Game 6 gets kind of left behind. It’s inherently an elimination game for one team. It also is set in a different arena than Game 5 was or than Game 7 will be. And, if you can win a series in 4 or 5 games, you dominated it. If it goes 7 games? It was a close, or a competitive, or a great series. If it goes 6? Eh.
Game 6 gets left behind, it’s undervalued. Some of the best and most necessary performances in NBA history happened in Game 6 to allow for the Game 7s, or to cover up the blunder in Game 5.
One of those happened four years ago today: Game 6, 2016 Western Conference Finals. The performer: Klay Thompson.
Much like the underappreciated Game 6, Klay Thompson is synonymous with being the second or third fiddle. Klay has had some of his most historic playoff performances in Game 6s the last few seasons, as poetic as that may be. Last season, he tore his ACL in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to seal the Warriors fate. Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals a few weeks earlier? Klay had 21 in the first half to keep the game close while Steph Curry went scoreless, and hit the dagger three with 36.1 seconds to go to move past their rival Rockets in Houston. In 2018? Klay went 9-14 from the 3-point line in Game 6, racked up 35 points to avoid elimination survive Game 6 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals over the Rockets, who had a 3-2 lead and appeared to have figured the Warriors out.
But this connection started in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals. After a record 73-9 regular season, the Golden State Warriors were on the ropes. They were down 3-1 in the series to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Golden State won Game 5 at home to stay afloat, but had to travel to the Sooner State for a must-win Game 6.
Curry needed that second fiddle now more than ever. The two-headed monster in Oklahoma City necessitated multiple superstars to perform like superstars for Golden State to have a chance. Insert: quiet quirky Klay Thompson. It wasn’t that surprising. Thompson was the second-highest scorer on the team that historic season, was also on the All-NBA team and All-Star team. He hit 276 three-pointers that season… the most by anyone not name Steph Curry in NBA history to that point.
But the 11-18 three-point shooting barrage Thompson provided was more valuable than the 41 points Klay scored. Every time Oklahoma City’s crowd began to roar, Klay silenced it. He made them covered, he made them off screens, he made them on the fast break, he made them early, he made them late. It was as unconscious of a shooting performance in a playoff game as there’s ever been. His 10th three, to set the NBA playoff record, was off-balanced, covered, and with his heels at the midcourt logo. The 11th? Over the outstretched Kevin Durant, to give the Warriors the lead, with just over a minute and a half to go.
“I don’t know if I was born for it, but I definitely worked my butt off to get to this point… I guess you could say I was born for it.”
Thompson was born to be Game 6. Game 6 is Klay Thompson, just like Thompson is Game 6.
After his 2018 performance Curry and Durant, both Warriors at that point, shared a laugh when asked to compare Klay’s repeat Western Conference Finals Game 6 performance.
“I think we both blocked that whole year from our memory,” Curry answered.
The Warriors went on to win Game 7 in 2016’s Western Conference Finals, at home, and move on to the NBA Finals. Durant and Oklahoma City blew the 3-1 lead. A couple of weeks later, Curry and the Warriors would do the same to LeBron James and the Cavs.
Had Klay had even simply had an above-average game in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, all of NBA history could have been different. Durant, Westbrook, and the Thunder likely win the series that night. Klay’s 11th three made it 104-101, and only free throws were made for either team after that. If Oklahoma went back to the NBA Finals for the second time in four seasons, they may have had the experience needed to knock off LeBron James and Cleveland. After all, they did jump out 3-1 on the Warriors… who jumped out 3-1 on the Cavs. Clearly it wouldn’t have been inconceivable or impossible for the Thunder to win four out of seven games against Cleveland. If Durant and the Thunder win a title in 2016, does he sign with the Warriors, a team he just beat 4-2, that offseason? Does he even leave? Sure Kawhi just did it last season, but before Kawhi it was hard to imagine a superstar leaving less than a month after winning an NBA title.
And say the Thunder didn’t beat the Cavs. Sure, that makes it easier for Durant to feel comfortable about leaving the Thunder… But after hypothetically beating the Warriors 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals, is that where he thinks he has the best chance? San Antonio also took Oklahoma city to six games in this hypothetical, and Toronto had just taken Cleveland to six games as well. Regular season aside, wouldn’t those teams look like title contenders and favorites with Durant in town?
Who knows how the ball bounces is Klay Thompson even goes off for a thrilling nine made three-pointers. Who knows what happens that night, or in the coming weeks, or in the months after? The summer of 2016 forever changed the NBA, and who knows how much of that change never happens if Klay Thompson doesn’t catch fire on May 28th.
Truthfully that can all be set aside today. Game 6 Klay is a thing. Klay Thompson is the selfless superstar that can take over the moment without having his number called. He’s the same flamethrower that can score 60 points on 11 dribbles, only holding the ball 90 seconds, in less than three quarters of game action. He’s the NBA All-Star that has one supreme offensive skill, but is an unquestioned Hall of Famer. He’s the quiet voice in the huddle, but the reason Mike Breen emphatically exclaims “BANG!” throughout the last five NBA post-seasons.
He’s always been thought of as far from the Warrior’s MVP, but his injury and absence may have cost them a three-peat last summer.
Thompson doesn’t say much, but you cannot tell the story of the last decade in basketball history without saying Klay Thompson’s name many times. His skill set is both complimentary and suffocating. There is not a “superstar” or “alpha” in the NBA that Klay wouldn’t be a perfect fit for. He doesn’t require a lot of time with the ball in his hands, but his presence requires the defense’s attention for the entire forty-eight minutes. He guards the other teams star backcourt player to let Steph Curry or Kevin Durant focus on carrying the offensive workload, but was always running off screens to be their freed up safety valve.
It’s not that Thompson went under-appreciated in the last half-a-decade of Warrior dominance. It’s not that his quirks off the floor weren’t praised, or his stunts in China well documented. It’s that it may be impossible to ever really credit Thompson enough. Four years ago today, his performance will forever be written and appreciated in NBA history. It kept the Warriors alive against Durant and the Thunder, it led to the defeat of Durant and his exodus from Oklahoma City, and it led to the rematch with Cleveland in the Finals, setting up the most historic NBA Finals of a generation.
The Last Dance as a Doc
It came in as sports left, and temporarily filled an unprecedented void with an unparalleled ten-hour feature film. Over the course of five weeks, The Last Dance was a two-hour sporting event each Sunday night. It was live-tweeted, analyzed, and broken down as if it were some combination of Monday Night Football and the Super Bowl, if that combination could also include the most famous athlete and celebrity of all time.
The documentary aimed to use behind the scenes footage to talk about the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls season, their sixth NBA championship in eight seasons and last with Michael Jordan. As the documentary explains, the players and coaches knew it would be the last season together because of contractual front office disputes, and thus head coach Phil Jackson dubbed the season “The Last Dance” in training camp. The drama-filled season started with an injury, was filled with Vegas trips and boundary-pushing, and ended with “The Last Shot” in Utah.
The ratings were off the chart. The least-watched episode of The Last Dance still had over five million live US viewers With COVID cancellations of other live sports, the national tunes in to watch every second on live TV. Fans dressed in Jordan brand and Chicago Bulls gear as if the NBA Finals were happening all over again. Sure the results are weeks shy of 22 years old, but each and every second felt like it was happening in real-time.
For whatever reason, the “hot take” since the end of the third week has been hypercritical of the docu-series. Many claim that, as Michael Jordan himself sighed off on the creation of the project, it amounted to one ten-hour commercial. Others claimed there wasn’t enough “new” information, and that the characters were simply retelling stories other documentaries had already confirmed.
These takes and shots at the documentary’s credibility serve in stark contrast to other ESPN documentaries that have similar acclaim and TV ratings. The ESPN 30for30 series was critically acclaimed, and the offshoots like OJ: Made in America have been award-winning journalism. For whatever reason, while it may still win awards in the coming year, The Last Dance’s reception has been mostly focused on how commercial it is.
ESPN made it using footage Jordan had to sign off on, and it was no accident he signed off on it while Cleveland celebrated LeBron James’ third title in the summer of 2016. Jordan clearly wanted to be sure he wasn’t usurped or forgotten, and he had the tools at his disposal to do that. Insert project. The Last Dance was supposed to be filling the dull days of summer after what may have been another LeBron James title run, or after Giannis Antetekoumpo’s ascension, or after a Kawhi Leonard repeat performance. Instead, it filled the void of all those possibilities left behind.
Which has leads to one of the more interesting critiques of the docu-series: people are upset about how little “new” information there was.
Imagine that: a documentary that is, in principle, over a season that ended almost exactly twenty-two years ago lacked “newness.” A docu-series that looked at a man who spent the entire decade in the celebrity limelight in a way unseen before or since lacked enough mystery, or that it somehow didn’t have enough of an Earth-shattering revelation at some point.
The truth is that much of the documentary was already written in NBA history books. Michael Jordan’s the greatest player of all time, the most covered and documented athlete of a generation, and never shied away from cameras or reporters in his athletic career. Each story that was going to get told in The Last Dance was already told, and it was not ever going to be a surprise in that sense. Even some of the “deep cuts” from The Last Dance were already well in the open: Jordan’s gambling was well covered at the moment by tabloids, and validated in print by journalists in the last two and a half decades. His ability to stay out late or play golf all day and still play at an elite level was well documented, and even discussed by the likes of Charles Barkley on NBA pre-game shows.
Somehow that criticism drove a lot of the hate… when in reality, the experience of The Last Dance was the experience of hearing them from the horse’s- well, in this case, the GOAT’s mouth.
Of course, in 2020, that too drew criticism. For whatever reason, the idea that Michael Jordan oversaw the entire project (which was, of course, about him) somehow diminished the journalistic integrity to some viewers.
Yes, Jordan did sign off on each episode before they were aired. That does mean his perspective is the one told through the docu-series. And even if Jason Hehir tells the public a thousand times MJ didn’t ask them to take out anything, his larger than life shadow looms over every scene of the ten-hour documentary. This has been why it’s been, negatively, portrayed as one giant commercial: Jordan is too savvy to ever let something in his control portray anything too critical. Jordan himself said he assumed people might find him a jerk after The Last Dance. He was a relentless competitor, and pushed his teammates beyond what’s considered normal in 2020. He openly mocked Bulls GM Jerry Krause, even when it felt unnecessary. He also, in what has become its own meme, Jordan sought revenge on the basketball court for even the slightest of perceived slights, and even made up stories about what other guys had said to give himself a mental edge.
Jordan is famous for having closed access since he retired. While he played, he was an open book. He was on the morning and late-night shows, he was shaking fans hands and working charitable events, and he was always navigating mobs of people with his security guards and a billion-dollar smile. He avoided saying controversial things, and understood his brand was what he did on the floor. Jokes like “Republicans buy sneakers, too” haunted his legacy, but they were few and far between. Jordan knew if he appeared happy, hard-working, and won, his brand would sell itself. And, to be fair, his recipe worked. Jordan as a brand has sold, both while he played and since, an unprecedented amount. Since returning, when two-thirds of that recipe weren’t in his repertoire anymore, Jordan removed himself from the limelight in a lot of ways. And, much like the docu-series, that too has drawn criticism. The activist athlete resurfaced in the 2010s, and the rearview mirror left many wondering why Jordan wasn’t more like modern stars off the floor, even if they could never replicate him on it.
So Jordan, with the help of ESPN and Hehir, began to open him up… but the first-hand accounts are “too one-sided” or “clearly biased.” But this common criticism lacks a key understanding of the docu-series, and what it aimed to do journalistically.
In school, specifically in history classes, everyone was required at some point to do a research paper, presentation, or project. And in most research, sources were divided into “primary” and “secondary” sources. Many of those high school historians used primary sources to understand more about the history “in the moment.” So, Ben Franklin’s biography sheds light on what his life was like in his own words. While a book by a Ben Franklin scholar, 200 years later, may have been a more objective look at the Founding Father, good research needed both. It needed the primary account, and the secondary objective look.
This is essential in research. King George III’s account of the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson would be remarkably different than whatever Jefferson himself thought, as would Sally Hemings account. It’s not that any of the three accounts of Jefferson would be wrong in that they’re inaccurate, because they wouldn’t be… but they would all be one-sided and unique.
The Last Dance is a journalistic take on a primary source: MJ himself. Sure, it is one-sided… but it isn’t somehow less accurate because of that.
Further, dissecting that primary source is what a good journalist will let the audience do. Hehir lets Jordan speak, and we listen. Then, it’s up to the audience to break down how Jordan could condemn Horace Grant for talking to Sam Smith, even though Jordan and the reporter had spoken multiple times as well. It’s up to the audience to explore Jordan’s discussion of Pippen’s contract and figure out if that’s a fair criticism. In the world of First Take and Undisputed it may be a shocking thing… but leaving it up to the audience is journalism. Hehir let Jordan’s actions and words speak for themselves, as a journalist should.
Lastly, the docu-series has been called everything from hero-worship to a ten-hour commercial because Jordan himself was the hero from start to finish. He rose, faced conflict(s), and conquered time and time again. Yes, the guy that made the layup, the steal, and then the last shot to seal the NBA Finals in the season The Last Dance is about is the “hero” of the show. Yes, the regular season and Finals MVP of the season the show covers is the “hero.” Yes, the greatest player of all time, and star of a decade of basketball, is the “hero” of the docu-series.
Detractors of The Last Dance wanted more “dirt” on Jordan. They wanted some conspiracy to turn up in connection to his gambling, or some insight into him being a poor husband or father. Instead, the documentary showed how he could win important games after spending all night in Atlantic City… and simply omitted a lot of coverage of his family life. Sometimes the strongest statement is the absence of one… And if that’s the strongest way to describe it, why make something up or piddle around with some other story?
As far as the portrayal of Jordan went, he certainly displayed one very obvious flaw: he was, and is, very clearly addicted to winning. Addicted in the I-will-do-whatever-it-takes-even-if-I-burn-everything-down-along-the-way kind of winning. Addicted in the I-can’t-lose-in-dominoes-to-a-make-a-wish-kid kind of way.
The strongest emotional moment of the entire documentary came at the end of Episode 7. In a montage of practice and game footage, Jordan began to expound on his idea of what it took to win. He pointed out that:
“winning has a price. And leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they don’t want to be challenged. And I earned that right because my teammates came after me, they didn’t endure all the things that I endured. Once you join the team, you live at a certain standard that I play the game, and I wasn’t gonna take anything less. Now, if that means I have to go out there and get in your ass a little bit, then I did that. You ask all my teammates, the one thing about Michael Jordan was ‘he never asked me to do something that he didn’t f—ing do.’ When people see this, they’re gonna say, ‘well, he wasn’t really a nice guy… he may have been a tyrant.’ Well, that’s you, because you never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well. I don’t have to do this. I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game… That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.
The emotion in Jordan’s voice as he got to the end said it all. Yes, he was a jerk to teammates like Scott Burrell. Yes, he did hit Steve Kerr in the nose and break it. Yes, he did push Scottie Pippen to an uncomfortable place… all in efforts to win. It was the only way he could ensure it. He knew Spike Lee was going to be giving his teammates hell in Madison Square Garden. He knew the fans in Utah were going to be relentless. He knew the pressure of the NBA Finals could feel like Atlas’ globe on their backs… and so he was harder on his teammates in practice.
The vulnerability there, and the emotion that caused Jordan, shook people in different ways. To some, it was the only negative thing said about Jordan in the docu-series. He was, definitively, not a fun guy. And he can admit it. To others, it was exactly the hero they miss… Jordan represented a level of greatness that didn’t care about being nice.
Where both seem to miss the point is that the emotion Jordan has during the monologue implies he didn’t want to be a jerk, but he had to. He had to verbally abuse Burrell, get to fisticuffs with Kerr, play mind games with Pippen… because he had to win, and that was what it took. It was an addiction, he had to have the win at the end of the season. And, much like an addict, he did whatever it took to get it.
He also had to win each card game on the plane and have money from everyone, regardless of how much, in his wallet when it landed. He had to win sprints in practice, because there were other people running them with him. That addiction was his flaw, and was necessary in him being a hero. And if people somehow missed that in watching… maybe they really did just watch the commercials.
Regardless of if there was a dent in the armor or not, Jordan served as a hero in The Last Dance because it was his story of triumph. Perhaps because it was similar in length, The Last Dance has been commonly pitted against O.J.: Made in America. Both are long docu-series, made by ESPN, outlining the lives of two truly remarkable athletes. Both were made twenty-two years after the climax of the story they’re telling. Both outline stories that, even if they hadn’t been put together in a long docu-series before, were out there. Jordan vs. the Bad Boys was well documented. The Watts Riots and the scene surrounding LA’s racial politics was well documented. Jordan’s ascension to greatness was covered. Simpson’s murder trial was covered.
O.J.: Made in America obviously has a very different hero. O.J. Simpson’s flaws played out in a way incomparable to Jordan… And perhaps that’s why it came off as a better version of documentary or journalism to many. In 2016, when O.J.: Made in America came out, there was very little in terms of criticism. The series received a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, won an Academy Award, a Directors Guild of America award, a Peabody Award, a Primetime Emmy award, and a slew of others. It told a story, in long-form, that hadn’t been heard for two decades. It didn’t necessarily uncover any new information, but it pulled it all together, from numerous angles, in a way that left no stone unturned.
The notable difference is that Jordan finishes The Last Dance a victorious hero, where Simpson finishes O.J.: Made in America incarcerated (though not for murder). For better or worse, the knock on Jordan is his story is happier… he works, he succeeds, he wins. Simple, fairy-tale like.
The Last Dance will be forever linked to COVID-19. The pandemic created the void that the docu-series filled, and the last two episodes were filmed while the series aired in order to be sure it was all out in time… It was originally supposed to air after the NBA season was over in June. The fanfare surrounding each week was because there was nothing else to fan.
And so sure, Jordan was a victorious hero. He got to tell his story of success, even if we’d heard it in parts before… but man, in the moment, isn’t that exactly what we needed? To fill this void of sport specifically, no one wanted the backstory of a murder, or to read about some great effort in a loss. The world is full of gut-wrenching news on a daily basis. In a world going through pain, defeat, and loss… we needed a win. We desperately, feverishly, and vehemently needed a win.
And who would’ve been a better person to call on than Michael Jordan?
After a long weekend without Jordan and The Last Dance, I have to say… I’d call him all over again.
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