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‘The Last Dance’ Week 4: Tragedy, Baseball, and the Cost of Being Jordan

In Episodes 7 and 8, the untimely death of his father rocks Jordan to his core, prompting his shocking exit from basketball in 1993

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images/Netflix

In Episodes Seven and Eight of The Last Dance, there are tears. Michael Jordan cries over the shocking loss of his father in 1993. His friend Ahmad Rashad wells up at the memory of tying a trembling Jordan’s tie for him on the day of the funeral. Members of the ’94 Bulls (a team that was Jordan-free as His Airness dabbled in professional baseball) recall a tearful postgame speech by Bill Cartwright. Heck, Jordan’s personal trainer cries while speaking about his number-one client’s intense dedication to his job.

Perhaps most surprising, there are tears from Jordan as he responds to matter-of-fact criticism that, during his playing days, he wasn’t a particularly nice guy. It’s tough to imagine this display of emotion is a marker of regret. Rather, it seems the tears are just a sublimation of all of the intensity of his playing days, a frustration that no one can, or ever will, understand what it takes to dominate a game the way he and the teams he led did.

The episodes are by turns poignant, adrenalized, and buoyant. Come for a more reflective Jordan than we’ve seen yet in this series; stay to see him cackle derisively as he watches footage of Gary Payton declaring he got under MJ’s skin in the 1996 Finals. For Michael Jordan today, the Michael Jordan of old is never far behind.

“He Was My Rock”
Episodes Seven and Eight lay bare the enormous influence Jordan’s father had on him. James and Deloris Jordan, we’re told, attended every Bulls game they could, with James — a.k.a. “Pops” — a fixture in the bowels and hallways of Chicago’s United Center. He plucked kids from the nosebleed seats to come meet his son after games; he was by Michael’s side after each championship victory. As the Bulls’ head of PR during that era puts it: “If you knew Michael, you pretty much knew James. They were always together. They were very close, best friends.”

While the elder Jordan was no authoritarian, he instilled discipline in his son from an early age — a mindset that clearly extended through Michael’s adult life. “He was my rock,” Michael says. “He was always giving me advice.” After an adolescent MJ earned three suspensions in the ninth grade, James gave his son an ultimatum that summer: “mischievous stuff” or sports; your choice. “That’s all I needed to hear,” Michael says. “I never got in trouble from that point on.”

On July 23rd, 1993, James Jordan went missing on his return from a trip to visit with friends. Two weeks later, his red Lexus (plate: UNC0023) was found near Fayetteville, North Carolina, stripped for parts with the back window busted out, and his body was discovered in a creek in South Carolina. (It would take another week for the body to be identified.) He had been shot in the chest.

The utter randomness of the crime was difficult to comprehend — so, naturally, alternative theories bubbled up. Whispers that James’ violent end was somehow connected to Michael’s gambling debts grew to a crescendo. Speculative (and spurious) news stories became assumed fact in some circles. Jordan issued a statement decrying those who would pour “salt in my open wound.”

Having clinched his (first) three-peat just a few weeks earlier (a feat neither Magic Johnson nor Larry Bird achieved), Jordan was exhausted. His father’s death, and the media furor around it, was just the push he needed. That October, he retired, with an eye toward trying his hand at baseball — just as he and his father had discussed in one of their last conversations. “This is a young man who’d been through some heart-rending things,” Phil Jackson says, describing his final meeting with MJ on the matter. “You’re denying a gift to society, but I understand.”

“I Gotta Play Catch-Up, But I’m Gonna Do It.”
In our collective memory, Michael Jordan sucked at baseball. But he sucked at baseball kind of the way Jennifer Lopez sucks at singing: still better at it than the majority of us, sometimes through sheer determination alone. (Note: No Rolling Stone music editors were consulted in the crafting of this analogy.) These episodes posit that all MJ would have needed to dominate the Major Leagues the way he’d dominated the NBA was time. 

He got a head start over promising prospects half his age by being ushered straight to the White Sox Double-A affiliate, bypassing the lower Rookie and A-ball classes, simply because, as Sox and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf explains it, the press facilities at those levels couldn’t handle the media crush that accompanied Jordan’s arrival. Despite the fact that he hadn’t played organized baseball in 14 years, MJ rose to the occasion. In his one season with the Birmingham Barons, he hit .202 and drove in 51 runs, impressing his coaches with his work ethic and raw athleticism. Barons manager Terry Francona (yes, that Terry Francona) says that with 1,500 at-bats, Jordan would’ve found his way to the majors. Reinsdorf — who kept funneling Jordan his $3 million-a-year basketball salary for his efforts, saying he’d always been underpaid — echoes this opinion.

But in the end, Jordan, competitive as he is, may not have been reaching for the Big Leagues. More than anything, he was desperate for a break — from basketball, from the media, from the pain of his father’s death — and he got what he was looking for. Footage from his tour in the minors shows him playing ping-pong and goofing around with his much-younger teammates. He’s loose and childlike, and somehow taller, unburdened of the pressures that come with being Michael Jordan. In this sport, he didn’t have to carry anyone on his back; the only guy he had to worry about making better was himself. “Sure, I was this big icon,” he says at the memory of those days, “but they treated me just as I wanted to be treated, just one of the guys.” 

“The Fear Factor With MJ Was So, So Thick”
More than any of the prior episodes, Seven and Eight delve into the nitty gritty of Jordan’s legendary dickishness. Example after example is trotted out to juicy satisfaction. In practice, he needles everyone, calling guys bitches and motherfuckers, staring them down, aggressively bumping their chests, laughing in their faces. Sometimes, his tone is lighthearted (“Better watch out for the lead dog, he’ll bite the shit out of you”); more often, it’s vicious. Occasionally, he’s just straight-up annoying: Footage of MJ repeatedly making some kind of whooping noise in people’s faces made me want to take a swipe at him. 

“I wanted them to understand what it felt like to be in the trenches,” Jordan says of his rationale. “And if you don’t understand, then you’re not gonna respond when the war starts.”

He famously liked to pick fights with his teammates. (One of Episode Seven’s more charming moments is when Jordan admits with a bemused chuckle that no matter how hard he tried, he could not provoke the easygoing shooting guard Scott Burrell to come for him. “He’s such. A nice. Guy,” Jordan says, shaking his head.) In one grim incident in the fall of ’96, he escalated relentless trash-talk at his new teammate, Steve Kerr, to a brutal foul. Kerr punched him in the chest; Jordan punched Kerr in the eye. After he was tossed from practice, Jordan called Kerr to apologize. But the upshot going forward, both men agree, was a relationship of unwavering trust. “He earned my respect,” Jordan says, “because he wasn’t willing to back down to be a pawn in this whole process.”

“Was he a nice guy?” Jordan’s longtime teammate B.J. Armstrong asks rhetorically, before pausing for an uncomfortable five seconds. “He couldn’t have been nice. With that kind of mentality he had, he can’t be a nice guy. He would be a difficult guy to be around if you didn’t truly love the game of basketball. He is difficult.”

The testimonies are many. Jud Buechler: “People were afraid of him. We were his teammates and we were afraid of him. There was just fear. The fear factor with MJ was so, so thick.” Will Perdue: “Let’s not get it wrong: He was an asshole, he was a jerk, he crossed the line numerous times.” 

But these guys — all of whom have at least one massive ring thanks in large part to that line-crossing asshole — also understood exactly what Jordan was doing. “As time goes on, and you think back about what he was actually trying to accomplish, he was a hell of a teammate,” Perdue concedes. “He was pushing us all to be better,” says Bill Wennington. “And guess what, it worked.”

If any story from the episodes encompasses this dynamic best, it’s an anecdote Wennington shares about Jordan’s first official day back with the Bulls after coming out of retirement. The 1994-1995 team was full of unfamiliar, unfamous, and largely unheralded faces; Scottie Pippen was the lone remnant of the squad that won back-to-back-to-back championships from ’91 to ’93. Refreshed from his 21 months playing baseball, Jordan was ready to assume (or, resume) his real responsibilities. He looked at the seven-foot-tall journeyman center, and said, “Billy, we’re finally gonna get to play together. I want you to jump on the cape, but I need you to hang on.”