When I ponder His Airness, the first thing that comes to mind is not his vicious throwdowns, his trademark fadeaways, or even his thick crunch time portfolio. Funny enough, a game that happened in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) is my first thought on Mike. Said match went down to the last possession, the ball going to a veteran forward on a decoy play. He was supposed to pull in the defence and pass to his star teammate. Regardless of the defensive pressure, he still hoisted an impossible turnaround ‘that even MICHAEL JORDAN could not convert.’ As time expired, the so-called Major Pain (his teammate) seemed to choke back tears before composing himself. Why? Because someone had to be the Main Man. By the way, I did not even witness the fixture, but read about it in the papers the next day. The vignette shows the impact of MJ. He is the prototypical basketball guard, the king of tough shots. Among all clutch shooters and legends, he is the guy everybody would trust when the game is on the line. The 10-part documentary detailing his journey may have ended on Monday but allow me to share a few points on the show.
- The Last Dance is a one-sided portrayal of Jordan. I will give some examples here to illustrate my point. Firstly, the world knows of his gambling troubles. This was laid bare in Sam Smith’s book, The Jordan Rules. The timing of the expose was everything, as the Bulls were trying to three-peat. People around Jordan admitted that he liked gambling, but that it never got out of hand. As the Bulls were down 0-2 against the Knicks in the ‘93 postseason, Jordan’s gambling was being blamed. However, the show insisted that Jordan retired that year because he was tired, and not due to gambling. The late David Stern, the league commissioner, likewise concurred.
Jordan has also been blasted for not using his ecumenical fame to champion causes. For instance, he did not advocate the black candidate in his home state of North Carolina. Instead of backing him in the media, he settled for a quiet campaign donation. He was also quoted as saying, ‘Republicans buy sneakers too.’ This is a statement that he denies ever uttering. As one guy said it, what made Jordan so loved was that ‘he didn’t piss anybody off.’ Jordan was the zeitgeist of the 90’s, and his voice on any social cause would’ve made a splash. Spare a thought though for his former teammate, Craig Hodges. The sharpshooter was exiled from the league after being too outspoken on racial issues. After the ‘92 season, no team even offered him a contract, effectively ending his NBA career. Hodges spoke out about Last Dance given that his views got zero screen time in the production. When Jordan’s flaws are presented, they are always downplayed.
- The flu game was a misnomer. For many years, people thought that the Game 5 of the ‘97 Finals was an epic performance by #23. We believed that he scored 38 points in Salt Lake City while battling the flu. He also netted the go-ahead three-pointer with 25 seconds left. Scottie Pippen came out a few years ago, claiming that Mike did not have the flu. Tim Grover, who worked with Jordan, likewise said as much in his book. Regardless of the reason, the game was a testament to MJ’s resilience. Any other star would’ve taken the game off. However, Michael willed his team to win the decisive fifth contest and be on the precipice of yet another title. The show seemed to impart that no setback would discourage the Bulls. They may have lost Game 7 in ’90 against Detroit as Scottie battled a migraine. In contrast, they gutted a Game 6 victory on the road in ‘98 even with Pippen struggling. No opponent was safe as long as Jordan was in warmups.
- MJ was incredibly close to his dad. When Michael won his first championship, his father James would be right by his side. His dad accompanied him to every professional game till 1993. Mike got his mannerism from his dad. As a boy, he would notice his father shooting out his tongue while concentrating. Jordan picked up the habit, which is ubiquitous among his later work. Unfortunately, upon winning his third straight chip, James was terminated while resting in his car. His demise was a major reason for MJ to take to baseball instead. While he had a short stint in the field, he would have made it to first grade were it not for the baseball strike.
Mike had to fight off the cobwebs in his return in ‘94 and was eliminated by Shaq and Co. He came back stronger than ever in ‘96, leading his team to a then-record 72 wins before storming through the first three rounds of postseason play. They were a game away from sweeping the Sonics, when the latter suddenly won two straight. As Gary Payton lauded his defensive effort, Mike admitted that he had some things on his mind. When they finally won, 87-75, on Father’s Day, His Airness was overcome with emotion. During his first comeback, there was an older security guard named Gus Lett who worked at United Center. He became Mike’s sidekick, like a second father to MJ.
- Mike’s motivation was legendary. In a game against the Wizards on March of ‘93, little-known LaBradford Smith hung 37 points on Jordan. The shooting guard was a benchwarmer his whole career, but anyone can have a big night in the league. At the famed Chicago Stadium, he shot 15-20 from the field and 7-7 from the line even as MJ struggled with his shot. Mike alleges that he had the audacity to say, ‘Nice game, Mike.’ The next night, Jordan tallied 36 points in the FIRST HALF and held Smith to 2-8 shooting by intermission. In the doco, Mike admitted that Smith never made the taunt, and that he used Smith’s output to pump himself up against LaBradford.
Early in his career, a young Reggie Miller tried to talk trash Mike. In their first encounter, Miller had twelve points by halftime, a few more than MJ. However, upon mocking Mike, the latter exploded out of the gates while containing Reggie the rest of the way. Miller admits that ‘he finished with a lot more than I had.’ The two legends only faced off once in the playoffs, during the ‘98 edition. Miller believes that they were the better team, as they had the right mix of veterans and hungry younger players. They were also the taller squad. The ‘98 East Final was hardly fought and went to a deciding seventh game. In between, there were a couple of game winners and surprises. The jump ball late in Game 7 was the decisive moment, with a five-point swing going Chicago’s way off a Kerr triple. In his biography, Pacers coach Larry Bird reveals that his indecisiveness to call timeout before the tip was his biggest regret as coach. Miller has since referred to his nemesis as the ‘Black Hat’ or ‘Black Jesus.’
- Mike’s brilliance could be summed up in a few words. We’ve heard of ‘The Flu Game’, but how about ‘The Shot’ or ‘The Shrug’? Michael’s career is littered with highlights that finding one standout is like a fool’s errand. While Jordan scored a playoff-record 63 points against the Celtics in ‘86, it came at a loss and they were swept. The first real landmark of Jordan’s career came three years later, against the Cavs. Down 1 with time expiring, Coach Phil drew a play for Michael. Jordan admitted that Craig Ehlo was the wrong man for the defensive job, as Ron Harper played him tougher. Regardless, Jordan drove left, took off and double-pumped while Ehlo got posterised. The shot hit the rim – before bouncing through. During this time, Jordan wasn’t known for his jump shooting, which made The Shot more impressive.
The Shot of 1989 was not the most famous iteration, and neither was it the most significant. In 1993 against the Cavs, MJ hit the series-clincher against Gerald Wilkins. The latter was a self-styled Jordan stopper but couldn’t halt Mike when it mattered. However, the most famous version would be Game 6 of the ‘98 Finals against the Jazz. Mike came over from the weakside and stripped Utah’s Karl Malone of the ball. He dribbled downcourt as the Bulls played on. He took twelve seconds off the clock before making his move. Another Jordan stopper, Bryon Russell, was defending him. This time he dribbled to his right and crossed over as Russell slipped. He then uncorked a beauty of a foul line jumper, his follow-through a perfect parting shot. With 5.2 seconds, the Bulls were ahead by 1. The Jazz were rattled, the Bulls brought home the Larry O’Brien trophy, and Mike’s fairy tale ending couldn’t have been better scripted.
Of course, basketball long-timers are familiar with The Shrug. In Game 1 of the ‘92 Finals, everything MJ threw up was going in. While raining threes, Jordan ended up with 35 first-half markers, then a Finals record. After hitting another three and jogging down the court, MJ looked at Magic Johnson (who was commentating) and gave him the now-famous shrug. More than any player, Michael could turn it on in a hurry. While being trash-talked by young Darrick Martin of the Grizzlies, Jordan fired off sixteen in the payoff period. He reminded the upstart that he’s still king.
- The basketball world owes Michael. When Michael came into the league, he vowed to make the Bulls relevant and respected, just like the Lakers, Celtics, and Sixers. Early in his career, Jordan was a one-man army. Not only was he the team’s leading scorer, he also had to do everything else. Over time, and with shrewd drafting, the Bulls slowly ascended into contenders. Michael changed the culture of both the team and the league. Even when he had just returned from injury, he wanted to take the last shot. He revolutionised the guard position, showing everyone that a 6-6 winger could dominate at both ends of the court.
He was even more exceptional in his return, winning seven MVP (Most Valuable Player) awards as compared to five in his first three-peat. In 1988, he became the first player to win Defensive Player of the Year and the MVP in the same year. The NBA is now broadcast the world over, and the bevy of foreign players has made the league an international one. This is in no small thanks to the ‘92 Olympics, where Mike and his Dream Team broke basketball borders like never before. In today’s NBA, winning six titles in eight years is next to impossible. The late Kobe Bryant comes closest among star guards to Michael, winning five rings. Yet even the Mamba confessed that he would not win those rings without Jordan’s guidance.
I could make more points regarding the series, which dissects Jordan’s game, his strengths, his principles, his family etc. I haven’t even written about the double nickel game at the Garden, or the Pistons roadblock. I have also left out the flying Jordan statue outside United Center, a soaring tribute to arguably the greatest hoops player ever. A while ago, Jordan became the first black majority owner of an NBA outfit. Indeed, the universally acclaimed doco talked at length about the Bulls of MJ but not so much about the aftermath. They focused on coach Phil and Pip, Kerr and Rodman. Yet they overlooked the jersey retirements, the panned Hall-of-Fame speech, the subpar second comeback. Mike has always been a trailblazer. As said in the doco, ‘we should not compare Mike’s ownership with his playing career. Mike’s ownership is unprecedented, therefore there’s no standard to compare with.’ There has never been anyone like Mike, and he made the game what it is today.