After detours to introduce Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson in previous episodes, “The Last Dance” returned to Michael Jordan in Episode 5, exploring his immense popularity at two distinct moments of his career.
In 1992, the Chicago Bulls superstar pulverized all comers in the NBA playoffs and at the Barcelona Olympics, cementing his status as the sport’s top global icon and pitchman. Then, at the All-Star Game in February 1998, he dueled with 19-year-old Kobe Bryant, who embodied the “Be Like Mike” ethos better than anyone before or since. Cause and effect were laid side by side: Here was Jordan completing his rise to basketball’s summit and a rising star in Bryant who represented a generation of fans that idolized No. 23.
While “The Last Dance” has been mostly anchored in the past through four episodes, Episode 5’s opening tribute to Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash in January, brought the viewer sharply to the present. Bryant’s interview, in turn, took on a surreal quality, serving as a bookend to Jordan’s eulogy at a public memorial for the Los Angeles Lakers star in February.
Jordan called Bryant his “little brother” at the memorial, recounting conversations and grimacing at the incessant comparisons between the two. Bryant’s interview mirrored those sentiments.
“He’s like my big brother,” Bryant said, explaining how he picked Jordan’s brain about his signature turnaround jumper. “I truly hate having discussions about who would win one-on-one. What you get from me is from him. I don’t get five championships without him. He guided me so much and gave me so much great advice.”
That mutual respect took time to build. In 1998, Jordan was clinging to his throne and Bryant was a teenage upstart. They met in the All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden, where Jordan made a point to challenge Bryant and claim MVP honors.
In locker room footage from before the game, Jordan and the Eastern Conference team lightly mock Bryant’s single-minded approach to offense and his four straight air balls in the 1997 playoffs.
“That little Laker boy is going to take everybody one-on-one,” Jordan mused. “He doesn’t let the game come to him. [He thinks:] ‘I’m going to make this s--- happen. I’m going to make this a one-on-one game.’ After the first four attempts? If I was his teammate, I wouldn’t pass him the f---ing ball. You want this ball again, brother? You better rebound.”
Amid the ribbing, it was clear Jordan respected Bryant’s gumption and relished the opportunity to put a young challenger in his place. The two later became kindred spirits, linked by the same maniacal work ethic, scoring instincts and sneaker company.
It wasn’t just Bryant who looked up to Jordan. Thanks to shrewd advice from agent David Falk, who wanted his client to be marketed as an individual commodity rather than a member of a team, Jordan signed lucrative endorsement deals with Nike, McDonald’s, Gatorade and Wilson. As Falk recalled, the landmark “Air Jordan” signature sneakers grossed $126 million in their first year, blowing past Nike’s initial goal of $3 million in sales over four years. Jordan’s graceful game, easy smile and authentic persona made him a symbol of black youth for acclaimed director Spike Lee, who later co-starred with Jordan in Nike commercials.
Chicago’s winning only accelerated Jordan’s takeover. Once the Bulls got over the hump against the Detroit Pistons and the Lakers in 1991, there was no stopping him. The leading story line heading into the 1992 Finals was Jordan’s matchup with Portland’s Clyde Drexler, the era’s other leading shooting guard. Commentators needed a Jordan foil, and the highflying Drexler was the top candidate. Jordan didn’t take kindly to the notion that he had an equal or even a near-equal.
“Clyde was a threat,” Jordan said in a recent interview. “I’m not saying he wasn’t a threat. But me being compared to him, I took offense to that. Based off where I was playing at the time, it wasn’t even close. I attacked him every night.”
Chicago prevailed in six games, but the tone for the series was set in the first half of Game 1, when Jordan hit six three-pointers and shrugged at his own exploits. The Trail Blazers never recovered, leaving Jordan to celebrate with cigars in the locker room for the second straight year.
“You can’t smoke it,” Jordan told General Manager Jerry Krause, his longtime punching bag. “It will stunt your growth.”
With no one left to answer to or to conquer, Jordan settled into life as king of the sport. At the Olympics, he dominated practice and covered the Reebok logo on his warmup jacket with an American flag during the medal ceremony. When reporter Ahmad Rashad asked him which member of the Dream Team would get the honor of taking the final shot in a close game, Jordan looked insulted.
“Me,” he replied. “That’s a dumb question. Me.”
By this point, there was no alternative. There was only Jordan.
Best quote: “Jerry Krause was willing to put someone in front of his actual kids who have given him everything.” — Jordan
The only drama at the 1992 Olympics was manufactured. Before the competition, there was significant debate about the decision to leave Isiah Thomas off the roster. While Jordan acknowledged in the documentary that the presence of his longtime rival would have created “a different feeling” for the team, he denied persistent rumors that he had influenced Thomas’s snubbing.
Once the competition began, all eyes turned to how Jordan and Scottie Pippen challenged Croatia’s Toni Kukoc, a sensational scoring forward who would later join them on the Bulls. Krause selected Kukoc in the second round of the 1990 draft and spent years attempting to woo him to the NBA.
Feeling those overtures were overwrought, Jordan and Pippen decided to send a message to Krause that he should value their services by smothering Kukoc on the court. When the United States played Croatia in the opening round, Jordan and Pippen held the European star to four points. Pippen was equally merciless in his postgame comments.
“I still hear talk that [Kukoc] just had a bad game and was nervous,” Pippen said in archived video. “If he’s that nervous, he can’t come to the NBA and play 82 games.”
Kukoc, who earned respect by playing better against Team USA in the gold medal game, ultimately came to the NBA in 1993 and lasted 13 seasons. He won three titles with the Bulls and has built a case as a Hall of Famer given his long, prominent international career. Once the dust settled, Jordan and Pippen seemed to agree that their harsh treatment of Kukoc was actually just a proxy war with Krause.
“Jerry paved the way for a lot of hell for Toni Kukoc,” Pippen said. “We were going to do everything we could to make Jerry look bad.”
Funniest moment: Jordan came to the Olympics riding high. During the Dream Team’s promotional push, photographers naturally assembled Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird for a small group photo. The symbolism was obvious: The two signature stars of the 1980s were passing the torch.
As he leaned on Jordan while the camera bulbs flashed, Johnson couldn’t resist a one-liner poking fun at his successor.
“You can’t get too close to Michael or it’s a foul,” Johnson cracked, making Bird laugh and drawing a sheepish reaction from Jordan.
The scene was a perfect prelude to a heated practice in Monte Carlo, where Jordan’s team and Johnson’s team went head to head. Johnson talked trash to Jordan, who responded by attacking relentlessly. At one point, tensions rose so high that Johnson threw the basketball into the top of the arena in disgust over a foul call.
Jordan replied by finishing off a comeback win.
“This is the ’90s,” Jordan reminded Johnson in archived footage, laughing last.
Most revealing scene: While Jordan was eager to be the face of basketball, Episode 5 also explored his wholesale lack of interest in social justice. Jordan’s critics are right to point out that he largely skirted the subject throughout his career, and his quote of “Republicans buy sneakers, too” has come to symbolize the notion that he prioritized profits over politics.
Jordan’s self-defense was thin and lacking in passion. He first claimed that the “Republicans” quote was said “in jest on a bus” and that it shouldn’t be read as an overarching philosophy. He went on to explain that he was reluctant to publicly endorse Harvey Gantt, a black Senate candidate running against Republican Jesse Helms in North Carolina, because he didn’t want to “speak out of pocket about somebody I don’t know.”
To many, those stances were cop-outs. Why was Jordan, the ultimate competitor, ducking from battles that meant so much to so many? In a video interview, former president Barack Obama said “you would have wanted to see Michael push harder” on something such as the Senate race.
If regret had built over the years, it wasn’t visible. Jordan argued the scope of his fame made it impossible for him to please everyone, no matter how much he advocated for various causes. Once positioned by his corporate partners as the ultimate role model, he closed with a “take it or leave it” message.
“I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in,” Jordan said. “I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player. I wasn’t a politician. I was playing my sport, focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. That was my energy. … I set examples. If that inspires you, great. If it doesn’t, then maybe I’m not the person you should be following.”
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