Michael Jordan’s long and rich career raised countless questions, but none more fundamental than this: Why did he retire at the top of his game … twice? “The Last Dance” has carefully chronicled the months leading up to Jordan’s second retirement in 1998, but Episode 6 was devoted to the factors that led him to step away from the game five years earlier.
From a basketball perspective in the early 1990s, Jordan was mowing down opponent after opponent: Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler and the entire field at the Barcelona Olympics. Next up was Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns in the 1993 NBA Finals. The biggest victim of his success, though, was Jordan himself.
At 29, he was the global face of basketball and completely unguardable, leading the Chicago Bulls on a 15-4 postseason run to their third straight title. Archival footage showed Phoenix Coach Paul Westphal screaming in the huddle during the Finals: “Michael is not beating us! Double him! Make someone else beat us!” The strategy didn’t work. No strategy would have worked.
Life as an icon carried a stiff daily toll. Jordan was mobbed everywhere he went, constantly fielding requests for commercial shoots and meet-and-greets with fans. His harsh leadership style was put under the microscope in “The Jordan Rules,” a best-selling tell-all book. His love of high-stakes gambling on golf and card games spawned countless rumors and media critiques. Meanwhile, he was finishing his seventh straight year of playing at least 3,000 minutes and leading the league in scoring. Jordan’s life was the opposite of “load management,” on and off the court.
“My fame was good at the beginning,” Jordan mused in an archival video. “But now that you’re on a pedestal, it’s not just the positive talk you’re hearing. You hear some people take some shots at you. That changes the whole idea of being out there for people to see you. I’m at that stage of my career and my life that I’d rather get behind closed doors than be out there in the spotlight taking shots.”
The pressure and criticism reached a boiling point during a 1993 playoff series with the New York Knicks, when he took a limousine trip to an Atlantic City casino to unwind with his father and friends on the night before a game. The timing of the trip raised questions about his focus and led some to speculate he was a gambling addict, prompting James Jordan to publicly defend his son.
“He has given the best of him,” James Jordan told reporters. “He has sacrificed to try to satisfy everybody. After doing all of that, people still find a way of knocking him. He’s saying, ‘Damn, how much is enough?’ ”
Jordan put away the Knicks, but he was clearly wounded. He imposed a rare media blackout for two weeks, finally breaking it for an interview with Ahmad Rashad before the Finals. Wearing sunglasses indoors, Jordan defended himself against accusations of a gambling addiction.
“It’s a hobby,” he said. “If I had a problem, I would be starving, hawking this watch and my championship rings, selling my house. My wife would have left me, or my kids would be starving. I do not have a problem. I enjoy gambling. The media has taken it far greater than it is. Soon, whenever I walk away from this game, it’s going to be the only bad thing people say about Michael Jordan.”
Rashad asked the natural follow-up question: “Could ‘soon’ be this summer?”
“Could be,” an irritated Jordan warned at a time when no one was prepared for an NBA without him.
Burnout struck again five years later. Now even more famous and even more decorated, Jordan was fully trapped. In an exclusive interview with NBA Entertainment’s film crew, he lounged in a quiet, elegant hotel room, savoring the act of doing nothing.
“This is it,” he said. “Lay back. Watch TV all day. It was peaceful until you guys came up in here. I don’t have to worry about anyone bothering me. … This isn’t one of those lifestyles that you envy, where you’re confined to this room. I’m ready for getting out of this life. You know when you get to that point. I’m there. With no reservations at all.”
The attention crush complicated Jordan’s life, but he coped by seeking out competition in all forms. In 1993, for example, he took breaks from high-stakes poker games on the team plane to play dollar hands of blackjack.
“I want to say I have your money in my pocket,” Jordan told teammates John Paxson and Will Perdue when the low rollers asked why he even bothered.
During the 1993 Finals, Jordan sought revenge against Barkley because the Suns forward had beaten him out for the MVP award. He also punished Dan Majerle because Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause was particularly fond of the Suns guard. As soon as Phoenix showed signs of life by winning a dramatic Game 3 in triple overtime, Jordan responded by scoring 55 points in one of the most scintillating performances of his career. He was toying with the competition, even at the highest level.
Jordan’s greatness had led the masses to assume the Bulls would win. Once they closed the series in six games, Paxson said the feeling during the title celebration was “relief rather than true joy.” A lot had changed since Jordan broke down in tears with the Larry O’Brien Trophy two years earlier.
By winning his third straight title, Jordan accomplished something that Johnson and Larry Bird, his longtime measuring sticks, had never done. Pundits were already making his case as the greatest player of all time, and he had proved convincingly that none of his contemporaries were on his level. An exhausted Jordan was coming around to the idea that he had nothing left to prove and that he might need a new challenge. Those close to him were awed by his game and acutely aware of his burden.
“I wouldn’t be like Mike,” a Bulls PR staffer said, summarizing the ominous circumstances. “It’s an impossible task.”
Best quote: “I have no problem losing to Michael. There’s no shame in that. Sports are like a gunfight. We lost to the fastest gun.” — Barkley
No matter what Shaquille O’Neal might say on TNT’s set, Barkley should never be remembered as just another guy who never won a title. Jordan won in 1993, but Barkley was sensational in his own right, averaging 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists — similar to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s MVP-worthy stat lines from the past two seasons.
In the decades since, Barkley has often said he entered the Finals convinced he was the league’s supreme talent.
“I played as well as I could play, and Michael just outplayed me,” Barkley said of a Game 2 loss in which he posted 42 points, 13 rebounds and four assists. “That was probably the first time in my life that I felt like there was a better basketball player than me.”
Before the Suns were eliminated, though, Barkley got the chance to play spoiler by claiming a Game 5 win that delayed the Bulls’ title celebrations. Annoyed by reports that Chicago-area businesses were boarding up their windows in preparation for possible riots, the ever-quotable Barkley let loose a classic one-liner during his postgame news conference.
“Take that s--- off the windows,” he said. “You don’t need it tonight.”
Funniest moment: Many viewers surely did a double take while watching behind-the-scenes footage from 1998 of Jordan musing about his upcoming retirement. The scene foreshadowed the perfect ending to the 1998 Finals — “The Last Shot” game-winner against the Utah Jazz — while also revealing that Jordan badly underestimated his love of basketball.
“I want to leave two years before my skills say I can’t play this game,” Jordan said. “I don’t want to miss my time to go. A lot of players say they want to play until they can’t play ever again. Patrick [Ewing] said one time that they would have to carry him off the court. No one is going to carry me off the court. I want to walk off the court. A lot of people say, ‘You’re going to miss [basketball].’ I’m not sure I’m going to miss it. I don’t think I’m going to miss it.”
Plot twist: Jordan missed basketball after all. Sure, he strode confidently off the court in 1998, but he was back in 2001 at age 38 with the Washington Wizards. The ensuing two-year stint, which produced uneven play for back-to-back lottery teams, left many observers wishing it had never happened.
Most revealing scene: “The Last Dance” spent significant time exploring Jordan’s gambling habit. The documentary noted that his $57,000 check to a golfing partner came up during a court case, that he once missed a White House visit because he was gambling and that another golfing partner wrote a book titled: “Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction ... My Cry for Help.”
Newscaster Connie Chung grilled Jordan in archived footage, and NBA Commissioner David Stern was interviewed about his decision not to formally punish Jordan for his Atlantic City trip and other exploits.
“We just never reached epic crisis levels in my view,” Stern said.
Jordan mounted several self-defenses in the archived interviews with Rashad and Chung and in a more recent interview for the documentary. He downplayed and rationalized his behavior despite the significant sums of money and the negative impact it had on his life. He said he never gambled on his own games and never broke any laws. He argued the media misreported how late he was out during the Atlantic City trip, and he acknowledged he “learned a lesson” by not appropriately vetting his unsavory gambling partners.
“No, I can stop gambling,” Jordan told Chung when she asked whether he had a gambling problem. “I have a competition problem.”
While Jordan seemed to believe what he was saying, he wasn’t entirely convincing.
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