As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com), May 2020
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Bi-weekly status check: it has been 78 days since the NBA suspended its season and 22 days since schools shuttered for the year. March 26 was supposed to MLB’s opening day. Last May, the Nationals had a brutal-turned-famous 19-31 record; now, we long for them play again, win or lose. Graduations have gone virtual and workplaces are increasingly remote. We are masked (mostly) and distanced, frustrated yet hopeful, divided yet together. This experience has brought out the best in some and the worst in others. COVID-19 has claimed over 100,000 American lives; too many more will die. This moves many to tears; others are disturbingly numb and defiant (or is ignorant and selfish?). Regardless, this truth is shared: we face many more months living with this virus in a skewed reality.
In the meantime, sports limp on, as do the “Views”. And being of sufficient vintage to recall both the disco era and the arrival of the NBA’s Greatest of all Time (GOAT), I have had the fabulous Donna Summer and the indomitable Michael Jordan on my mind.
You caught the connection, right? “Last Dance” – both a 10-part docuseries on Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and Summer’s iconic disco song? Anyway, director Jason Hehir’s masterpiece on the 1998 Bulls, with fabulous, chronological storytelling of Jordan’s career, was a welcomed nostalgia trip and a perfect respite from the COVID-induced sports desert.
My personal ties to Jordan are deep. My first vivid NCAA Championship game memory is North Carolina’s defeat of Georgetown in 1982. Jordan, a freshman, hit the winning shot. I remember his games against Len Bias’s Terrapins, the first generation of Air Jordan shoes, his 1988 NBA Slam Dunk Contest victory over Dominique Wilkins, his brutal playoff battles with the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons and all…those…championships.
The NBA has changed considerably since 1998. The competition is gentler, effort is inconsistent, offensive approaches are increasingly about isolation and either a three-point shot or a dunk, trophy-hunting stars form superteams and “load management” (taking games off) is an accepted practice.
With that grumpy backdrop, I wanted two things from “Last Dance”: first, to accurately portray Jordan as the insane, rip-your-heart-out competitor that he was and, second, settle the GOAT debate once and for all. “Last Dance” delivered on both accounts. Jordan didn’t take games off, he was as passionate about defense as his jump shot, the early-career losses to the Celtics and Pistons didn’t prompt him to tuck tail, run from Chicago and join forces with other stars, and unlike anyone I’ve ever seen, he rose to deliver the greatness demanded by the biggest, championship-winning moments.
He’s the greatest basketball player ever.
With that settled, an omission: “Last Dance” delivered two “buts” I didn’t expect. Jordan’s approach taught many life-lessons: the value of determination, hard work, clear focus, staying the course against adversity, not taking the easy way out (superteams), turning slights into motivation, maintaining confidence and an unwavering belief in yourself.
In the moment, Jordan’s competitive madness made sense and its effectiveness is unquestioned – six championships. But has it aged well? In a basketball sense, yes; in a human sense, no. Jordan permanently fractured many relationships – with peers of his era and some teammates – in the name of winning. He is now, in many ways, alone at the top.
Jordan seems at peace with this. In his words, “winning has a price…and leadership has a price.” True. However that prompts the second “but” from “Last Dance”: why was Jordan only willing to pay that price as a basketball player? With the exception of perhaps Tiger Woods, no athlete has held more global significance than Michael Jordan. He sold a lot of shoes, Gatorade and Happy Meals with that influence. Where was the great courage, determination and competitiveness to adopt an off-the-court cause and advance the world, kicking and screaming, into some better version of itself? As did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And Jim Brown. And Muhammad Ali. And, even, LeBron James.
As Spider-Man knew, with great power comes great responsibility. It is fair to have expected more from Jordan. “Last Dance” confirmed that he’s the GOAT, but only on the basketball court.