With professional sports on hiatus, ESPN’s ten-part documentary series on Michael Jordan, “The Last Dance,” has dominated television ratings and become one of the most talked-about media events of the year. Co-produced with Netflix, the series features behind-the-scenes footage of the Chicago Bulls during Jordan’s final season with the team, from 1997 to 1998, that had never been aired.
The series, which covers Jordan’s entire career, risks being hagiographical—Jordan’s extreme competitiveness is presented as crucial to motivating his teammates, if also borderline pathological. The picture of Jordan that emerges is not always flattering, but the over-all portrait must have been pleasing enough to him, as he had significant control over the project: Jordan authorized the use of the previously unreleased footage, sat for extensive interviews, and had final-cut privileges.
To talk about “The Last Dance” and Jordan’s legacy, I spoke by phone with Bomani Jonescijilu123永不失效地址, who hosts the ESPN podcast “The Right Time.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the different ways that Jordan and LeBron James have dealt with fame, why Jordan steered clear of politics for much of his career, and why it makes sense to think of Jordan as a man of the nineteen-eighties.
Where are you today on Michael Jordan?
He is the greatest basketball player of all time, and it can be easy to lose sight of that when you see the new class of super-athletes. But even with that being the case, you watch those clips of Jordan and say, “There’s only been one of those. Period.” That is an observation that I can make that stands apart from whatever I think about Michael Jordan. It’s interesting that he came of age in the nineteen-eighties, because he is ruthless, bottom-line, look-out-for-me in ways that are very emblematic of those times. The thing is that looking out for himself in the way that he needed to involved dealing with other people, which seems to have been maddeningly frustrating for him. I imagine he probably wishes he was a golfer, because then it would have been all on him.
cijilu123永不失效地址So as an athlete and as a construct within sports, the idea of him as this hard-driving, get-on-my-level guy—I don’t know if I’d say I’m here for it, but I understand the circumstances that create that man. I did not see this, or any of the other things I’ve heard about his maniacal drive for competition, and come away from it thinking that he’s a bad person. I find it, in a lot of ways, to be hilarious. But then, as a public figure, he has made the decision that he’s not going to talk about anything that might make people dislike him. And that’s a very important thing to remember about Jordan: public image and the affection of the public are very, very, very important to him.
I found it to be a little bit disingenuous in the documentary when he talks about the Jesse Helms stuff, and he said, I was just focussed on basketball, just focussed on my career. I didn’t have time to think about these other things. [In 1990, Jordan declined to endorse Harvey Gantt, an African-American Democrat who mounted a Senate challenge against the notoriously bigoted Jesse Helms, in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina. Jordan is said to have justified his decision at the time by saying, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” In “The Last Dance,” Jordan admits to having said the line but maintains that he said it in jest.] Well, it’s been thirty years since then, and he ain’t kicking it any different than he did at the time on those matters. That’s a decision that he’s chosen to make, and I defend his right to live like that. I just want you to be honest about the fact that you’re not willing to take a risk on these matters, and that’s a defensible position if you’re honest about it.
While there were certainly black athletes who took political stances in the eighties and before then—Muhammad Ali being probably the most famous example—does it seem like nonwhite athletes broadly feel more comfortable doing so now?
Yeah, I think they feel more comfortable now. But I think also, if I want to be fair to Jordan on that, none of his contemporary stars were really out front, either. Who’s the N.B.A. player that was out front saying stop apartheid, for example? Isiah Thomas did a lot of work in this regard, and you see the way that he is now regarded, after the fact.
I think that the N.B.A. has always existed in a different space with public relations, because it is the league that is considered to be the black league. And they had always been very, very concerned with offending the public. Someone could make the argument that they’re in a league that allows for them to say more now, because of the silence that a lot of guys took in the nineteen-eighties, because the silence developed a level of peace that allowed the league to grow. I don’t know if I fully buy that argument, but I can’t just dismiss it out of hand. I don’t recall Magic Johnson talking too much about politics; and that’s before we get to the fact that I ain’t never heard Larry Bird talk about anything involving politics.
Right, there was a lot of concern in the eighties and beyond from the N.B.A., both coded and not so coded, about dress codes and stuff about their players seeming too black, or the league seeming “too black.” And it feels like that’s a bigger part of the history of the N.B.A. than it is the N.F.L. or baseball. But now, in 2020—maybe this is the point you were making—the players seem more open about politics certainly than athletes who play baseball or football.
They are. I also think that part of it is the relationship between N.B.A. players and particularly the stars. The league is far more of a partnership than it is in the other two sports. Whereas the relationship between labor and management in baseball is more antagonistic than it’s been anywhere else. And in football, obviously, the owners do not view the players—forget about as their equals—but even as somebody that they have to engage in dialogue with.
The N.B.A. has understood in the last thirty years, especially, that their players have more power, because one individual player can have far more impact on the N.B.A. than in any other sport. What happened to the N.B.A. when Michael Jordan left [to play minor-league baseball] in 1993, that’s not going to happen in the N.F.L. if Tom Brady leaves or Patrick Mahomes leaves tomorrow. The N.B.A. is in a different place. The players know it; the league knows it.
cijilu123永不失效地址And so, as a result, they didn’t have any national-anthem controversy in the N.B.A. They have a rule in place that says that you have to stand for the national anthem or not be on the floor, but they didn’t have anybody buck back against it. That kind of thing has to be negotiated. It can only happen if you’ve got a dialogue between the league and the players to allow for that to happen. By the same token, a lot of what you see politically from N.B.A. players—I think the safety that some of them feel comes from the fact that they’ve got a commissioner that has encouraged this to a degree. Now, the N.F.L. has guys, a lot of them, who go really hard on these matters. And they’re doing a lot of really good work on the ground. But I don’t feel like the league, the N.F.L., is nearly as chummy with the players who do those things as you have in the N.B.A.