Michael Jordan

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The Last Dance: a Tale of Two Fans

The documentary phenomenon forced an introspective I wasn't ready for.

The Rob Brown Show
April 20, 2020 - 6:37 pm
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Basketball was my first love. It was literally my first word - something my mom still holds against my uncle to this day. And I grew up passionate about the game. I had VHS tapes of Pistol Pete Maravich to learn ball handing skills. I lowered the hoop in my driveway to six feet and emulated the "rock the cradle" dunk of Dr. J thousands of times. In high school, I picked #00 because it was the number of my favorite big man of all time, Robert Parish. If you picked the wrong side in the Magic vs. Bird rivalry, you would start a debate with me that might as well have been "The Young Rob Brown Show."

I've owned three NBA jerseys in my life, all of them special to me for one reason or another.

When Chris Paul was in his prime with the New Orleans Hornets, a listener to the station gifted me a CP3 jersey that he brought back as a gift, a token of thanks for something I had done for him off the air. 

When I was young, I had a Larry Bird jersey, the player I most wanted to model my game after. (Before the jokes from family and friends start piling up in the comments section, yes, I was a terrible basketball player, and yes, I'm aware of that fact.)

And when I was in my mid teens, my dad brought me back a red, Chicago Bulls jersey. And even if you didn't know who and what this blog was about, you'd already know exactly what number was on the back of that shirt.

Michael Jordan
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Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls won their first title when I was six years old. I was already in love with the game, so I remember it well. My dad was in the New Orleans Superdome the night that Jordan stabbed every Georgetown fan right in the heart, and my uncle told me all about the Jumpman when I was growing up, so his legacy was already under construction when I reached the age that I loved the sport.

Then the legacy turned to legend. If you were an American - no, if you were a citizen of planet Earth - in the 1990's, you don't need me to tell you the story. His Bulls won six titles. He won every trophy handed out to any basketball player ever, and he won them all multiple times. He became a larger than life global phenomenon, his name plastered across the backs of children and adults alike all over the world.

Everybody wanted to be like Mike, and wear the shoes, and eat the Big Macs, and dunk from the free throw line - though some of those feats were significantly more simple than others for the mere mortals of the world (that being, everyone who wasn't Michael Jordan.)

And for me, watching Jordan hoist the first title trophy at six and watching him destroy everyone else until I was twelve, Michael Jordan became a god, the definition of everything that I wanted to be on and off the court, a man who's picture might as well have been printed on a full page in the dictionary right next to the word "success."

So when I settled onto the couch on Sunday, April 19th, 2020, to watch "The Last Dance," I prepared myself for a wave of nostalgia. I readied myself to be wowed by the athletic prowess, to be awed by the finesse, and stunned by the raw drive that made 23 the single most recognizable basketball player in the history of the game.

And despite knowing nearly everything the documentary would place in front of me over the first two of ten episodes, I still was not prepared for the internal discussion that I would have to have with myself as I watched.

There were two seperate Rob Browns watching the first two hours of The Last Dance.

The one that settled in to watch the show was young Rob Brown - the one who owned a Michael Jordan jersey, the one who begged and pleaded with his dad for a pair of Jordans, the one who, despite having no connections to the state or the school, owned a UNC warmup in high school because of MJ.

The second Rob, who I did not know would make an appearance that evening, was the one I am now. The 35 year old man who has watched sports for nearly his entire life, and has grown unfortuantely cynical of the entire endeavor. The one who has learned that athletes aren't one dimensional gladiators who's sole mission is to entertain me, but the one who has learned that athletes are just people, with flaws and character traits that make mistakes with their lives, the same as all of us regular people.

And while that Rob knew Michael Jordan was a jerk - it's not exactly a guarded secret - I did not know that I would walk away from the MJ documentary thinking that Michael Jordan's drive to win above literally everything else would almost entirely turn me away from the man who's name I once wore across my shoulders for years. 

There were more than a few moments across the documentary that stood out to me, moments where I turned my head away from the television slightly - and I'm still not entirely sure whether I did it consciously to make sure I heard what I thought I was hearing, or if I was recoiling naturally at the repulsion I felt towards the moments in question. 

The first was the scenes of Michael Jordan interacting with his team at practice. I had heard the stories before, many of them from the teammates that I was watchiing His Airness dress down for the first time. They told stories of MJ destroying the rest of the Bulls in practice not just physically with his superior game, but emotionally and verbally as well, tearing them down with his words. 

That wasn't the game that I had been taught. That wasn't the way that every coach I've ever played for, coached alongside, or listened to had ever taught me or any other athlete to act. That wasn't the way you encouraged your comrades to get better. And it wasn't "constructive criticism." It was straight up malice. It was the best player in the world, a man to whom many argue there STILL is no comparison, ripping the rest of his roster to shreds, for the mere sin of not being as talented as the guy who had a statue erected in his likeness before his playing career had come to an end. 

Yeah, I know I sound like a snowflake. But you'll have to excuse me if "not acting like an incessant jerk" is something that I set as a universal baseline of common decency. 

And before we go any futher, yes, I am well aware that the killer instinct, the lack of empathy towards others was a driving factor in Michael Jordan being, you know, Michael Jordan, that it was the foundation of what made the (arguably) greatest of all time, the greatest of all time. 

Young Rob didn't know that. Young Rob knew that MJ was the guy ordained as "God disguised as Michael Jordan" by Basketball Jesus himself, Larry Bird.

But Rob, the man, realized that Michael Jordan was just a bad guy, a guy who treated everyone around him as an inferior being, someone who was simply fortunate to be around him. (While recognizing, of course, that was technically true, if winning titles was your priority in life.)

The second moment was the story told about MJ after breaking his foot early in his career. The Bulls gave him permission to return to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to rehab his foot, NOT to play basketball and risk reinjuring himself.

And what did The Sultan of Slam do?

He played basketball. He played full games, and never once told the Bulls or their medical staff he was doing so. And then, when he returned to Chicago and the organization told him they weren't ready for him to play full games again, he got furious. He demanded to be allowed to play.

The chances that #23 would reinjure his foot were described as 10%, and MJ was told that if he did so, it would likely end his career. That, if you are the Chicago Bulls, is an unacceptable risk. You put your franchise's entire future on the young star, and are now being told that there was a 1/10 chance that a freak accident would take him away from you permanently. 

But that didn't matter to MJ. All he cared about was winning. He cared about it more than his own health. He cared more about it than the Bulls long term. He cared more about it than the fans who were invested in his relatively new era.

Young Rob gets it. Young Rob did a lot of stupid stuff in order to play. Young Rob skipped classes to practice (sorry mom,) missed family outings for scrimmages, and worked far harder on an unrealistic athletic scholarship that would never come than on a much more realistically possible academic scholarship.

But older Rob would've been incensed by Michael Jordan's decision. Older Rob, who understands the business of sport and the pain of having a long term investment in your team not pan out due to stupid reasons (looking at you, Ricky Williams,) would've been quite perturbed with a young Michael Jordan at the moment.

And finally, there was Scottie Pippen. 

The Last Dance went on at length about the Robin to Jordan's Batman, a man who Jordan described as his "best teammate." And, most remarkably, the world was shocked to find out just how little Pippen got paid with the Bulls.

At one point, it was pointed out that Scottie Pippen was, shockingly, paid less than Luc Longley on his own team, and despite being one of the best players in the league, was the 122nd highest paid player at the time. Scottie Pippen was objectively and criminally underpaid. 

Due to his recognition of his own value, Pippen elected to have a surgery on his foot that would cause him to miss months of a campaign. It was obviously a ploy to get the Bulls to reevaluate how much they were, or perhaps more appropriately, weren't paying the man who, despite playing alongside the GOAT, held the number one spot on the list of many statistics for the Bulls. 

Jordan said, straight faced into the camera, that Pippen handled the situation selfishly. 

That, of course, is very easy for the man making 33 million dollars to say about the man who is making two million dollars, when the man making 33 million dollars benefits financially from the man making two million dollars.

There wasn't a soul watching The Last Dance who didn't scoff at how little Pippen was being paid. And, while you can blame Pippen, or his agent, or anyone else, the fact remains that Pippen was being taken advantage of by the Bulls. And Michael Jordan couldn't be bothered to recognize that as true. He simply couldn't help but wonder why Scottie Pippen couldn't put his own well-being aside and help him, and make it about him.

Did Michael Jordan go to bat to help Scottie make more money? No. Because he knew that if he did, either he would have to take less, or the Bulls roster - one of the best ever assembled to this day - would have to be split up.

Did Michael Jordan offer to take less in order to help the "best teammate" of his career make a more appropriate salary? Absolutely not. Jordan kept his salary intact, while judging Scottie for wanting more.

Young Rob wouldn't have cared about that at all. Young Rob would've looked at Jordan's success while Pippen sat out recovering as just another testament to how great Sir Altitude was as a player.

But old Rob recognizes the selfishness of a man holding stacks of gold calling a man begging for one coin the same. Old Rob recognizes the detriment to the team that's caused when one man, regardless of stature, calls another his most important asset, while simultaneously chastising for him for asking for his fair share of the financial pie.

Yes, I'm very well aware that my "get off of my lawn" is showing right now. I'm afraid that, while being jaded through age, the recognition of how sports actually works has dimmed the lights shining on my boyhood idol.

I also recognize that every athlete is just a person, who makes mistakes.

But Jordan's behavior towards everyone that wasn't him was abhorrent. It was unacceptable. And we wouldn't tolerate it from anyone who wasn't the best in the world, perhaps of all time, at what he did. And at my age, I'm less tolerant towards even those people.

That being said, Michael Jordan's legacy may or may not be tarnished by this documentary when it's over a month and a half after its debut.

But what he did on the court never will be.

 

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