THE LAST DANCE: The most expensive and greatest cigar advert ever made.
Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan. Phil Jackson. Scottie Pippen. Dennis Rodman. Search engine: Have I done enough SEO?
Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, so the joke goes. And before cameras, all we had were memories and biased historical writings mixed with fact eschewing stories to guide us. The power of a captured moment on film or video changed the world. Yesterday still exists. So for a mid-thirties man, to re-watch the glory of Michael Jordan’s basketball ability and his unrivaled competitive nature in widescreen – what a total joy.
After each episode of The Last Dance I had a dumb happiness. I’d seen some of the games before and knew about much of Michael’s background, even the recently surfaced stuff that perhaps propelled the release of the footage, namely; gambling, assaults on team mates, some suspicious characters in his life and horrible family drama. If you can put aside the inevitable character flaws, his mentality and competitive drive is in itself incredible – perhaps greater than any other sportsman in those aspects. Coupled with the astonishing athleticism were championship winning qualities of the mind.
Given the blinding aura of his accomplishments it’s easy to think that Michael Jordan was an instant success. It took six years to win his first NBA title trophy. First, he needed a little help from some friends. There were key pieces that changed everything. From tactician Tex Winter’s arrival, Jerry Krause’s scouting, Pippen being signed in a trade, to the arrival of Phil ‘very wise’ Jackson as coach. Even with Jordan’s abilities it still took a group of other highly talented people to create a winning team and for Michael to be humble enough to accept a new way.
It’s easy to forget that despite all of the trash talking, utmost confidence and hyper-competitiveness, Michael was prepared to learn – always. Many things set him apart from rivals, and that is yet another key aspect. It would have been so, so incredibly easy for Jordan to disappear into a vortex of his own fame.
Of course, there is a dark side to sport as in life, the Jungian shadow. The willingness and or selfishness to sacrifice anything for greatness (in any field) comes with a toll. It’s expensive and not everyone can pay the price, especially not while maintaining dominating standards of basketball.
Although the documentary didn’t address his first marriage, it’s not difficult to imagine it was a near impossibility to keep intact given Jordan’s relentless schedule and consuming fame.
The dark side is Michael’s competitive nature, only win upon win could satiate it. Competitiveness was his special power. He made enemies in his own team and elsewhere unafraid of the outcome. How he motivated himself is really one of the most underrated facets of his legacy. He got hyped up for minor grievances that were big to him or he made them bigger to push himself, to keep himself sharp, for the extra percentage points. Athletically and skill wise he is undoubtedly one of the best to ever entertain. Mentally, there’s been nobody hungrier or more efficient at extracting an edge from life and converting that to dominance – in any sport. It’s both his gift and his curse. Solely based on sporting success (and business), Jordan is an outrageous human being that shouldn’t really exist, an absolute outlier. Adulation and reverence is granted because in basketball, as in sport, facts are facts. There’s no denying accomplishments. You score, you don’t score. You dunk, you don’t dunk (me). You win a championship, you don’t. The beauty of sport, of its cultural significance, exists, because it doesn’t lie.
Sport – is kind in a way, because you lose as a way of punishment and that’s it. The ego is hit but life goes on. You learn and adapt or keep losing. At times brutal, but simple. A person’s character however, cannot have such simple and definitive parameters.
Tragically, character has largely been lost as a measure of a person’s worth. Monetary gains and fame have surpassed it some time ago. You can be a horrific person but if you’re a millionaire, for too many, that is enough to excuse a person’s actions. Empathy for wealth is a real issue that’s rarely addressed. It is easy to idolise Michael Jordan. I think as we mature we learn to separate the person from the achievements. To idolise is an immature mindset. And with age the sheen of that has worn off for me. I think Michael Jordan’s pursuit of excellence set a bar so damned high it drove the likes of Kobe Bryant nuts. I think it cost him dearly in his personal life. To be so good at something that is televised is a gift for those who enjoy basketball. I’m damned good at sending a well worded email, but I’m not writing and sending it with 20,000 fans around me as millions eyeball their TV screens. Personally, basketball gave me an outlet during some tough times as an adolescent. Michael Jordan was a catalyst who inspired millions to be interested in basketball from when he played to now. There are few in any given field who have done that. Arnold Schwarzenegger has a similar profile in terms of popularising bodybuilding, but much more than that, he advocated fitness itself and is solely responsible for motivating millions and sparking an interest in that area.
Incredibly, Jordan didn’t have that much controversy considering his life from college to Chicago was documented and reported on incessantly. It’s easy to underestimate his conduct. His need to escape the bubble of fame perhaps created the gambling addiction he was suckered into. Some cigars and some beers are hardly headlines for one of the most athletically tuned people on the planet.
While watching the documentary you’ll see Jordan’s eyes are those of someone who has been used up. His life is known, raked over. Every question asked. Marketers beat him repeatedly for their gains (and his), like a pinata that magically restores itself and keeps delivering. It must be a strange existence to be Michael Jordan. Ultimately all he wanted to do was become a pro baseball player. Turns out basketball was his sport but I’m sure he could have dominated any field had life had a different path. A flawed human, but a sporting god – the human mind finds it tough to deal with the dissonance when balancing someone’s abilities and character. The achievements tend to supersede the other.
A part of my mind can’t help think that if Michael started playing again today he’d still be a hell of a player such is the drive for excellence. The documentary showed what it took for Jordan to dominate a sport. A lot of sacrifice. and moreover a mind capable of dealing with pressure beyond most people’s comprehension. Diamonds are flawed. People are flawed. In sport, I think it’s easy to place achievement ahead of character. You be the judge. I’ve concluded that you have to appreciate the sporting significance and cultural impact of a once-in-many-a-lifetime great.