If you didn’t already understand the scope of Michael Jordan’s greatness, shame on you. If you watched “The Last Dance,” now you know.
ESPN aired the final two episodes of the 10-part docuseries on Sunday night. The series chronicled Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls in what was the sixth and final championship season of the greatest dynasty in NBA history.
But regardless of your fandom or feelings on the documentary, it did something extraordinary during a global pandemic. It brought us together.
In our new reality of quarantine and social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it brought together millions of people on the couch every Sunday night for five straight weeks. The very definition of appointment TV.
More than 6 million people watched the first episode, and the ratings for the series were incredibly high.
It made many of us nostalgic, myself included. Seemingly everyone loved MJ and the Bulls in the 1990s, except the teams they were beating on their way to six championships in eight years — with Jordan retiring for 18 months to play baseball from 1994-95.
Suns fans were cruelly reminded about the 1993 NBA Finals, when the best team in their franchise history still wasn’t good enough to overcome His Airness.
Jordan bested league MVP (cough, cough) Charles Barkley in those finals and took pleasure in destroying Suns guard Dan Majerle, who Bulls GM Jerry Krause said was a great defensive player.
MJ averaged 41 points per game in the series, an NBA Finals record. He also averaged 8.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists as the Bulls won in six games.
Barkley isn’t alone. Many Hall of Fame players were denied a ring primarily because of Jordan. That list includes Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Gary Payton, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Miller.
While everyone jumped on the bandwagon, I was a true Bulls fan from childhood.
Growing up in Peoria, Illinois, they were my hometown team. And for all of us Bulls fans from Illinois, the ride was 10 times sweeter. The joy we received from that championship run will never fade.
We all knew about Jordan’s greatness. LeBron James is great, but MJ stands alone on the mountaintop, and he always will.
What we really learned was Michael Jordan the person. What made him who he is, what drove him, his thought process, his killer mentality, and yes, even his emotional side.
Critics have complained that it paints Jordan too favorably because of the creative control he had over the project. But this series pulled no punches and examined some of the most controversial elements of his life, including his gambling and the murder of his father.
“The Last Dance” talked about how Jordan could be unrelenting and harsh to his teammates. It talked about when he punched Steve Kerr in the face during practice.
And speaking of the latter incident, Jordan immediately knew he was wrong and called Kerr to apologize.
They later formed a close bond, perhaps partially because both of their fathers were murdered, although Kerr said the two never discussed the subject. Jordan also came to trust Kerr in big moments, which Kerr earned with clutch shooting during the 1997 and 1998 playoffs.
Discussing his mentality about winning brought MJ to an emotional place. He knew some people would view him as a jerk.
And that’s OK. Because while you can argue his leadership strategy, you can’t argue the results. He molded his teammates into champions. Six times.
“You ask all my teammates, the one thing about Michael Jordan was, he never ask me to do something that he wouldn’t f---ing do,” Jordan said. “Look, I don’t have to do this, I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t wanna play that way, don’t play that way.”
As he finished that quote, Jordan became teary and asked for a break. That human side came through on more than one occasion, and we are all better for seeing it.
Jordan’s journey was never easy. He missed nearly his entire second NBA season with a broken ankle. He suffered losses in the playoffs before becoming the ultimate winner. He took physical beatings from the Detroit Pistons for years.
Off the court, he dealt with the horrible tragedy of his father’s murder in July 1993.
The way he treated his teammates, Jordan explained, was all part of the cost of winning. Being nice and polite doesn’t always get the job done, especially if you want to win at the level he did.
No one worked harder than Jordan. He didn’t ask teammates to sacrifice anything was he wasn’t willing to sacrifice himself. It was a huge key to his success, and it made the Bulls an iconic dynasty.
During a time when there were almost no live sporting events on TV, “The Last Dance” filled a void that sports fans desperately needed.
And no matter where your fandom lies, it was an event that brought us all together and got us talking about sports again. It reminded us that sports can unify us in ways nothing else can.
For that, we can all be thankful.