We saw the dark days in this week’s episodes. These were the darkest chapters we have seen so far. As we know from Jordan’s career, the Bulls first ‘three-peat’ would lead to him burning out, his first retirement and baseball. The combined two hours was almost the ‘be careful what you wish for’ adage played out.
We saw how ‘Be Like Mike’ became a huge cross to bear. These episodes showed the ticking time bomb that we know will lead to the explosion of him walking away from the game and not playing basketball for 18 months.
Jordan and the ‘little Laker boy’
Episode five started poignantly with a dedication to Kobe Bryant and we then saw Jordan in the locker room at the 1998 All-Star Game calling Kobe the “little Lakers boy”. Wow, that was just too much.
Kobe Bryant lines up against Jordan
And then to see the interview with Bryant where he calls Jordan his “big brother” and said he could not have won five NBA championships without the help and advice he got from Jordan.
Although it was a departure from the main story, it was a worthy one. Kobe, the player a lot of younger fans feel was the best, immediately defers to Jordan and cites him as one of the reasons he was so good himself.
The claustrophobia of Jordan’s life
These episodes were hard-watching, telling the tale of a man for whom the dream was somewhat becoming a nightmare for a variety of reasons. Journalist Mike Wilbon relayed a story of Magic Johnson warning of the risk of driving Jordan out of the game.
By 1998, Michael Jordan was a cultural icon and one of the most popular people on the planet. But his fame came at a price
Off the court, it’s the exposure, books, the reports about his gambling and the pressure of ‘the cult of Jordan’. On the court, it’s the struggles with team management and the sense of relief rather than achievement as the Bulls completed that first title ‘three-peat’.
We saw the claustrophobia of Jordan’s life. He gets out of a lift, there are people there. He leaves a building, there’s more people. Giving an interview in a small corridor in an arena, there are more people there than there should be.
The bit that got me was the footage of him in his hotel room lying down on a sofa that was too small for him. He even looked cramped when he was in the solitude of his room! Even that was restrictive – and he had a camera crew filming him in there too three feet from his face. That told its own story too.
‘Great men find enemies within’
In episode five, we rewound to the 1992 Finals with the Bulls taking on the Portland Trail Blazers and the TV broadcasters setting up the narrative of Jordan and Clyde Drexler as equals facing each other in the perfect match-up.
Relive all the action as Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls defeat the Portland Trail Blazers to win the 1992 NBA Finals
We then jump to Jordan explaining how he took offence to that comparison.
That underpins everything about Jordan. In my documentary, one of Jordan’s former college team-mates at North Carolina told me “a lot of great men find enemies within”. It helps motivate them.
In the 1992 Finals, Jordan didn’t need any extra motivation after being told Drexler was as good as him!
Later, we saw a still-somewhat-bemused Toni Kukoc talk about how he was singled out by suffocating defense from Jordan and Scottie Pippen when the USA played Croatia at the 1992 Olympics. To Jordan, Bulls executive Jerry Krause wooing Kukoc to the Bulls while underpaying Pippen lit the fire for that.
Kukoc should have considered himself honoured to be seen worthy enough – like Drexler or Dan Majerle – for Jordan to want to take him to the cleaners!
Relive the most memorable moments as the Chicago Bulls defeat the Phoenix Suns to win the 1993 NBA Finals
My favourite quote in episode six was from the footage during the 1993 Finals against the Suns where, with the Bulls leading 3-2 but the potential two remaining games both in Phoenix, Jordan gets on the plane and tells his team-mates, ‘I’m only packing one suit’. That’s ‘Gary Cooper in a Western’ level in terms of one-liners. Then he leads the Bulls to a title-clinching win in Game 6.
Whatever it took for Jordan to will himself to be the best player on the court on a given night, that’s what it was all about.
The greatest game no one ever saw – until now
What about the footage of the Dream Team’s pre-1992 Olympics scrimmage in Monte Carlo? Man alive! In a school gym, you had 10 or 12 of the best players in the entire world with a ref playing as hard if not harder than when they played in front of NBA crowds.
It was also the moment Magic Johnson had to admit Jordan, not he, was now the best player in the world and hand him the keys to the league – all after making the mistake of firing up Jordan with some ill-advised trash talk!
The current generation of NBA players, including LeBron James and Zion Williamson, reflect on their memories of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left the league
In the 1980s, Magic (along with Larry Bird) had created the NBA’s initial international NBA foothold. People knew Magic before they’d seen a minute of NBA basketball. Jordan and the Dream Team moved that up a gear at the 1992 Olympics.
Johnson’s reaction after that Monte Carlo practice was magnificent and magnanimous in defeat. Jordan had beaten him in 1991 NBA Finals and at the 1992 Olympics he handed over the mantle of greatest player ever to the man who beat him in those Finals.
That didn’t make Magic any less great himself and is also why Magic should be held in such esteem. He is clearly such a well-rounded individual. A lot of sportspeople would see ceding that ground as a sign of weakness. Johnson was a better man than that.
Mark Webster’s documentary, ‘The Making of Michael Jordan’, examines MJ’s sporting and cultural impact and his journey to becoming a billionaire phenomenon.