“The Last Dance” promised to peel back the curtain on the player, competitor and person that Michael Jordan truly was (and still is). Through two episodes, that promise is on its way to being fulfilled.
In Episode 1, we got a glimpse into Jordan’s competitive fire through a Scott Burrell side-eye and a few tempered practice tirades. But it was Episode 2, when the film flashed back to Wilmington, North Carolina to detail Jordan’s upbringing, that was most illuminating in understanding why Jordan competed and led the way he did.
Initially, Jordan said, his drive to constantly improve — and to make his path with basketball specifically — came from a desire to leave behind the racially fraught environment in Wilmington that he was raised in.
“At the time, you had racism all over North Carolina, all over the United States,” Jordan said in the documentary. “So as a kid, it was like OK, this is where I don’t want to be. I want to excel outside of this. So my motivation was to be something outside of Wilmington. For me, it became athletics.”
In fact, that was the focus of the entire Jordan family. Michael’s mother, Deloris, and father, James, pushed their three sons to participate in organized sports to keep them occupied in their free time, and thus uninvolved with the harsher realities of their home city. That focus bred unrivaled competitiveness between Michael and his brother Larry, who James said (via archived footage) in the documentary was at one time considered a better basketball player than Michael.
“My brothers hated losing, but not on the same level like me,” Larry Jordan said of he and his brothers’ backyard basketball games. “Because if you beat me back then, we had to fight. And that’s just the way I was.”
“I don’t think from a competitive standpoint, I would be here without the confrontations with my brother (Larry),” Michael Jordan said. “When you come to blows with someone, you absolutely love, that’s igniting every fire within you. And I always felt I was fighting Larry for my father’s attention.
“When you going through it, it’s traumatic, because I want that approval, I want that type of confidence. So my determination got even greater to be as good if not better than my brother.”
Eventually, that determination bled into every area of Michael’s life. In some ways, that appeared to be by James Jordan’s design.
“If you want to bring out the best in Michael, tell him he can’t do something or tell him he can’t do it as good as somebody else,” James Jordan said.
His and Deloris’ hardened, no-nonsense parenting instilled in the Jordans all the values that one day made Michael so revered, both in Chicago and globally
“As a family we were naturally tough. My father was tough, my mom was tough, and the environment they brought us up in was a tough environment,” brother Ronnie Jordan said. “You get knocked down, you gotta get up. And you always give it your best and you always try to win. We hated to lose.”
“Mr. Jordan and myself always tried to share with them, don’t wait for somebody to give you something,” Deloris said. “You’re strong, you’re intelligent, go out and earn it and work for it.”
Michael certainly did, from overcoming an emotional sophomore year rebuke to make his high school varsity basketball team in his junior season, through his time evolving from inconsistent talent at North Carolina to No. 3 overall draft pick to the unquestioned savior of professional basketball in Chicago.
But it all started back in Wilmington.