Episode 7 of “The Last Dance” explores Michael Jordan’s decision to retire from basketball, coming off a three-peat at age 30, to pursue a career in baseball.
The reason Jordan elected that route has always been multifaceted. As “The Last Dance” has documented, Jordan’s fame reached dizzying, unprecedented levels in the early 1990s — a natural source of fatigue for anyone. A media frenzy resulting from various gambling controversies added to that, as did the gruel of three straight seasons playing an average of roughly 99 games per year (including playoffs).
The tragic murder of his father, James Jordan, in the summer of 1993 (Jordan announced his retirement on Oct. 6, 1993) played a big part, too, especially given the two’s joint bonding over baseball.
“We were debating, me and him, we were debating about me playing baseball,” Michael said, recalling his last conversation with his father, in the documentary. “Dad, ‘I want to go play baseball. I’m thinking about retiring. I wanna go play baseball.’ All the things that he was saying, ‘Do it. Do it.’ Because he had got me started in baseball.”
But conspiracy theories swarmed in the wake of James’ death and Michael’s retirement. Many speculated that James’ murder was connected to Michael’s gambling exploits. Some rumored that Jordan’s retirement from basketball was solely motivated by a suspension doled out by the NBA, also connected to gambling.
Jordan addressed both rumors head on in “The Last Dance.”
“It did hurt,” Jordan said of people tying his father’s death to his gambling. “But you had people that were throwing darts who wanted to hurt me anyway. It wasn’t from the people that I loved or the people that knew me and people that cared. It was people that got tired of me being on top.”
Bob Costas added that there wasn't a "thimble's worth" of evidence that James' murder and Jordan's gambling habits were connected. Sam Smith called the connection "unfair."
"He (James) was my rock. We were very close," Jordan said, appearing to fight back emotion in a present-day interview. "He’s the voice of reason and always drove and challenged me. That’s the type of father I had."
Understandable, then, that the psychological wear and tear of all of the above led to Jordan stepping away. Still, aforementioned conspiracy theories of a secret suspension doled out by the late NBA Commissioner David Stern persisted, some even to this day.
“I didn’t retire because the league kicked me out or they suspended me for a year and a half. That is not true. There’s no truth to that," Jordan said. "I needed a break. My father just passed. And I retired. And I retired with the notion that I wasn’t going to come back.”
Top NBA brass addressed the rumors, as well.
"How can I phrase this delicately?" said Brian McIntyre, Senior Communications Advisor to Stern. "Total bulls**t."
"The folklore, the urban legend that I sent him away because he was gambling," Stern added in an impassioned denial. "No basis in fact."
Whatever the case, Jordan landed with the Birmingham Barons, double-A affiliate of the White Sox. The rest — a year-and-a-half hiatus, a return to the NBA in the spring of 1995 and a second three-peat from 1996-98 — is history.