NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

For the first two weeks of “The Last Dance” documentary, LeBron James didn’t publicize his thoughts about Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls. Millions watched and a crowd of NBA players chimed in, but the NBA’s most-followed athlete stayed noticeably mum. 

On Monday, the Los Angeles Lakers forward tweeted: “Watching Episode 4. Watching/Seeing MJ hold that first [trophy emoji] damn near had me tearing up [eyes-welling emoji]! That feeling and level of emotions is unexplainable when you been through the [10 fire emojis].”

It’s no coincidence James broke his silence by sympathizing with Jordan’s suffering. It’s a way for James to relate to his idol, bonding over something that many hadn’t seen until the documentary aired. Jordan lost in the spotlight, too, and he did it a lot.

In 1990, after the Detroit Pistons ended the Bulls’ season for the third straight year, Jordan broke down.

“I was devastated. I was absolutely devastated,” Jordan says in the documentary. “I cried on the bus.”

That moment wasn’t captured on camera, but it’s important that “The Last Dance” documentary, at the very least, covered it. People watching at home may not have heard about this side of Michael Jordan. Sure, the Crying Jordan meme is categorically the Michael Jordan of memes, but those tears flowed in a moment of validation during his Hall of Fame speech, just after he took the stage and let the cheering and clapping wash over him.

 

In 1990, it was a very different feeling for Jordan. In the legendary book “Playing For Keeps,” author David Halberstam describes a lesser-known moment of desperation. After the Pistons took the series 4-2, Pistons GM Jack McCloskey saw an “almost inconsolable” Jordan exiting the arena and heading for the team bus. Though McCloskey was the bitter adversary at the time, the Pistons executive walked over and tried to offer words of encouragement. 

And in that moment of vulnerability, according to Halberstam, Jordan asked the architect of the Bad Boy Pistons a question.

“Mr. McCloskey,” Jordan said of the Pistons GM, “are we ever going to get past the Pistons? Are we ever going to win?”

McCloskey answered. “Michael, your time is coming, and it’s coming very soon.”

It’s then, Halberstam details, when Jordan went to the back of the bus alone with his father and wept, wondering if all his hard work would be all for naught.

Jordan was 27 years old at the time. He had already secured a Most Valuable Player Award and four scoring titles, but even then, with all those individual accolades, Jordan was capable of being emotionally wounded, the pain reducing him to tears.

It’s a detail that will undoubtedly stick for this generation of NBA players. Jordan was the same age as Chris Bosh was when he was mocked for crying after the Miami Heat’s 2011 Finals defeat, and two years older than Joel Embiid was this past postseason when the Philadelphia 76ers center was overcome by emotions on national TV following a heartbreaking Game 7 loss against the Toronto Raptors. 

When Kevin Durant cried in his parents’ arms outside the locker room following the 2012 Finals, the camera stayed on an emotional Durant for a full 30 seconds, transmitting the 23-year-old’s low point to millions watching at home. How many people can sympathize with that?

Jordan probably can’t. No cameras caught his emotional breakdown, broadcasting his vulnerability around the world. But what if they had? What if Jordan’s darkest professional moment happened in the social media age? How would that change him?

It would, at the very least, have humanized Jordan in ways that have been hard to come by before the past two Sundays. The last two episodes of “The Last Dance” -- focusing on Jordan's pain and triumph in the Bad Boy Pistons era -- have shown that Jordan was, and still is, human. 

He cared deeply about what reporters wrote about him. In the documentary, delightful longtime Bulls reporter Sam Smith told the story of how seconds before Game 5 against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1989 playoffs, the biggest game of Jordan’s NBA career mind you, Jordan turned to the three Chicago beat writers who were covering the series -- each of whom picked the Cavs to win in three, four and five games, respectively -- and said, pointing to each one, “Took care of you … took care of you … I’m going to take care of you today!”

 

And sure enough, Jordan did, hitting the iconic shot over Craig Ehlo at the buzzer and triumphantly punching the air, screaming “Go home, motherf***ers! Go home!”

It was telling that Jordan’s fiery words of conquest weren't directed at the team he just beat. Instead, they were directed at the media. In the walk-off postgame interview shown on the documentary, Jordan explained: “I feel very vindicated … I asked everybody, you know, ‘What was the feeling back in Chicago? Did the writers talk yet?’ And you said some of them have written us off. I said, ‘Well, tell those guys to stay home.’”

The question of how Jordan would handle the age of social media and 24/7 sports punditry has hung in the air for years. Stephen Curry, who has won two MVPs and three championships in this era, addressed that topic during a podcast interview with PGA Tour champion Rory McIlroy and TV host Carson Daly on Tuesday. The Warriors guard said he had to develop “coping mechanisms” to deal with the magnifying glass.

“The MJ doc, man -- the eras are so different,” Curry said. “There was so much more mystery back in the day. (Michael) Jordan. (Scottie) Pippen and (Dennis) Rodman -- they show up on TV, you watch a game, everybody gets into it -- and then you really don’t see them or hear from them until the next game.”

McIlroy, who at 30 years old has won four major championships after bursting onto the scene as a teenage phenom, agreed with Curry. “With social media and the fact that you’re sort of on 24/7, I think it’s harder to deal with nowadays,” McIlroy said.

For many of today’s brightest stars, the image of Jordan and the Bulls has been clean; Six-and-Oh-In-The-Finals clean. But the documentary has pulled back the mask and revealed the struggle and drama that lived underneath them at all times. On Tuesday, Chris Paul joined the UnInterrupted’s After Party podcast with Maverick Carter and Paul Rivera and remarked how different the Bulls’ reality was compared to the image he consumed as a kid. 

“The more I watched, you just get a chance to see that there’s no perfect team,” Paul said. “It’s so dope to see the stories, because these stories that we’re seeing right now are the reason why a lot of us, I know for me, are in the NBA. Now, to be able to live it, to be in these locker rooms and be in the NBA, some of this stuff is like shocking because you go back and think about it as a kid, but now that I’m in the league, I’m not surprised because you understand that there’s no perfect team.”

 

Paul, who turns 35 years old next week, went on to say that “nobody cares about your story until you win.’ In the midst of his 15th NBA season, Paul individually ranks 12th all time in career win shares but is still searching for his first title. It must be refreshing and comforting for Paul to know that Jordan’s journey wasn’t as smooth and spotless as he imagined.

“That’s why it’s dope for all of these layers to be played [in the documentary],” Paul said. “Now, in the world of social, everybody knows your damn business before anything has happened. If you and your teammate get in an argument in the locker room, it’s going to be on Twitter by the time you get into your car. All of that stuff that was going on with [the Bulls] has been covered up for 20 years. That’s why all of us have been on the edge of our seats every episode.”

What stuck with Carter, who is also James’ longtime business manager and co-founder of SpringHill Entertainment, was how Dennis Rodman could go to Las Vegas in the middle of the championship quest and pound a can of beer in front of cameras and hop on a motorcycle -- all without media scrutiny. There was no Instagram Live in Vegas, no Twitter to document Rodman’s exploits.

“Today,” Carter said, “that would be a disaster.”

While there are still plenty of tongue-wagging, gravity-defying, always-cool Jordan moments, the most gripping parts of the documentary are the ones that depict Jordan as an imperfect basketball player and person. We know about Jordan’s Finals record, but the Jordan who missed late-game free throws, cried in defeat, held grudges for not showing proper sportsmanship and complained to the league office about how rough his opponents were? This is not the Jordan that James, Durant, Paul and Curry grew up watching. 

Maybe they already knew Jordan lost more games than he won in his first three seasons in the NBA. Perhaps it never hit home that Jordan lost nine of his first 10 playoff games and that his six titles only came after his first six postseason runs ended before the Finals began.

As the documentary showed in thrilling fashion, Jordan’s 63-point manifesto against the Boston Celtics was a turning point in his career. When Larry Bird uttered the amazing line “That wasn’t Micheal Jordan out there, that was God disguised as Michael Jordan,” it came during a series in which Jordan was swept -- a detail that, until the documentary came out, may have been lost on a generation of basketball fans.

 

Today’s NBA stars are quick to point, indirectly or not, that Jordan didn’t have to endure the suffocation of this era’s social media and round-the-clock scrutiny. Jordan’s highs have been highly documented over the years, but for a generation of stars, it’s the first time Jordan’s lows are being shown, humanizing a man that had become a living legend. 

As careers unfold in today’s social media era, we tend to glorify the past’s highs and skip over the lows, of which Jordan had a few. Durant has never been swept in the playoffs, and neither has Curry. Paul suffered that only once. James and Jordan have each been swept in the playoffs twice, but how many would believe that fact about Jordan? That is, before the documentary showed the fire that Jordan went through. The 10 emojis of fire.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.