Michael Jordan reveals a different side on 'The Last Dance'

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Michael Jordan reveals a different side on 'The Last Dance'

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.

Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate remains unsettled after 'The Last Dance'

Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate remains unsettled after 'The Last Dance'

Why now? It’s one of the great underlying questions around the Michael Jordan-centric “The Last Dance” documentary.

The behind-the-scenes footage that provided the bedrock of the amazing 10-hour ESPN series had been locked away in Secaucus, N.J., for about two decades. For any of that film to see the light of day, as agreed upon by then-head of NBA entertainment and current NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Jordan himself would need to sign off on any sort of project using it.

For years, it sat there locked away without Jordan’s key to unlock it. We waited and waited and waited, until the morning of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship parade in 2016, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. That day, after an in-person meeting with Mandalay Sports Media executive Mike Tollin, Jordan finally decided to greenlight the documentary.

The timing is undeniably fascinating. LeBron James had just beat a Golden State Warriors team that not only featured NBA history’s first unanimous MVP in Stephen Curry, but one that broke the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record for most wins in a regular season. James also delivered a championship to Cleveland, ending the city’s 52-year professional sports title drought.

The triumph was enough for James to declare himself the GOAT in 2018 during ESPN’s “More Than An Athlete:” “That one right there made me the greatest player of all time. That’s what I felt. Everybody was just talking about how [the Warriors] were the greatest team of all-time, like it was the greatest team ever assembled. For us to come back the way we came back in that fashion, I was, like, ‘You did something special.’”

Did that backdrop make Jordan nervous about his place in the history of the game? Did Jordan feel that a generation of young fans needed a reminder of his greatness?

We may never know the answer to that, but we do know that the documentary has, in some circles, become something of a Jordan haymaker in the GOAT debate. In many eyes, this wasn’t just a documentary; it was a verdict.

In a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago’s Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson on Monday, Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, unsolicited, made his stance in the debate extremely clear.

“‘The Last Dance’ obviously should establish in the mind of any person with normal eyesight that Michael was beyond a doubt the greatest of all-time,” Reinsdorf said. “In my mind, anytime anybody wants to talk to me about comparing Michael to LeBron (James), I’m going to tell them to please don’t waste my time.”

He continued.

“I’m truly tired of people trying to compare LeBron to Michael when it’s not even close. They should try to compare LeBron with Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson. Michael was so head and shoulders over everybody, and that really came out in this documentary.”

It’s interesting that Reinsdorf didn’t mention Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain or Larry Bird in those quotes to NBC Sports Chicago. He mentioned LeBron James, perpetuating the notion that the Jordan documentary was, at some level, a James counterstrike. 

But is Jordan actually head and shoulders over everybody? Not even close with James?

At the risk of wasting Reinsdorf’s time, it’s definitely a topic worth exploring, especially since the overall numbers don’t agree with Reinsdorf’s assessment.

* * * 

“The Last Dance” might as well be named “Six” for the lasting image of Jordan flashing his digits after the 1998 Finals, symbolizing his championship total. Yes, the documentary used the 1997-98 season as a storytelling anchor, but it felt more like a celebration of Jordan’s glorious career than a blow-by-blow examination of the 1997-98 season. Jordan last faced the Bad Boy Pistons on the playoff stage in 1991, but they received far more play in the docuseries than the Bulls’ actual 1998 Finals opponent, the Utah Jazz.

Jordan’s 6-0 record is spotless and beautiful and irretrievable for James, who has instead gone 3-6 in the Finals. For Jordan's strongest supporters, this is the nail in the coffin. However, reducing the GOAT debate purely to one’s Finals record would mean that John Havlicek (8-0), K.C. Jones (8-0, Tom Sanders (8-0) and Robert Horry (7-0) all have better cases than Jordan. And that’s before mentioning Bill Russell’s baffling 11-1 Finals record.

The James-vs.-Jordan debate needs a little bit more nuance than that. Jordan may have 6-0, but James has longevity in his corner. James has simply lasted longer than Jordan, both in career seasons and in deep postseason runs. 

James is in the midst of his 17th season and still playing at an MVP level. Jordan played 15 seasons, electing to retire twice during his prime years. Part of that gap in career length can be explained by James skipping college and entering league as an 18-year-old, which Jordan did not. 

What gets lost in the discussion is the fact that both Jordan and James have made 13 postseason appearances, but Jordan fell short of the Finals seven times. Whereas Jordan failed to reach the Finals more often than he made them, James has only fallen short four out of his 13 appearances. So not only has James been in the league longer, but he has had much longer playoff runs than Jordan, even if they didn’t always end in a Larry O’Brien trophy.

That has to matter in the larger conversation. Playing at a high level for that long begins to tip the scales in James’ favor, and that’s before we get into the individual barometers. 

The advanced metrics agree that this is a much closer affair than Reinsdorf would assume. Using win shares, which is an established all-in-one value metric that estimates a player’s contributions to overall team success, James has Jordan beat in cumulative value, according to Basketball Reference data. 

In fact, James eclipsed Jordan in that department years ago. At the moment the NBA halted play on March 12, James had 287.1 career win shares compared to Jordan's 253.8 figure.

Case closed, James is the GOAT, right? 

Not so fast. It turns out neither James nor Jordan possess the most win shares in NBA history. That distinction belongs to eternally-great Abdul-Jabbar, who played 20 seasons, with all but one of those being All-Star campaigns. 

If James plays two more full seasons at a high level, he will undoubtedly unseat Abdul-Jabbar in career win shares. Trailing Abdul-Jabbar by just 21.9 win shares at the career level, James averages 16.9 win shares per season in his career (this suspended season included) and appears to have several years left in the tank. If win shares aren’t your thing, James has already surpassed Jordan in other cumulative measuring sticks like career VORP and the championships added metric from ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. 

Individual all-in-one metrics aren’t meant to be judge, jury and executioner in these debates, but it’s certainly worth mentioning that James has distanced himself from Jordan in measures outside of title count. And it’s here where the GOAT discussion becomes more art than science. Do you prefer Finals records or overall playoff records? Do you prefer longevity or peak seasons? 

If you prefer looking at peak seasons, Jordan has the upper-hand on James. If you rank Jordan’s best seasons by win shares and compare it to James’ best, it’s clear that Jordan’s peak years are superior to those of James.

The chart above is my favorite way to distill the Jordan and James debate. As you can see, Jordan’s best seasons are superior to James’ best, with Jordan’s red line resting comfortably above James’ purple line until their respective 10th-best season of their careers. After that, James far outpaces Jordan’s best. If we include his MVP-caliber ‘19-20 campaign, James has 15 high-level seasons while Jordan only had 11, due to his foot injury and his two retirements. (Jordan’s final two seasons with the Washington Wizards at the ages of 38 and 39, after three years away from the game, don’t move the needle in the GOAT discussion, but appear here near the back end of his red line.)

The fact that Jordan’s heights are taller than James was hammered home in Pelton’s recent ranking of the best individual seasons in NBA history. In that study, Jordan made five appearances in the top 25 at Nos. 1, 5, 12, 17 and 31, while James sat slightly lower at Nos. 3, 8, 9 and 23.

Jordan has higher ceilings and James has higher floors. That’s the crux of the debate.

The former will always resonate far more with the masses on an emotional level than the latter. And with good reason. Though James has already registered considerably more career value than Jordan by advanced metrics, Jordan’s six championship seasons continue to stand out -- not just in the minds of basketball fans, but also in the numbers.

Looking at the conventional GOAT standards, James’ biggest flaw may be that he took his teams too far. Take the 2006-07 season. James was just 22 years old, with Larry Hughes serving as the Robin to his Batman, when James led the Cavs to the Finals only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs. 

If James had just lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals like most expected, James’ NBA Finals record would be shinier. Instead, by getting to the Finals and losing, it’s a strike against him. Same goes for the 2014-15 Finals run when James’ Cavs swept the 60-win Atlanta Hawks while Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were sidelined (Irving played two games of that Eastern Conference finals). If James simply lost earlier, again, his Finals record would be cleaner.

Because of his lopsided 3-6 record in the Finals, most fans may view James as an underachiever but, according to Vegas, the opposite is true. James’ teams were favored in just two of his nine Finals appearances (2011 and 2013) and overall, he actually surpassed expectations, ending up with three titles. Meanwhile, Jordan’s Bulls were favored in all six Finals and won all six. Jordan took care of business.

But, for the sake of argument, what if the Bulls didn’t lose to the Orlando Magic in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals? The Bulls entered the series as minus-165 favorites, according to Vegas, but the Magic went on to face (and get swept by) the Houston Rockets in the Finals. What if the Bulls didn’t blow that series and instead, like the Magic did, beat the Indiana Pacers and faced Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets for the title?

I recently caught up with former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich about that hypothetical (full podcast next week!) and he pointed to a conversation he remembers having with Michael Jordan at Charles Barkley’s house in Phoenix in 1996. Barkley had invited his new coach, Tomjanovich, and the team’s trainer to hang out at his abode, along with Jordan and Tiger Woods (!). That night, Tomjanovich and Jordan discussed the Finals match that never happened. 

“[Jordan] said we were the team they feared the most because they didn’t have an answer for Hakeem,” Tomjanovich said. “It would have been a great series.”

We will never know how the Bulls would have fared against a Rockets team that won back-to-back titles, but Jordan ensured his clean Finals record by retiring in 1993 and losing in the 1994-95 East semifinals. In a strange way, James reaching eight straight Finals doesn’t resonate nearly as much as the “five” in “three-and-five.” 

Fair or not, there’s only so much James can do to erase his Finals losses in the basketball world’s collective psyche.

* * * 

The hook to all of this is the fact that James is still playing -- at an MVP level, no less. Declaring Jordan the GOAT before James retires is like awarding an Oscar to a film after refusing to watch the last 30 minutes of its top competitor. 

James has a legitimate shot to change the conversation, but the pandemic shutdown hurts those chances. With regular-season games threatened, the league’s hiatus has all but ruined James’ chance to overtake Giannis Antetokounmpo and win his fifth MVP award. James was also on track to surpass 2,000 points for his 11th season as he chases down Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record. In the past 14 months, James has passed Kobe Bryant and Jordan on the all-time scoring list and trails Abdul-Jabbar by 4,300 points. 

Depending on what route the NBA goes with a potential season restart, James could lose all or most of the Lakers’ remaining 19 regular-season games. Based on James’ 2019-20 scoring average of 25.7 points, that could cost James as much as 500 points. At current levels and without those 500 points, James would probably need three more seasons to catch Abdul-Jabbar. 

If he did pull it off and pass Abdul-Jabbar, there’s a world in which James’ supporters could use the trump card of James being the top scorer of all-time despite that not being his best basketball skill (that would be passing). Outside of that, James could also win a title or two alongside Anthony Davis to nudge closer to Jordan. But given the six losses on James’ ledger and Jordan’s “perfect” tally, it might be best to leave Jordan with that and change the conversation all together. 

James has a strong track record of doing that. Following “The Decision” fallout in 2010 and his 2011 Finals meltdown, even James’ strongest supporters would’ve had a hard time imagining a world in which James was largely beloved in northeast Ohio. Yet, after winning a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers and opening the “I, Promise” elementary school in Akron for at-risk children, his reputation with local fans is fully restored. After James left Cleveland and joined a barren Lakers franchise, he helped lure Anthony Davis and returned the Lakers to title favorites. Equipped with his own production company, James is chasing Jordan on the silver-screen, starring in a Space Jam sequel with an on-the-nose title, “A New Legacy.” James has created an empire by patiently waiting to get the final word.

Ultimately, the verdict remains out on the greatest argument in basketball circles, although it is a lot closer than many, including Reinsdorf, would like to believe. “The Last Dance” may have ended with the enduring image of Jordan cackling at his vanquished foes, but James still has a chance to have the last laugh.

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

Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley was a one-sided affair

Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley was a one-sided affair

Michael Jordan dominated every Hall of Famer he faced, including the 20 fellow members he eliminated from the playoffs throughout his career. However, some superstars fared worse in their career matchups than others.

Charles Barkley finds himself at the bottom of the list as Jordan averaged 35.8 points against him in their 55 career matchups. Jordan logged his points per game record versus Hall of Famers against Chuck with 41 points in the 1993 NBA Finals.

While Sir Charles struggled against Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal held Jordan to an average of 28.7 points per game in their 21 career matchups, the lowest of those 20 Hall of Famers Jordan eliminated.

This ought to stir up some competition on the next episode of "Inside the NBA."

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