At the start of this odyssey into Michael Jordan, one veteran chronicler of his life and times says that only two other sportsmen in history stand comparison: Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali.
The chronicler is American so it is surprising that he has omitted Tiger Woods, and perhaps less so that he has omitted Pele, Maradona, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Usain Bolt and Roger Federer among others could be in the conversation too.
But then you are taken deeper into the story and as the tales of his colossal feats build up layer upon layer, season after season, you find yourself reaching for parallels even beyond these rare pioneers of human originality.
Because Jordan didn't just break out of his sport to become one of the most famous men on planet Earth, he at times seemed to break out of the very chains that bind ordinary humanity.
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Gravity itself is a pretty powerful chain. But when Jordan soared to the ring he gave the impression that he was questioning even this fundamental law of physics. Maybe it could be beaten too?
He seemed to ascend in stages, pedalling his legs in space for a second lift-off, as if he was demanding traction from the very air itself for this secondary boost; and then the peak elevation, the dunk and the return to earth. It was the aerial spectacular that gave birth to Michael's mythical "hang time".
Various boffins apparently found that the longest he was ever airborne was 0.92 seconds. But it was about half a second more than most humans could manage and the stats didn't matter anyway. Here was a man with the demented audacity - what one writer called the "competitive lunacy" - to challenge even the ultimate cosmic barrier.
Human beings who want to go higher and faster and further are not always reasonable people. The same force that propels them to do that, cannot automatically switch off when it comes to dealing with the stuff of conventional life.
Jordan was a most unreasonable man. This was another chain that he cast off too - the societal rules of civility, empathy, moderation. At least in his working life he did.
Presumably he was a more rounded individual in the personal domain of family and friends. He is entitled to the benefit of the doubt on that score.
But if he was, then it's probably fair to say that these kinder, gentler benedictions were the interludes in a career dedicated to never-ending conquest.
They were the ceasefires between hostilities, the necessary retreats for a bit of R&R before resuming the eternal battle with opponents, teammates and of course mediocrity. His working life essentially was his life.
Naturally a story on this gargantuan scale couldn't be told in a two-hour documentary. The US cable channel ESPN teamed up with Netflix to tell it in ten 50-minute episodes. Using fly-on-the-wall footage, filmed inside the Chicago Bulls locker room and training courts during 1997/'98, the documentary would be based around that season.
They had 500 hours of footage to play with. It had been commissioned by the National Basketball Association (NBA) because they wanted to capture what was likely to be the last season of a Bulls dynasty that had won five NBA titles in that decade. They had done three in a row in the early 1990s and two more on the trot in '95/'96 and '96/'97.
A third in '98 would complete their second treble. The footage back then would not have been filmed without Jordan's permission and it could not be broadcast without his permission either.
It remained under lock and key for the next 22 years. He finally relented, but only on condition that his own company could join the project as a co-producer, and that he would have editorial say over the final cut.
They called it The Last Dance because at the start of the 1997/'98 season, Phil Jackson, head coach of the Bulls, galvanised his players with a theme, a narrative for the season to come: it would be their last hurrah, their final tilt at history, their last dance on the floor.
ESPN premiered two new episodes every Sunday night for five weeks running from April 19 to the final pair last Sunday. Netflix then streamed it around the world, excluding America, on Mondays.
It was greeted with varying degrees of scepticism by a range of US journalists. They felt it was compromised from the start by Jordan's involvement.
The complete absence of his first wife was noted. They had three children together and were married for 17 years. The most authoritative dissenter was Ken Burns, the revered maker of epic documentary series on the history of jazz, baseball, the American Civil War and the Vietnam War, among many others.
"If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made," said Burns, "it means certain aspects that you don't necessarily want in aren't going to be in, period. And that's not the way you do good journalism . . . and it's certainly not the way you do good history."
The director of the series was Jason Hehir, a native of Massachusetts. He personally interviewed Jordan over three sessions lasting eight hours in total in 2018. Hehir stated last week that Jordan had been fully co-operative.
"I didn't sense any reluctance whatsoever for him to talk about any topic. I think that he's eager to talk about these things and it's rare that he sits down for an in-depth interview, so he literally hasn't been asked these things in front of a camera, in some cases, ever. It was never, 'Don't show this, take this out, bleep this out, delete this'. There was never one thing that he asked us to remove."
Irrespective, the series has been a smash hit. Global streaming figures on Netflix have been through the roof.
Mind you, in this era of audience fragmentation, a smash hit today is a relative achievement compared to the pre-internet, pre-satellite TV era, when a handful of broadcasting monoliths had the mass market all to themselves.
According to ESPN, the first two episodes yielded around six million viewers on the day and subsequent episodes remained consistently high at an average of around 5.65 million same-day viewers.
After re-runs and delayed viewings over the following days and weeks, total ratings per episode were averaging around 11 million. Episode one has reached 15 million since its premiere.
And it is early in episode one that Michael Wilbon, previously a writer for 30 years with The Washington Post, places Jordan in historical context by reference to Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali.
These were godheads with feet of clay and soon enough we're being familiarised with the darkness behind Jordan's heroic facade too - in particular, the vindictive energy that was one of his primary fuels.
In the summer of 1997, Jerry Krause declared that come hell or high water, the fabled Bulls dynasty would be broken up at the end of the season, even if they won a sixth title. Krause was general manager of the Bulls, which meant he was largely responsible for who they signed and who they canned.
He died in 2017 with a major stain on his reputation still uncleaned in the public memory. He was the man who destroyed Chicago's dream team. Obviously it was much more complicated than that. But then he blurted out the line that almost became his epitaph: "Players and coaches don't win championships, organisations do."
On his perpetual hunt for hurts and insults, Jordan by his own admission sometimes found them when they weren't there at all.
But here was their own GM, announcing 12 months in advance that the team was going to be broken up; and not just that, but publicly declaring that they hadn't achieved everything on their own either. It was a red rag to the biggest Bull of them all.
Looking back on it over 20 years later, Jordan was still nursing the grievance. The comment, he says, was "offensive". But it had given him a cause, a fresh source of motivation made all the more potent by coming from the enemy within. "I would never," he says now, "let someone who is not putting on a uniform and playing each and every day, dictate what we do on a basketball court."
Most of the time, he would never let anyone who actually was putting on a uniform dictate what they did on a basketball court either. That was his job. And coming out of high school in Wilmington, North Carolina, the clock was ticking on his first detonation into national consciousness. A first year recruit at the University of North Carolina, one of college basketball's powerhouses, Jordan's 18-foot jump shot with 17 seconds left in the 1982 NCAA Division One final entered folklore.
It was watched live on CBS Sports by an estimated 30 million people. Jordan had just turned 19. They were trailing by a point against Georgetown; it was the closest final in 23 years; the ice cool finish under maximum pressure would become a recurring motif in the subsequent mythology. But on that day in New Orleans, he was only getting started.
Drafted by the Bulls in 1984, he was officially measured at six foot six - and unofficially, some say, at six five, or even six four and a half. He wasn't a pine tree and was presumably all the better for it, being a superbly proportioned all-round athlete. He was physically mature even before the professional machine began building the bionic version. "The strength he had," recalls Kevin Loughery, his first head coach in Chicago, "the physical strength, was amazing."
The rookie had some growing up of a different kind to do. The Bulls were going nowhere when he joined, their 18,500 arena half-empty for many games. On a pre-season tour they stopped over one night in Peoria, Illinois. The town gave its name to a famous old showbiz aphorism - 'Will it play in Peoria?' - meaning if the show did well among the regular God-fearing folks there, it would do well in mainstream America generally.
The Bulls played in Peoria that night alright. They're back in their hotel but Jordan can't find his teammates. So he does a recce down the corridors until he hears music and chatter coming out of one room. He knocks on the door. Inside it goes quiet. "Who is it?" "I say, 'MJ'. So they open up the door, I walk in and practically the whole team was in there." Jordan had grown up with the conservative family values preached by his parents. He was a country boy and he was about to lose some of his innocence. "And it was like, things I've never seen in my life as a young kid. You got your lines (of cocaine) over here, you got your weed-smokers over there, you got your women over here." He quickly assessed the scene and made a decision. "So the first thing I said (was), 'Look man, I'm out', cos all I can think about is, if they come and raid this place right about now, I am just as guilty as everybody else that's in this room. And from that point on, I was more or less on my own."
He was a serious young man. There was work to be done and he was going to do it, whether they would or not. And almost immediately, the apprentice started to lead by example. By December 1984 he is on the front cover of Sports Illustrated, a landmark accolade in the eyes of millions of Americans. The main cover line is corny but prophetic: 'A Star Is Born'.
In 1986 they meet the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference play-offs. Boston were NBA champions in '84 and will go on to win it again in '86. Larry Bird is the king on the throne. In his interview he says the '86 iteration of the Celtics was the best he ever played with. They whitewash the Bulls 3-0. And yet Jordan tornadoes through them for 49 points in game one and in game two a mammoth 63 - a new NBA record. He is already carrying the team on his back.
In 1989 against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the play-offs, it's game five, winners advance to the Eastern Conference semi-finals. The Cavaliers are on their home court and leading 100-99 with three seconds left. Time-out, Bulls. They draw up a play but everyone knows the ball is going to Jordan. He grabs it: the lightning turn, left hand dribble, jump and shot - the clock expires but the ball has left his hands. For Cavs fans who were in the Richfield Coliseum that night, the sight of that ball floating through the air must have felt like a micro-second suspended in eternity. They had seen immortal greatness in the flesh and it had just crushed them.
Next up, the Detroit Pistons. They have a roughhouse reputation and they don't spare it on Jordan. They know the formula: stop MJ, you stop the Bulls. And stop him in particular before he gets airborne. "You have to stop him before he takes flight," says one of them, "because you know he's not human."
Not human. The language around him is changing now and starting to borrow images from another dimension. By the time he finishes with the Bulls nine years later, he has exhausted the lexicon of superlatives. He is "basically a fictional character," says Hehir. In the documentary, various testimonials touch upon the extra-terrestrial sphere. "We questioned whether he was human, whether he had feelings," says Will Perdue, a former Bulls teammate. "Michael's a mystic," says Mark Vancil, author of Rare Air. He is "The Terminator", says sportswriter David Aldridge. "He's a killer," says a TV pundit. "Michael is king of the world," says one NBA executive. "Michael was the alpha alpha," says another.
Inevitably, it was Michael Jordan who came up with maybe the most memorable bombast about Michael Jordan. It was November 1987 and a rising supernova named Reggie Miller was in his rookie season with the Indiana Pacers. Being young and foolish, he fancied taking on the great man.
"You're Michael Jordan," he snarks, early doors, "the guy who walks on water?" It wasn't Reggie's wisest move. MJ says nothing, swallows the goad, and proceeds to go to town on the Pacers. Walking off court at the end, he makes it his business to sidle up to Miller: "Don't ever talk trash to the black Jesus."
Because the black Jesus is strictly Old Testament when it comes to exacting revenge. Time and time again he metes out the punishment to anyone who dares to cheek him, challenge him, or merely disappoint him. The slightest of slights is the trigger for immediate and terrible war. Anything you say or do may be taken down and used against you in the court of Jordan. He ends up with a list of suspects longer than J Edgar Hoover in the FBI.
BJ Armstrong was part of the Bulls first three-in-a-row team. In the 1998 play-offs he had the temerity to play brilliantly for the Charlotte Hornets against the Bulls in game two. And the Hornets had the folly to celebrate an unexpected victory. Armstrong's performance against his old comrades is noted; so are the celebrations. Game three, the Bulls' pre-match huddle, Jordan has words. The camera crew that's been shadowing them all season eavesdrops. What's he saying? "Payback's a muthafucka." That's what he's saying. Jordan makes the Hornets pay, and then some.
In scenes like this, another biblical reference comes to mind. It is the passage adapted from the Book of Ezekiel that Samuel L Jackson made famous in Tarantino's 1994 film Pulp Fiction.
"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men . . . AND I WILL STRIKE DOWN UPON THEM WITH GREAT VENGEANCE AND FURIOUS ANGER THOSE WHO ATTEMPT TO POISON AND DESTROY MY BROTHERS! AND YOU WILL KNOW MY NAME IS THE LAW WHEN I LAY MY VENGEANCE UPON THEE!" Bang. Bang. Bang.
No one escapes his all-seeing eye. If The Last Dance has whitewashed Jordan as alleged, the painters did not do a thorough job. There are scabs of ugliness peppered all over the wall. The portrait includes images of Jordan the paranoid, the petty-minded, the bully. He is shown mocking Jerry Krause. He is shown at practice belittling Scott Burrell, a squad player who is not meeting the Jordan standard. "Why you keep fuckin' up that play you big fat-headed muthafucka?" "Shoot a lay-up, you dumbass!"
Jud Buechler was on the Bulls roster between 1994 and '98. "People were afraid of him," he says. "We were his teammates and we were afraid of him. There was just fear." Will Perdue has his say. "Let's not get it wrong: he was an asshole, he was a jerk, he crossed the line numerous times."
BJ Armstrong repeats the question he is asked by his interviewer: "Was he a nice guy?" He takes a long pause before answering. "It couldn't have been nice. With that kind of mentality he had, you can't be a nice guy. He was difficult."
This is in episode seven. The question is put to Jordan by Hehir. But it is not just a personal question for him. It is an ethical question for sport in general, and indeed for anyone in a leadership position in any walk of life. At what point does demanding higher standards from your colleagues cross over into an abuse of power?
Jordan's vast portfolio of performances conferred on him unassailable moral authority in the locker room. And it wasn't just his extravagant talent, it was his monstrous work ethic too. He was playing around 100 games a season. He rarely got injured, he never coasted, he never switched off. He was the embodiment of absolute competitive integrity. He famously poured himself body and soul into every training session, every match, every season. And by demanding the same again from his teammates, he forced them to maximise their potential too. In dragging the best out of them, they also retired with their NBA titles, their money in the bank, their names in the record books. Do they resent him for it now? There's for and against, we don't know.
It could be argued that he wasn't interested per se in helping them maximise their potential. It was in his self-interest to do so because he needed them to give their best in order for him to fulfil his obsession with winning. As much as he tried to do it all on his own, it was still a team game. He had Scottie Pippen riding shotgun and Pippen was a pillar he could rely on through thick and thin. But most of the others? They were the supporting cast and if they didn't perform, they would cost him. So he cracked the whip, he flogged them into history too.
Episode seven begins with the story of the murder of his father, James Jordan, in the summer of 1993. James rarely if ever missed one of his son's games. He had been a mentor, a guardian, an ever-present source of comfort when the pressures of fame and the savage demands of the game crowded in on his son. And yet it is only when the allegations about his behaviour are put to Jordan, that he becomes emotional.
"Winning has a price," he replies. "And leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn't wanna be pulled. I challenged people when they don't wanna be challenged. And I earned that right. You ask all my teammates (and they will say), 'The one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn't fuckin' do'. . . . . When people see this (they may say), 'Well, he wasn't really a nice guy, he may have been a tyrant'. Well that's you, because you never won anything."
This is the only time in the film we see Jordan out of his comfort zone. His eyes start to well up, his voice wavers. He holds his hands up, fingers splayed, palms facing the camera as if defending himself. "Look, I don't have to do this (explain himself). I'm only doing this because it is who I am. That's how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don't want to play that way, don't play that way." He moves forward in his chair, tears are imminent. "Break." End of interview session.
Whilst Jordan talks about the price of winning and the price of leadership, Steve Kerr refers to another toll the superstar had to pay - the price of fame. Kerr was a widely-admired teammate. "Michael lived a different life than the rest of us - out of necessity," he says. "He couldn't live that normal life. It's very difficult to reach him emotionally."
Dennis Rodman - never was a hedonist so well-named - is lifting weights one day during the 1997/'98 season. Rodman has had dozens of scrapes with the all-consuming beast that is modern celebrity. "The thing about this that people don't understand," he says in the gym that day, "is it's just not basketball that we have to deal with on this team. It's the pressure of . . ." And here he struggles for the precise term, the mot juste. It's the pressure "of . . . of . . . of the bullshit! You know? I'll play the game for free, but you get paid for the bullshit after you leave the floor. The public pressure, the media pressure."
From the minute Jordan left his room every day, he would not have a private moment until he could close the door again. Partly it was thrust upon him purely by the enormity of his talent and the scale of his achievements. And partly it was a Faustian pact with fame - the surrender of his privacy in return for astronomical commercial earnings. As with everything else, he couldn't do it by halves. If he was going to "get paid for the bullshit", he was going to get paid an emperor's fortune.
Nike were still a small company when he signed a deal with them in 1984. They created a new shoe in his name, the Air Jordan, and in so doing gave birth to the brand that would make him as rich as Croesus. David Falk was his agent at the time. Nike's revenue projections back then, he says, were relatively tame. They hoped to have sold $3m worth of Air Jordans by the end of year four. "In year one we sold $126m."
Now he was Michael Jordan, American capitalist. He wasn't just selling runners, he was selling the game of basketball; Jordan became the figurehead for a global explosion in the game's appeal. But ultimately it wasn't just the Bulls he was selling, or sneakers or basketball - he was pitching America to the world. He had crossed over into the popular culture internationally, and would remain there to this day.
Last Sunday, in tandem with the final episodes of The Last Dance, Sotheby's launched an online auction for a pair of the original sneakers, worn by Jordan in a game in his rookie season, and autographed by him. They were sold for a record-breaking $560,000.
Jump back to 1998; it is summertime and the orchestra is playing the last waltz. The Bulls lead 3-2 going into game six against the Utah Jazz in the NBA finals. But the champions are an ageing force: Pippen's back is crocked, Jordan is exhausted by another monumental campaign, and weary in his bones from the accumulated years on the road. A seventh game might well be one game too far. The Jazz lead by three with 41 seconds left. Jordan immediately replies, driving to the basket for the lay-up. Utah still lead by one and have possession. Jordan is thinking clearly; he is reading the play; he knows it's going to their commander-in-chief, Karl Malone. And he strips Malone of the ball; he blindsides him and slaps it out of his hands; it is the turnover to end all turnovers. He brings the ball down-court. A point behind but he's in no hurry. He is looking for options, everyone is looking at his options, but Rodman is there on the court and he knows there is only one option.
"I knew it! I said (to myself), 'He's gonna shoot this fucker. He is not gonna pass this fuckin' ball'. Hell no, this is his turn." Six seconds left, he darts and brakes, throwing the player guarding him completely off balance. The jump, the shot, the net. They win it by one. The Bulls have their sixth NBA title, Jordan his sixth MVP award from six finals played.
Cue the Champagne and big cigars one more time. But one of the greatest travelling roadshows in the history of American sport has played its last arena. Jordan retires, Phil Jackson is replaced, Pippen is traded, Rodman is released, Kerr is traded.
There is no blanket consensus among basketball's cognoscenti as to which player is the greatest ever - but it appears that Jordan would win a large majority of the votes.
For those of us who heard of the legend from across the Atlantic, without actually seeing much of it at the time, The Last Dance is a revelation, a protracted study in a force of nature who inhabited that rarefied space above mere greatness. It is a troubling portrait at times because it demonstrates that in demanding excellence, sport's culture can facilitate the autocratic assertion of power by those who excel beyond all others. It mandates it as an entitlement for those who plant their flag at the peak of this Darwinian pyramid.
Michael Jordan at one level was just another one-dimensional jock. He was good at the dressing room banter and wisecracks and one-liners. But at another, he was infinitely more than that; he was a master of the universe. And what separated him from other stupendously-talented contemporaries was this omnivorous will to dominate and prevail. Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher, coined a phrase that became part of intellectual discourse, "the will to power". We only know about this because Woody Allen once joked that Nietzsche was "the Michael Jordan of philosophers, fun, charismatic, dramatic, great all-round game."
One wonders if Nietzsche had been around in the 1990s and was daft enough to take an interest in sport, would he have seen in Jordan an embodiment of the will to power. And would George Bernard Shaw have seen in him the superman from the title of his play Man and Superman? It was partly inspired, apparently, by Nietzsche's idea of the superman, the Übermensch. And what about The Fountainhead, the 1943 novel by the Russian-American author Ayn Rand? She had studied Nietzsche too. Her protagonist, Howard Roark, refuses utterly to compromise for anybody. He is "self-sufficient, self-generated. A first cause, a fount of energy, a life force, a prime mover." Was Jordan a version of Roark in singlet and shorts?
And what of him now, 22 years after he stood one last time on top of the mountain? If he was angry then, at the way the team was broken up, perhaps he accepts now that he had no more worlds left to conquer? Nah, of course not. Why? "Because we could have won seven." As if that would have made him happy.
Sunday Indo Sport