He looked sort of surprised by the question. Then Michael Jordan started answering and he sounded ticked. His words becoming more direct and resolute as he explained the conflict between his competitive drive and his interactions with teammates.
He ended in tears and at that moment, he looked … hurt.
What stirred that emotion?
That powerful scene was left open to interpretation, but ESPN’s remarkable documentary “The Last Dance,” which re-examines the traveling circus that was Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, can be distilled into the final four minutes of Episode 7 that aired Sunday night.
Jordan’s legendary competitiveness has been a central theme throughout the 10-part series, but his relationship with teammates received fresh treatment and led to the most poignant moment when Jordan was asked whether he thinks his intensity came at the expense of being viewed as a nice guy.
His answer, condensed: “You ask all my teammates, the one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn’t [expletive] do. When people see this, they’re going to say, ‘Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.’ Well, that’s you because you never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well.
“Look, I don’t have to do this [presumably talking about the documentary]. I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I play the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.”
At that point, fighting back tears, he says, “Break,” and the interview ends.
Now, a skeptic would note that Jordan had editorial input in the documentary, so this was his way of crafting a certain message to create a desired image. Maybe there’s some truth in that. But his reaction also felt authentically raw, as if he felt stung by having to justify the manner in which he arrived at being a champion and the greatest basketball player ever. (Sorry LeBron fans. Nothing will change my opinion in that debate.)
“Last Dance” lays bare Jordan’s extreme competitiveness, which comes across as obsessive. Personal grudges — especially against former GM Jerry Krause and Isiah Thomas — have not softened over time. Contempt for certain characters is still evident in Jordan’s voice.
“He wasn’t asking us to be Michael Jordan. But he was asking us to bring the same type of intensity and energy and effort every single day to the jobs that we were supposed to do so that we could help the team win.”
He used personal slights, real or made up, to stoke his competitive rage. He wanted to rip out Dan Majerle’s heart in the 1993 Finals because Krause had the audacity to hold a favorable opinion of the Suns All-Star. His list of paybacks grows longer with each episode. That revelation is comical because it shows the depths he mined for motivation.
Jordan’s handling of teammates has been particularly fascinating. He was unrelenting in his demands, of himself and teammates. In today’s world, he’d be labeled a bully. He could be cold, mean-spirited. To be his teammate required thick skin. One teammate said guys feared him.
Former Gophers great Trent Tucker shared a locker room with Jordan for one season, 1992-93, the final act of the Bulls’ first championship three-peat. Tucker already had played 10 NBA seasons, engaging in many battles against Jordan as a member of the New York Knicks, so he had respect from Day 1. But experiencing that intensity in person every day brought new perspective. He appreciated Jordan’s approach.
“Being a teammate, he forced us to get to that level,” Tucker said last week. “He wasn’t asking us to be Michael Jordan. But he was asking us to bring the same type of intensity and energy and effort every single day to the jobs that we were supposed to do so that we could help the team win.”
Bingo, his pursuit of greatness defined. Jordan wasn’t the first or only athlete to push teammates hard. Think Tom Brady is always easy to play with?
Leadership takes on many forms. Positivity works for some guys. Others lead by quiet example. In Jordan’s case, he pushed and prodded, and even punched Steve Kerr in one practice.
Only one thing mattered. Winning.
Did that justify the means? Perhaps that’s why Jordan became emotional when asked about being a nice guy. Ultimately, who cares and why should he apologize? He showed teammates how to be champions.