"No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which is true." - Nathaniel Hawthorne
"O.J. like, 'I'm not black, I'm O.J.' Okay." - Jay-Z
It always feels like the intersection of sports, race and politics is something new, but, of course, it stretches behind all of us.
The first football stadium I ever went to was named for Jack Trice. He was the first African-American to play football at Iowa State. In his second collegiate game, on October 6, 1923, he faced the Gophers at Northrop Field in Minneapolis.
The night before the game, he wrote these words: "My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life: The honor of my race, family & self is at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will! My whole body and soul are to be thrown recklessly about the field tomorrow. Every time the ball is snapped, I will be trying to do more than my part. On all defensive plays I must break through the opponents' line and stop the play in their territory. Beware of mass interference. Fight low, with your eyes open and toward the play. Watch out for crossbucks and reverse end runs. Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good. Jack."
The game was vicious and afterwards Trice was taken to a hospital. He had broken his collarbone in the first half and was stomped on by several players on a roll block in the second half. Doctors examined him and sent him home on the team bus. He died two days later from internal bleeding.
I never knew that story when I was a kid.
I just knew that Jack Trice Stadium was where I went and watched Iowa State play football. I never knew about Michael Jordan's politics, or lack thereof, when I was growing up, either. I learned about them later as his influence over my point of view diminished and others took his place. Maybe it diminished because I grew to view him as apolitical. A brand without a conscious.
My world view started to turn towards trying to comprehend the injustice, pain and confusion of the African-American experience that seemed to be running right alongside my life of contentedness. And I started to question my own race and the advantages of being white.
I latched onto Spike Lee's 'Do the Right Thing' so tightly that it was the first DVD I ever bought. It still sits on my shelf, a two-disc Criterion Collection with an essay by Roger Ebert from the Cannes Film Festival.
A few years ago, when I heard the opening notes of Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp a Butterfly' I felt like, finally, a musician had turned that film into an album. The first music that drove a wedge between my parents and me was 2Pac's 'All Eyez on Me' a record so ecstatically arrogant, violent, confused, misogynistic, vulnerable and vicious that when I listened to it riding on a bus through the Iowa countryside in fifth grade, my mind split open.
When my father heard the lyrics, so did his.
I went through college and learned about Charles Mingus and 'A Love Supreme' by John Coltrane and I dove headfirst into Stevie Wonder and Kanye West and D'Angelo and Erykah Badu and the Roots. With pride I can say that I prefer 'Speakerboxxx' to 'The Love Below'.
I have read Claudia Rankine and Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin and Tracy K. Smith. My favorite record of the past decade is 'The Big Fish Theory' by Vince Staples. But even better was his discussion about the internal dynamics of the rap music industry on Ebro in the Morning.
I have tried to learn what I can about a culture that I am not a part of but is vital to any understanding I might have of the country I live in. And I think, no I know, that these things have changed me, have shaped who I am, have made my eyes wider and more open to my own failings and shortcomings when it comes to equality.
But I also know that I can sit here tonight, and type with clarity, that I have done nothing of substance to better the situation. I have voted for politicians who fit my view of a more just society and I have donated time to charities that try and help people live in a more just society. Some people would say that's something.
I know, in the quiet of night, what it would mean to truly sacrifice for equality, for the betterment of others who I do not know, who are not my family or my friends but are none the less identical to me, and I know I have not made that sacrifice. I have not come close. And for my adult life that has been a private struggle.
The intersection of race and the individual in society is as private as religion, but for a minority role model in the public eye, it is rarely as private as it is for their white counterparts.
Michael Jordan's decision to not endorse North Carolina Democratic nominee Harvey Gantt in his race for the United States Senate against Jesse Helms in 1990 has been cast against him for his entire life.
President Barack Obama says of Jordan's decision: "I'll be honest that when it was reported that Michael said, 'Republicans buy sneakers, too,' for somebody who was at the time preparing for a career in civil rights law and public life, and knowing what Jesse Helms stood for, you would have liked to see Michael push harder for that. On the other hand, he was still trying to figure out how am I managing this image that has been created around me, and how do I live up to it?"
Jordan says, "I never thought of myself as an activist, I thought of myself as a basketball player."
When I heard him say those words on Sunday night, I wanted to deny him that separation of responsibility. I wanted to justify my judgment.
But inside, I knew better.
Remember the old days, when basketball players had to compete with golfers and tennis players for the almighty advertising dollar? Nike does! The incredible job that Jason Hehir did with this documentary over the first four episodes was to widen the scope out past Michael Jordan and onto his teammates and the collection of coaches and front office management that shaped the narrative arc of his career with the Bulls.
Now he is zeroing back in on the main thread, which is the one-of-a-kind, all-encompassing insanity of what it was like to be Michael Jordan in the 1990s.
But first we jump back to 1985 when Nike executive Howard White expresses the thoughts of hundreds of executives when he describes Nike's decision to give Jordan $250,000 to sign with them and develop the Air Jordan sneaker: "You will pay him what? A young rookie? That has done nothing! You must be out of your mind."
Once again Deloris Jordan provides a humane glimpse at her son by explaining how she forcefully convinced him to take a meeting with Nike when all he wanted was a sneaker deal with Adidas. Instead he signs with Nike, then McDonalds and then becomes a global marketing icon as his legend grows on the court.
Jordan, just as he refuses to give Jerry Krause any real credit for the Bulls' success, is quick to point out that the only reason the advertising deals worked was because of his play. "My game was my biggest endorsement," he says.
But in all fairness, the Nike commercials with Spike Lee and Gatorade jingles did help.
It's hard to say what was the bigger mistake in '85, Adidas passing on Jordan or the Trailblazers passing on Jordan? Speaking of the Blazers, we are thrust back into the 1992 Finals where Jordan hits six three-pointers in the first half of Game 1. The shrug is one of the greatest moments of Jordan's career. It says so much about his understanding of his own image that it wasn't one of his shots that defined that era of his career, but his reaction to it.
After the Bulls defeat Portland in six games, we get a glimpse of the inner workings of the Dream Team at the '92 Olympics and we learn that the only person Jordan hated more than Isiah Thomas was Toni Kukoc (or, perhaps, Kukoc by way of Jerry Krause). There's something so telling about listening to Jordan talk about how his first impressions of Kukoc were shaped not by anything Kukoc had done or said or intimated, but instead by the stories around Kukoc -- things that were completely out of Kukoc's control.
That Jordan and Pippen could weaponize that anger so easily says, well, some unhealthy things about their competitiveness. It is around this time that we start to see the cracks coming in the facade of Jordan on a national level, most of it stemming from that competitiveness.
"You have to be clean, you have to be Teflon, you've got to be completely spotless as a person," Andrea Kremer says about Jordan's image. "And no human being is like that."
Once again we learn that Hehir could have made this documentary 20 hours long because I could have used an additional hour or two on Slim Bouler and Richard Esquinas, two men who were good at winning money from Michael Jordan while golfing. Jordan says it took him a while to learn the true personalities of these two men, but I will say that their names do give a little bit away.
If someone were to put a list of names in front of me and ask me to pick out the golf hustlers, I would probably choose Slim Bouler and Richard Esquinas.
I liked that Esquinas referred to it as "our gambling addiction" when discussing Jordan and himself on the golf course. That feels a bit presumptuous to me, just because I get drunk at a bar doesn't mean that every other person at the bar is a part of my alcohol addiction.
On the other hand, Jordan owed him $1.2 million at one point, so, okay, maybe it's a little fair.
NBA Commissioner David Stern sees it differently, saying of Jordan's gambling, "It never reached epic, crisis level, in my view." Never let it be said that David Stern didn't have a forgiving heart when it came to the most lucrative star in the history of sports!
Jordan is asked if he has a gambling addiction to which he says, "Do I like blackjack? Yeah I like playing blackjack."
Look there's no question that Jordan is addicted to any form of competition for any dollar amount, but so what? William Shakespeare had an addiction to writing in rhyme, we're all okay with the tradeoff. The only reason we even really care about Jordan's gambling is because of a few published books and the fact that he went to Atlantic City the night before a big playoff game in New York against the Knicks and stayed out playing blackjack until 2:30 a.m.
As Jordan would say, "Do I like blackjack? Yeah I like playing blackjack."
The Bulls fall behind 2-0 to the Knicks, but rally to win the series before topping the Suns in six games to win a third straight NBA title. Unfortunately the thing that seemed to motivate Jordan to that title -- the media's unending quest to poke holes in his squeaky clean image -- is also what is wearing him down.
"Physically I was getting exhausted," Jordan says. "But mentally I was way beyond exhausted."
Phil Jackson says of that 1993 season, "This has been a very hard and trying time, this has been a tough year." Jordan closes the episode: "If I had a chance to do it all over again, I would never want to be considered a role model. It's like a game that's stacked against me. There is no way that I can win."
This documentary argues otherwise.
Grade: 9.1 out of 10
1. The Kobe Bryant material from the 1998 All-Star game was heartbreaking and so sweet at the same time. It made me wish I paid closer attention to the All-Star game. There's no doubt they really do mean something to the players, especially the guys coming up. I skipped the All-Star game this season, which apparently was one of the best ever. I'd pay $500 to watch a real, live NBA game right now.
2. Jordan roasts Gary Payton after the All-Star game. "See you in the Finals, hopefully," Jordan says. "Y'all gonna be there!" Payton replies. "Oh I know we will." Jordan says. ROASTED. The Sonics did make the playoffs that season and beat the Wolves in five games in the first round. I'd pay $600 to watch a real, live NBA game right now.
3.Jordan is seen lounging in an ad shoot for the first Air Jordans and he's wearing a pair of gray slacks and the deepest v-neck sweater I have ever seen in my life. It's blue and like a thick rolled cardigan v-neck thing. I heard an argument that you always disdain your parents clothing but eventually you start to dress like your grandparents ... and given my absolute in-depth search of the internet to find that sweater, I believe that argument is correct.
4. In 1985 Jordan is as hot as a Cabbage Patch Doll. My parents told me that meant he was VERY HOT.
5. "Larry Bird is not an attractive man." -- My wife, channeling MJ talking about Jerry Krause.
6. Krause: 'Michael, you smoking a cigar?" Jordan: "Yeah." Krause: "Let me have one." Jordan: "You can't smoke it, it'll stunt your growth."
7. Speaking of smoking, how about the gigantic Winston cigarettes ad in the old Chicago Stadium. You gotta love the old days when smoking was an integral part of sports advertising.
8. Michael says of Clyde Drexler. "Clyde was a threat, I'm not saying he wasn't a threat." Two minutes later, Jordan says, "It wasn't even close."
9. MJ strolls into the Barcelona Olympic stadium rocking a a thick cotton t-shirt tucked into athletic shorts, both full scale Zubaz style, with a flat brim hat on?! SOMETIMES I DREAM, THAT HE IS ME.
10. How about Krause? I mean seriously this guy set the precedent for the modern NBA executive. It has to be talked about. He scouts international (Kukoc) to replace expensive veterans (Pippen). He eschews traditional coaching styles for analytics. He believes in tanking. Give this man his due!
11. Jordan rolling through the streets of Barcelona in a car with cloth fabric seats and a little cup of espresso complaining about some executive at Reebok is a whole lifestyle. I'm ready for that lifestyle.
12. Dr. Todd Boyd continues to dominate the glasses game. Phil Jackson could learn a thing or two. Also Boyd says, "There was nothing cool about Jesse Helms," and they cut to a scene of Jesse Helms looking as uncool as a human being can possibly look.
13. Speaking of Phil Jackson, at one point he's wearing a black polo tucked into jeans while trying to coach. Phil's body is a marvel. He looks like a camel came to walk upright and study Zen.
14. Jordan's locker room posse is iconic. The security guard has a Dave Coulier mullet on steroids. Everyone is 60-plus. Jordan hangs back like it's the coolest kids in class, flicking quarters and giving no quarter to anyone while he hands out comp tickets to games. I love it.
15. A Bulls executive says that the 1998 season was the most in-demand ticket in sports history and to illustrate this we cut to GARY SINISE. I will say this, Sinise absolutely cooked in that movie where they steal Mel Gibson's kid. GIVE ME BACK MY SON! How about give Gary a ticket or two, I get it.
<.>16. Some more celebs: Sinbad, Danny DeVito, Drew Barrymore (legit on fire celeb at the time), Bill Murray (always), Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice, Muhammad Ali, John Cusack (eternal), Prince, Spike Lee, Seinfeld.
17. Comedians in Locker Rooms Talking Hoops!
18. A little quarantine connection when Jordan, surrounded by incessant fan requests and sequestered in his hotel says, "You're confined to this room. I'm ready to get out of this life." Talk to me, Mike.
19. This documentary has given a lot of play to sports journalists and so far my power rankings go: 1. Sam Smith. 2. Everyone else. Smith had everyone talking!
20. Is it too late for Al Pacino to play Pat Riley in a bio-pic?
21. Connie Chung interviews Jordan while wearing, what appears to be, a Georgia O'Keefe painting.
22. How about MJ wearing shades to the Ahmad Rashad interview? "If I had a [gambling] problem, I would be hocking this watch," he says while looking like someone who just hocked a watch.
23. Has any player in the history of sports embodied the personality of their home team more than Dan Majerle? That man is made out of the red rocks of Arizona.
24. Jordan and Ron Harper riding all weird front-to-back on the golf cart needed further examination but Hehir keeps rolling.
25. "Don't take it personally, Charles!" Whoever that kid is, feel proud. What a phenomenal burn. Take note, kids. You can absolutely roast someone without cursing.