As we kick off this week’s installments of ‘The Last Dance,’ Michael Jordan is the league’s elder statesman and undisputed king. At the 1998 All-Star Game, Larry Bird is his coach, and Magic Johnson is a TV commentator. The men whose feats Jordan once strove to match are long gone from the court, and a 19-year-old Kobe Bryant — the event’s youngest-ever competitor — is nipping at his heels. (Leading to some hilarious pot/kettle locker-room banter where an indignant Jordan preaches about Kobe’s ball-hogging.) He glad-hands and breezily shit-talks before and after the game, loose as a high school senior in May. He walks away with an appropriate 23 points and his third All-Star MVP award.
It’s a far cry from where we’ll end Episode Six, with Jordan staring down the 1998 playoffs, relaxed but tired of fame, of expectations, of performance on a public stage. The ebullient kid who dominated the series’ early episodes is on the other side of his arc now, having suffered the slings and arrows of his outrageous fortune. His hero’s journey is in its twilight. But we know there’s still time for heroics.
“It’s Gotta Be the Shoes”
Do we have Jordan to thank for sneaker culture? Arguably. Though credit should perhaps go to his agent. Or to his mom. As Episode Five details, the marketing juggernaut that was Michael Jordan began when David Falk met the phenom in 1984, and the agent’s eyeballs turned into dollar signs. Falk’s idea was to take the rookie and, though he was a team-sport athlete, treat him (bear with us here, kids) like a Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe — the endorsement icons of the day.
Falk shuttled young Mike to meetings at Converse, which at the time had a deal with Johnson and Bird, among other NBA stars. (The company made them sing for their supper, too, in a horrible “rap” jingle with lines written, presumably, by the whitest ad man on all of Madison Avenue.) Then it was onto Adidas, Jordan’s first choice. Both companies passed.
When it was time to visit Nike’s campus in Oregon, MJ dug in his heels — until his mother, Deloris, got involved. “She made me get on that plane and go listen,” a now 57-year-old Jordan says, a hint of sheepishness still in his voice at the memory. He walked out with a $250,000 deal (more than double the going rate for a big-name athlete at the time) and a guarantee secured by Falk that he would have his own shoe line. Say what you will about agents, but this one’s earned his keep. After hearing about Nike’s new “air sole” technology for its running shoes, Falk even came up with a name for the line: Air Jordan.
The rest is hypebeast history. Nas and Justin Timberlake show up to verify what a monumental deal the shoe was to Nineties kids. So, too, does Spike Lee, whose famous black and white commercials featuring his She’s Gotta Have It character Mars Blackmon — who repeatedly pesters MJ, “It’s gotta be the shoes!” — became a sensation in their own right.
While to this day Jordan reportedly rakes in more than $100 million a year from Nike alone, the shoes represent more than money, or even style, to him. For that 1998 All-Star Game, he donned the very first pair of Jordan 1s he ever owned — classic red, black, and white. It was a sentimental move from a historically unsentimental guy. He was stepping on the hardwood at his favorite venue, Madison Square Garden, for what he knew would be his final All-Star appearance. The dated shoe technology couldn’t stand up to the beating the sneakers would take during the game, but Jordan, despite the pain, kept them on. By game’s end, his feet were bleeding.
“This Is the Nineties”
As the episodes zero in on 1992 and 1993, we see Jordan find motivation, as ever, in a series of perceived slights. Heading into the 1992 finals versus the Portland Trailblazers, he was more or less statistically tied with that team’s star, Clyde Drexler. But when Drexler dared put himself on the same level in an interview, MJ bristled. Playing cards with Magic Johnson the night before Game One, Jordan told his friend, “I’ma give it to this dude.” The next day, he fired off five threes — turning to Johnson at the broadcast table with an exaggerated “Who, me?” shrug each time — on his way to a championship-record 35 points in the first half.
In the 1993 finals against the Phoenix Suns, it was Dan Majerle who earned Jordan’s scorn — through no fault of his own. For the misfortune of being one of Bulls GM Jerry Krause’s favorite players, Majerle, tasked with guarding MJ, was routinely posterized. And then there was the Suns’ Charles Barkley, the league’s MVP that year. Jordan was “a little upset,” he says now, that he didn’t take that honor for the third year in a row. “But with that said, ‘OK, fine, you can have that. I’m gonna get this.’” “This” being his second straight NBA title.
Even at the 1992 Olympics, essentially an exhibition for the first American squad composed of pros, Jordan prowled like an electric eel, always ready to attack. He rallied the team to humiliate Toni Kukoc, then a promising Croatian star who Krause was trying to lure to Chicago while Scottie Pippen’s contract negotiations lagged. But even the other Dream Teamers (a collection of All-Stars notably absent of Jordan enemy Isiah Thomas) weren’t safe. During a practice scrimmage in Monte Carlo, Johnson and Jordan, on opposing squads, jawed at each other throughout. It was a heated battle, until Johnson went too far: “If you don’t turn into Air Jordan, we’re gonna blow you out.” Jordan’s retort: “This is the Nineties!” Translation: I own this decade. He took over the game, running roughshod over everyone. The bus ride home from the practice facility was pin-drop quiet, until Magic cracked, “I guess we shouldn’t have pissed the man off!”
“He never wants to just beat you,” Johnson says today. “He wants to put his foot on your neck.”
“It’s Never Gonna Be Enough for Everybody”
While Jordan’s star was brighter than ever in the early Nineties — amid a montage of celebrity gawkers and gobsmacked, screaming crowds outside of arenas around the country, one security guard quips, “This is a Pope and Jesus phenomenon” — behind the scenes he was growing tense, as media pressure mounted. Chicago Tribune sportswriter Sam Smith published an expose, The Jordan Rules, which detailed MJ’s cutthroat intensity and bullying of his teammates. And a series of missteps began to erode the public’s goodwill.
He refused to endorse Harvey Gant, a Democrat running for Senate in his home state of North Carolina against the long-serving arch conservative (read: racist) Jesse Helms. Gant would have been the state’s first black Senator. But Jordan, despite his own mother’s pleas, wasn’t comfortable speaking in favor of someone he didn’t know. He donated to Gant’s campaign but his engagement stopped there. An unfortunate quip made on the team bus — “Republicans buy sneakers too” — made him seem cold and mercenary.
The incident has remained a stain on Jordan’s reputation (a very diplomatic Barack Obama here gently registers the disappointment he felt in Jordan as a young fan), though he seems comfortable with his decision to steer clear of politics. “I never thought of myself as an activist,” he says. “I thought of myself as a basketball player. That was where my energy was. It’s never gonna be enough for everybody. I know that, I realize that.”
The scandal with less staying power but more potency at the time, however, swirled around Jordan’s gambling habit. In 1991, Jordan was called to testify in the drug and money laundering trial of a “golf hustler” to whom he’d written a check for $57,000. Against that backdrop, more drama unfolded. After a Game Two loss to the Knicks in the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, it was reported that Jordan had been out in Atlantic City the night before until 2 AM. Around the same time, another damning book was published, Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction… My Cry for Help. Its author, Richard Esquinas, claimed Jordan owed him $1.2 million in gambling debts.
The league investigated its star and found no cause for concern (as sports reporter David Aldridge points out, a $10,000 bet for Michael is a $1 bet for the rest of us), but the story snowballed. Jordan did interview after interview where he repeatedly defended his behavior. When Connie Chung asks him point-blank if he thinks he has a gambling problem, he replies: “No. Because I can stop gambling. I have a competition problem.”
The episodes, of course, bear this out. Here is Jordan betting on holes of golf with friends. Here is Jordan playing dice with United Center security — before a game! For money! If there was a contest, he wanted in, and he wanted the satisfaction of not just taking your pride but taking your cash. As Will Purdue recounts, Jordan would sometimes leave his own thousand-dollar card games at the back of the team plane to crash the considerably more PG blackjack rounds being played up front among Purdue, John Paxson, and BJ Armstrong: “Paxson says, ‘Why the hell would you want to play with us? We’re playing for a dollar a hand.’ He says, ‘Because I wanna say I got your money in my pocket.’”
But it’s all part and parcel with the Jordan we know on the court, the one who fights through the external chaos to wrest a third straight title from the Suns in ’93, the one who doesn’t want anyone in control but him. Heading to the United Center for a playoff game on a rainy day in 1998, he muses about retirement with his friend Ahmad Rashad: “I don’t wanna miss my time to go. A lotta players say ‘I’m gonna play till I can’t play ever again.’ Patrick [Ewing] said one time that they’d have to carry him off the court. I said, ‘Sh— ain’t nobody gonna carry me off the court, I wanna walk off the court.’”