Being Michael Jordan’s teammate meant there was a good chance your season ended with a championship parade. It also meant you could become the man’s personal punching bag without warning.
Sunday’s episodes of “The Last Dance” delved into Jordan’s brand of leadership, which was put into simple terms by former Bulls teammate Will Perdue.
“Let’s not get it wrong. He was an a—hole. He was a jerk,” Perdue said. “He crossed the line numerous times. But as time goes on and you think back about what he was trying to accomplish, yeah, he was a hell of a teammate.”
Jordan berated Scott Burrell. He punched Steve Kerr in the eye. He struck fear into the hearts of his teammates when he walked into the gym like a great white shark that smelled blood in the water.
Practice footage from Episode 7 featured Jordan firing off the following one-liners:
- “Garbage. Don’t bring that bulls—.”
- “Shoot a layup, you dumbass!”
- “Go sit your asses down! Gametime!”
- “That’s nine, b—!”
- “Make this free throw, ho.”
More than 20 years removed from his final season with the Bulls, Jordan was asked about his leadership style and how he may never be viewed as a “nice guy.” His response gave ESPN’s documentary series arguably its most powerful moment through eight episodes.
“When people see this, they’re gonna 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. I don’t have to do this. I’m only doing it 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, don’t play that way. Break.”
Following the airing of Episodes 7 and 8, ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt asked former Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong about that particular moment. Armstrong had a unique perspective on Jordan after playing both with him and against him, famously providing extra motivation for Jordan as a member of the Hornets during the semifinal round of the 1998 NBA playoffs.
“I was always a little nervous about this because for those who knew him — and we can all say he’s competitive, and he was hard, and all those things — the truth of it is, the core of if we really pull this back, you saw a man. You saw a person that really loved the game,” Armstrong said. “It wasn’t about the fame. It wasn’t about all the little things that came with it. Yes, he was this Air Jordan character and figure, but truthfully, he loved it.
“I can see how you could say, ‘Yeah, maybe he was tough to play with.’ When you peeked inside, and you saw that someone cared that much about the game of basketball, it always remained first and foremost in his life. And that is what I knew about him then, that’s what I know about him now.”
“The Last Dance” has shown us sides of Jordan we’ve never seen before, but it also leaves some questions on the table.
Jordan “pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled,” but how many times was it really necessary? Could he have learned something from Scottie Pippen, who was there to pick up teammates far more often than Jordan? Do the ends always justify the means? In that final sequence, was Jordan trying to convince the viewers, his teammates or himself that his mentality was the only way to achieve his goals?
The call for a break left that topic behind, but it was a fascinating look into the mind of the ultimate competitor. For better or worse, that’s how Jordan played the game.