Mark Elias, AP Photo, File

Kobe, Dream Team and celebrity: Episodes 5-6 of ESPN's 'Last Dance' explores global rise of His Airness

By Sean Walker, KSL.com | Posted - May 3, 2020 at 10:11 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — Michael Jordan was a basketball superstar.

But he became something much larger than basketball.

Episodes five and six of the multi-million viewer ESPN documentary “The Last Dance” focused on Jordan’s rise from all-star basketball player to all-around celebrity superstar — arguably the biggest name, regardless of sport or profession, in the world.

It set up the Bulls’ first three-peat championship dynasty, one that would fail to be repeated until the 1997-98 season chronicled over the 10-hour series on ESPN and Netflix internationally. And it began with Jordan’s relationship with Kobe Bryant, the late global superstar whose interview served as a dedicatory backdrop to the fifth episode.

“He was like my big brother,” Bryant said of his relationship with his Airness. “What you get from me is from him. I won’t get five championships here without him. He gave me so much.”

The interview with Bryant was filmed in mid-January, just a week prior to his tragic death in a helicopter accident that claimed the lives of seven other individuals and his daughter Gigi. It also only needed one take, according to film director Jason Hehir.

“To hear Kobe in that scene say he’s (Michael) like my big brother and then to have Michael give that famous speech that he gave at Kobe’s memorial service, saying, ‘Rest in peace, little brother,’ it just shows you how genuine that relationship was between the two of them,” Hehir told The Athletic. “That scene is so much more poignant now and it was such a cool scene to begin with.”

Beyond his relationships, the series jumped back to 1992 and the creation, rise and sheer domination of the Dream Team at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

The team is now known for its veritable band of all-stars billed as the “greatest ever assembled.” But it was also notable for who wasn’t on the roster: namely, Isiah Thomas, Jordan’s longtime nemesis and archetype of the “Bad Boy Pistons.”

The squad was a veritable who’s who of NBA stars: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley.

But there was never a doubt who was the team’s real star, the full-time leader.

“Me. I’m going to take the last shot. That’s a stupid question,” Jordan says in one clip from archived footage.

Three decades later, there’s no question. And even with 30 years of hindsight, no team has equalled the ‘92 Dream Team or Jordan’s role in expanding international basketball for the rest of his career.

Everybody wanted to “be like Mike.”

But the newfound celebrity also brought social issues to the forefront of Jordan’s career. His refusal to visibly support legislative nominee Harvey Gantt against Republican Sen. Jesse Helms was seen a slight in an era long before “stick to sports” became a cultural meme.

“The way that I go about my life is that I set examples,” Jordan said. “If it inspires you,great; I will continue to do that. If it doesn’t, then maybe I’m not the person that you should be following.”

Other players wanted to beat him — or join him. Celebrities wanted to be near him. Every fan in North America — maybe even the world — sold out to catch just a glimpse of him.

It seems like everyone wanted a piece of Michael Jordan.

Everyone, that is, except for this guy — a security guard at the United Center in Chicago who took MJ’s money off a bet and then hit the internet with the latest meme-worthy moment of the 10-hour documentary.

That was John Michael Wozniak, a former United Center employee and U.S. Army veteran who died in January at the age of 69, according to Jordan’s spokesperson and this funeral home listing.

It was a lighthearted moment, but it also highlighted another vice that began to rear its head at the height of Jordan’s rise in 1993 (and in Episode 6): his gambling woes. The media latched on to it, and Jordan eventually chose to try to ignore it.

People build you up to tear you down, Jordan said. But Michael Jordan refused to be torn down.

“He has sacrificed to try to satisfy everybody,” Jordan’s father James said. “And after all of that, people still find a way of knocking him. He said, ‘dad, how much is enough?’”

Just like in the ‘93 Eastern Conference finals when Patrick Ewings’ Knicks went up 2-0, Jordan refused to be brought down. The two-time defending champion Bulls advanced to the finals with four-straight wins, and Jordan’s celebrity was only just beginning.

That set-up a three-peat championship, when the Bulls won their third-straight title with a six-game victory over NBA MVP Barkley and the Phoenix Suns. Jordan had so many foes standing in his way of a quest for greatness.

He knockeddown every one.

Every episode of “The Last Dance” can be viewed on WatchESPN and the ESPN app in the United States, and on Netflix internationally beginning Monday.

You can list to the soundtrack of the mini-series on Spotify.

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