ON THE TUBE — The overarching theme of “The Last Dance” about the final season of Michael Jordan’s peak greatness with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-98 is beginning to emerge.
Perhaps the greatest need in Jordan’s career was a nemesis.
Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, always had one — even when many believe he didn’t need it. His drive to compete was so great, that he took any move, any headline, any statement in verbal or body language, any potential rivalry, as the need to get better.
That includes Patrick Ewing and the Knicks, Isiah Thomas and the Pistons, Danny Ainge and the Celtics, Gary Payton and the Sonics, and the 1998 Utah Jazz, which when led by Karl Malone and John Stockton represented the final hurdle toward becoming three-time NBA champions for the second time in Jordan’s Bulls legacy — where the latest “Last Dance” two-episode arc ends.
But though that’s the nemesis that most Utahns remember, there were so many more nemeses than Stockton and Malone.
The latest two-episode arc of the hit 10-part series by ESPN Films and Netflix opened with the shocking murder of James Jordan, Michael’s father, in 1993 — a devastating moment that led to MJ’s first retirement from the NBA. Coming off a run of three-straight titles with the Chicago Bulls, the decision surprised many, but not those closest to Jordan.
“He’s a voice of reason that always drove and challenged me,” Jordan recalled of his father, to whom he referred as a friend.
The announcement was covered by virtually every media outlet, reporter and photographer in the nation. It didn’t take long for rumors involving Jordan, then-commissioner David Stern, and even his gambling habits to spring up in the media.
Both Jordan and Stern deny those rumors to this day.
“I didn’t retire because the league kicked me out or they suspended me for a year and a half,” Jordan said. “That is not true. There’s no truth to that.
“I needed a break. My father just passed. I retired. I retired with the notion that I wasn’t going to come back.”
But one bombshell led to another.
Less than a year later, the Chicago White Sox signed Jordan to a minor-league deal. Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of his generation, was shifting to professional baseball. He was fulfilling his father’s wishes.
It made sense: Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf was also part-owner of the White Sox, and baseball was always among Jordan’s passions.
One of the final conversations His Airness had with his father involved him playing professional baseball.
“It was always his father’s dream that he be a baseball player,” Reinsdorf said. “So I didn’t try to talk him out of it.”
Jordan was assigned to the Birmingham Barons, a Double-A farm team of the White Sox managed by a young Terry Francona that also had robust enough media and fan facilities to handle the “circus” that would inevitably follow the NBA legend’s transition to the sport of his youth.
“Every ballpark we went to sold out,” Francona said. “Everybody wants a piece of him.”
Every media outlet wanted a piece of him, too. Despite a 13-game hitting streak to open the season, Jordan’s first hitting slump was derided in national media. Sports Illustrated mocked him with a cover in 1994 telling him to “bag it” — even though the writer of the story barely intended to denigrate Jordan, and indeed, never spoke to him in its reporting — and His Airness never spoke to the magazine again.
The intense media scrutiny also may have made Jordan what he became — even after winning three titles. He went on to hit .252 in 120 at-bats in the Arizona Fall League, and probably could’ve been a Major Leaguer with the right time in the sport.
Jordan became what he was because of what he perceived to be “slights” against him throughout his career, whether from his high school coach, Sports Illustrated, former Bulls teammate B.J. Armstrong hitting a game-winner for the Charlotte Hornets, or facing Washington’s LaBradford Smith in a back-to-back series in 1993.
His brief absence, and that mentality, also allowed the Bulls, who struggled in their first season without Jordan, to develop into a more complete team. From Scottie Pippen to Steve Kerr to Toni Kukoc, Chicago basketball took several key strides without Jordan.
That paid off for years, including in the 1998 NBA Playoffs, the last championship of Jordan’s career following his return to basketball.
“Was he a nice guy?” Bulls teammate Armstrong asked rhetorically, pausing for emphasis. “He couldn’t have been nice …. He would be difficult to be around if you didn’t truly love the game of basketball. He was difficult.”
Jordan agreed about his on-court demeanor — for a reason.
“One thing about Michael Jordan,” he said, “was that he didn’t ask me to do something that he didn’t (expletive) do.”