The latest episodes of “The Last Dance” were the most emotional so far of the series, giving us a look at the inner feelings of the world’s most popular athlete. We see a wounded Michael Jordan in episodes 7 and 8, a man looking back at his darkest moment—the murder of his father—and a leader talking about how his demanding style wasn’t for everyone, a vicious, hard-driven work ethic aimed at wringing the most out of his teammates.
“The Last Dance” focuses on the 1998 Chicago Bulls’ championship season. But as we see that difficult season unfold we are treated to flashback after flashback. Last night’s episodes began with the Bulls completing their first three-peat in 1993, and an emotionally tired Jordan doing the unthinkable: retiring from basketball.
He was thinking about retiring even before his father’s death, but the loss of his dad made the decision even easier.
“He was my rock. We were very close,” he says. He begins to tear up talking about his father’s murder in July 1993, which happened a little more than a month after the Bulls won championship No. 3. “It was devastating,” he says.
Jordan famously took up baseball—a sport he played as a young man, a sport he loved—and was signed at the minor-league level by the Chicago White Sox, a team owned by Jerry Reinsdorf, who also owns the Bulls.
Jordan played for the Birmingham Barons, the White Sox AA organization. Reinsdorf explained Jordan had to start at a higher level than his experience justified—the lower-level teams didn’t have the means to handle the press and fan onslaught that resulted from Jordan playing baseball. “We put him at AA, strictly because we needed to be able to handle the media,” says Reinsdorf.
Jordan’s retirement from basketball was short-lived, and he returned to the court in March 1995. He shook off his early rust, and worked in the gym on getting his body back into basketball shape.
At this point in “The Last Dance,” we really start to see how tough Jordan could be on his teammates. He’s demanding in practice, pushing the other Bulls players emotionally as well as physically.
“Garbage,” he says dismissively to teammate Scott Burrell during one practice. “Don’t bring that bullshit.” In another practice, he gets into a fight with—of all people—Steve Kerr, who stands about six-foot three, tiny by NBA standards. Jordan had been pushing Kerr, jawing with him, and finally pushed too far. Jackson threw Jordan out of practice.
“I just hit the littlest guy on the team,” Jordan says, regretfully. They quickly made up.
“People were afraid of him,” says teammate Jud Beuchler. “We were afraid of him.” Will Perdue, one of the Bulls’ centers, goes farther. “He was an asshole, he was a jerk,” he says of Jordan.
The Bulls knew why Jordan was pushing so hard, knew why he was so tough on them. “We needed him to be the tough guy, the bad guy,” says Scottie Pippin.
Jordan doesn’t seem immune to the comments, and when reflecting on his style he begins to tear up. “Winning has a price,” he says. Moisture seems to flicker in his eyes as he hesitates. “And leadership has a price.”
Near the end of episode 8, Jordan and the Bulls are closing in on their fourth victory. During that playoff run, you see Jordan smoking a cigar in the locker room—the smoke appears to be a Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona. A coffee mug nearby serves as an ashtray, with another cigar resting inside.
That fourth championship was the first Jordan won without his father. The victory was sealed in 1996—on Father’s Day. Jordan collapses on the court, emotionally spent. Later, in the locker room, he sobs uncontrollably, clutching the game ball.