Be Like Mike? Episodes 5 & 6 of 'The Last Dance' reminded us why that was a far more complex mantra
After watching Michael Jordan put up a record 63 points in a playoff game in 1986, Larry Bird said that was “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
Jordan transcended fan bases, countries and generations of human beings because of what he stood for. He was part of “The Dream Team.” He was a cultural icon before that was ever a thing in basketball because of Air Jordan sneakers. Jordan, in the midst of his first 3-peat, went from once-in-a-generation superstar to immortal God.
That’s why Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike” campaign was a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want to be the most popular athlete in the world with a limitless ceiling? Who wouldn’t want to be the face of the most popular sneaker ever? Who wouldn’t want to be worshipped by every human being they ever came in contact with?
Sunday night’s Episodes 5 and 6 of “The Last Dance” served as a reminder that while any of us would have given up anything to live one day being “Like Mike,” Jordan’s life was far more complicated than that. He wasn’t God disguised as Michael Jordan. He was a human being people mistook for God.
The latest chapters of ESPN documentary weren’t meant to turn Jordan into a sympathetic figure so much as a flawed one. The gambling issues were brought to the forefront. Check that. Jordan said in the doc that he didn’t believe he had a gambling problem. He said he had a “competition problem.”
The same imbalance in his brain that made him the most immortal force in the sports world was also the same imbalance that allowed the general public to see him as mortal. The New York Times reports of his late-night trip in Atlantic City before Game 2 of the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals blew up, despite his defense that he simply wanted to escape the fish bowl of New York. The book “Michael and Me: Our Gambling Addiction” by Richard Esquinas detailed Jordan’s alleged $1.25 million gambling losses on the golf course hit the masses.
And it wasn’t just the gambling that humanized Jordan. The classic book “The Jordan Rules” by Sam Smith outlined the friction created in practice and all the behind-the-scenes turmoil that was fueled by Jordan’s over-competitiveness during the Bulls’ first 2 championships.
Now is the part where you say, “well, they build you up to break you down.” Sure, it was done before Jordan and it was done after Jordan. It’s the way the world works.
You only get so long in the sports world to be considered a God. Even Jordan. That’s not only a product of the media, though that contributes greatly to it. (SportsCenter anchor Jack Edwards had a clip in the doc from the early-90s when he said “if Jordan eats pepperoni, the media burps.) Eventually, we as consumers pick apart greatness not because we can’t appreciate it, but because once the shine of something new wears off, we have to do a full-body search for imperfections. Is that done out of boredom or our desire as the consumer not to feel deceived? A little of both, perhaps.
It wasn’t any secret that Jordan struggled with that. It was at the root of his 2-week media hiatus before the 1993 NBA Finals when the Bulls were in the midst of their 3rd consecutive title. Jordan, as he’s getting doused in champagne, admitted to Bob Costas he felt both joy and relief.
Compare that to 2 years earlier when he won a title for the first time. Does this look like a guy who is straddling the line between relief and joy?
Of all the iconic images from Jordan’s career, him hugging the gold ball after that first title stands out above any. pic.twitter.com/F7UFo9DKvl
— Eugene Frenette (@GeneFrenette) April 27, 2020
A lot changed in 2 years. Jordan changed in 2 years.
He saw what happened when he didn’t publicly support black man Harvey Gantt against Jesse Helms, who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in the race for U.S. Senate. Jordan’s infamous “Republicans buy sneakers, too” comment is still used as a demerit against him. That’s when many realized that Jordan wasn’t about to use his platform to become Muhammad Ali 2.0.
But even as the scratches in Jordan’s armor started to surface publicly, he only became a bigger global phenomenon. It helps when you win title after title.
The never-before-seen doc footage of Jordan struggling just to get through a United Center hallway after a game in 1998 painted the picture. The crew also captured a candid moment with Jordan in his hotel room before a road game. There was Jordan parked on a couch, cigar in his mouth, admitting that being in that room alone was the only time he truly got peace. Fittingly, the entrance of the doc crew disturbed that.
It’s easy to wonder why someone who was still at such a peak could retire not once, but twice after proving he was still the best player on the planet. Watch it back, and it’s as clear as day — Jordan was mentally exhausted with taking on his role as God.
We forget that 20 years after the fact. The rings, the sneakers, the records all stand the test of time. Sure, so does the gambling. And even though the late-NBA commissioner David Stern said in Sunday night’s showing that Jordan wasn’t reprimanded for his gambling because he had the means to support his hobby, some will quickly point to that as to why he “retired” the first time.
But no matter what side of the fence you fall in that argument, there’s still a part of everyone that hears the “God disguised as Michael Jordan” comment and nods in agreement. Why? Because we’ve seen Jordan overcome everything — getting cut from his high school varsity team, finally beating the Bad Boy Pistons, winning 3 more titles after the death of his father, etc.
It’s easy for us mortals to roll our eyes when we hear Jordan say, “I wouldn’t wanna be like Mike. It’s an impossible task.” We question how Jordan can say, “if I had to do it all over again, I’d never want to be a role model. It’s like a game that’s stacked against me. There’s no way I can win.”
You can picture viewers yelling at their TV screens “no way you can win?! Man, all you did was win!”
Remember, though, that Jordan wasn’t a just highly successful athlete or celebrity. He was a God.
He was the retired guy who attended his son’s travel basketball game with his hat pulled down, and within minutes, a gym with a thousand people fixated on him — and lined up to meet him — in a way that would have made the arrival of God himself seem secondary.
He was the guy who had to be Michael Jordan whenever he was seen. None of us have ever been trapped in that hotel room, just trying to take a break from being like God.
Or rather, like Mike.