Episodes five and six of "The Last Dance" showed us how wide-reaching Michael Jordan's fame was at the height of his NBA career. In the documentary, a young Jordan talks about fame, and how his approach to it changed after being put on a pedestal. Once he became an international icon, it made him want to retreat from the limelight.
"You want to get more behind closed doors so people don't know you as much," Jordan says in the ESPN-produced 10-part documentary chronicling the journey of the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls' chase for a sixth championship. "I'm at a stage in my career that I'd rather get behind closed doors than to be out there in the spotlight and be taking shots from everyone that really don't know me as a person."
That quote perfectly explains why this documentary has helped captureper week. In addition to Jordan being regarded by most as the greatest basketball player ever, the draw to him is in part because he was -- and is still -- always just out of reach.
Hearing Jordan talk today is a rare occurrence. It's already been reported in great detailto get him to even sign off on making this documentary, and his agent mentioned that Jordan once for a two-hour speaking engagement. So when His Airness speaks, everyone listens.
Jordan was the biggest celebrity in the '90s and received an unimaginable amount of attention as soon as he stepped out of his front door or left his suite at a hotel. However, he benefited from playing in an era where every eyebrow-raising comment wasn't immediately formulated into a tweet sent out for millions of people to see. Despite those Bulls being the biggest attraction in the sports world, the amount of media attention they received pales in comparison to what star players deal with these days.
During an interview with ESPN's Scott Van Pelt, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, a member of the '98 Bulls championship team, put into great perspective how Jordan's fame was larger than life and had a "mystical quality" about it, compared to athletes today.
"I think there was almost a mystical quality to a famous athlete like Michael back then," Kerr said. "Nothing is left to the imagination now. Back then, you could get away from it as an athlete. When the camera wasn't on you, you could escape it. But today, with social media, with people constantly seeing every aspect of your life … I think back then there was a little more freedom, and now it just seems like impossible to do so."
Kerr nails it on the head perfectly. While Jordan was a larger-than-life celebrity, when the camera was off he could retreat to his private life. People only saw him through his on-court performances, or the many commercials he had with Nike, Gatorade, McDonald's and Coca-Cola that honed in on his natural charisma. When he was on the floor, he was described as "God disguised as Michael Jordan" by Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird. When he was off it, he was called a hero by people like Spike Lee, and everyone wanted to "be like Mike."
There was no Instagram or Twitter where Jordan (or the media) was detailing his ongoings when he wasn't in the public eye, similar to how you can see what wine LeBron James is drinking on any given night, or what workout he's getting ready to do at his house. Jordan wasn't -- and still isn't -- easily accessible, which lent to creating this carefully cultivated image that was an impenetrable force. It only made him more mesmerizing. Even as the documentary raises several of the controversies Jordan dealt with in his career, it was made apparent that none of it harmed his image a significant amount.
"Part of the reason he remained popular, is because he never said anything to piss anyone off," The Jordan Effect author Roy Johnson said in episode five of "The Last Dance".
The most controversial thing Jordan has ever said publicly was it's been blown out of proportion and he didn't say it seriously., "Republicans buy sneakers, too," in response to why he wasn't going to openly endorse Harvey Gantt's 1990 U.S. Senate run in North Carolina. In the documentary, Jordan said the comment was made in jest so an apology is unnecessary. Even longtime Bulls writer Sam Smith, who originally gave life to the comment in his 1995 book The Second Coming, said that
Imagine, though, if Jordan was playing today and made that comment. It would be a topic of conversation for weeks in the media. It wouldn't have mattered if he made it in jest or not. The Bulls legend would be taken to task not just by those in sports media, but also news anchors, politicians and activists who would condemn his comment on Twitter and call for an immediate explanation.
When The Jordan Rules was published in 1992, and the whole world found out that Jordan wasn't the easiest to get along with on the floor because of his ultra-competitive disposition, people were shocked. However, if Jordan were playing today, it wouldn't take waiting for a book to find out that he was excruciatingly hard on his teammates and front offices. That would get found out immediately in a series of tweets after the first time he hurled expletives at teammates, oror .
Jordan, though, had the support of his teammates, who at the time said the book was a "bunch of bull." While it took a toll on him initially, the author of the book received more of the backlash.
"I was under siege when the book came out," Smith said in the documentary. "Everyone turned on me to the point where I was getting a lot of threats, and the newspaper had me stay home for a week and told me not to come in."
Jordan's highly publicized trip to Atlantic City during the 1993 Eastern Conference finals, and the bubbling rumors of him having a gambling problem -- while criticized -- were silenced by him declining to talk to the media, but also with each monstrous performance he'd put up to lead the Bulls to another title.
"It didn't affect his endorsements. It didn't effect him monetarily. It didn't really effect his popularity," former ESPN correspondent Andrea Kremer said in the documentary. "But the damage was to his reputation, and the price to pay was how tedious it became for Michael to have to answer all these questions."
As tedious as answering all those questions might have been for Jordan, it didn't truly affect how people viewed him on a grander scale. If those things were to happen now, they'd be more than just footnotes in his career and he'd be exposed for acting like a jerk. However, when people think of Michael Jordan, they think six championships, the shoes, the monstrous scoring performances and clutch game winners. It's not wrong to view him that way by any means. It just shows the difference between how athletes were treated and viewed in the '90s compared to now. Players today are more questioned on their every move and comment, and anything they say is immediately turned into countless stories. It's expected for athletes to use their platform and voice to stand for something, rather than just "sticking to sports."
Playing in an era where there weren't entire blogs dedicated to following his every move, 24-hour sports stations that rehashed criticism of him every hour or social media, Jordan managed to keep most of his life private. This created a mythology around his career for better and worse.
Jordan's ability to get behind closed doors a bit more only makes him more compelling. Not having to play in an era with social media and constant media coverage allowed the blemishes on his career to fall to the wayside without monumental criticism. Those two things blended together put Jordan's legacy in a class like no other. With players today receiving far less privacy, and every move of theirs being challenged or followed, there will likely never be another one who can match the mythical stature of Jordan.