In the Chicago Bulls role player, Jud Buechler, says his teammates were afraid of him.of "The Last Dance," Michael Jordan's leadership style comes to the fore. Behind-the scenes clips of Jordan picking on Scott Burrell doesn't make it seem particularly fun to be one of the Jordanaires. Another former
In another context, these raw materials could be part of a takedown. In the 10-part ESPN/Netflix documentary, however, they are used to set up Jordan explaining his worldview like never before.
"Look, winning has a price," Jordan says. "And leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn't want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn't want to be challenged. And I earned that right because my teammates who came after me didn't endure all the things that I endured. Once you joined the team, you lived at a certain standard that I played the game. And I wasn't going to take anything less. Now if that means I had to go in there and get in your ass a little bit, then I did that.
"You ask all my teammates. The one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn't f---ing do. When people see this, they are going say, 'Well, he wasn't really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.' No, well, that's you. Because you never wanted anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win to be a part of that as well. Look, I don't have to do this. I'm only doing it because it is who I am. That's how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don't want to play that way, don't play that way."
By the end, Jordan is almost tearing up. He calls for a break and is getting up from his chair as the credits roll.
The first time "The Last Dance" director Jason Hehir met with Jordan, Hehir asked him why he wanted to do the documentary. Jordan said he didn't -- he wasn't sure if people would understand why he was so intense and why he treated his teammates that way, Hehir told The Athletic's Richard Deitsch.
Hehir told him that this is exactly why this storytelling format would be an opportunity -- they would have 10 hours to put his behavior in context.
In that way, the documentary is successful. Jordan puts himself out there, and a bunch of former Bulls validate his approach. Will Perdue calls Jordan an "asshole," a "jerk" and "a hell of a teammate" in the same breath. Scottie Pippen says, "I needed him to be the bad guy, the tough guy."
This sentiment jibes with what Steve Kerr told me in 2013: Jordan challenged teammates "constantly, in various settings and with various techniques, and you had to stand up to him to earn his respect." Bill Wennington, too, told me that Jordan would test you and try to push your buttons, but "I loved playing with Michael" because it meant that you'd win.
I was talking to them for an ESPN story about the time Jordan and Kerr got into a fistfight at practice (which is covered in Episode 8 of "The Last Dance"). The idea behind it was that there is not one single roadmap to cohesion. The fight happened in training camp before the 1995-96 season, and the team went on to win 72 games, playing some of the most beautiful, harmonious basketball the league has ever seen. In Phil Jackson's book "Eleven Rings," he called the fight a turning point.
"Leadership is like ice cream," then-Chicago assistant coach Jim Cleamons told me. "There are different styles, different brands, different flavors."
Kerr echoed that point on a recent podcast with The Ringer's Bill Simmons. After winning a championship with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003, he said, he told coach Gregg Popovich that "the difference between Michael and Tim (Duncan) is you always felt like you were playing with Tim and there were times where you felt like you were playing for Michael." Jordan's teammates were "scared to death" of him, which was not the case for teammates of Duncan, Steve Nash or Stephen Curry.
Kerr called the style shared by Duncan, Nash and Curry "equally as powerful, but just totally different." Does their success disprove the notion that superstars have to be abrasive and difficult to be around? Is it possible that Jordan and the Bulls were great despite his approach rather than because of it? "The Last Dance" does not ask these questions, and the answers are consequential.
Like millions of people, I grew up idolizing Jordan. As a fan I could easily write off unsavory stories like the Kerr fight or the time he punched Perdue as products of his maniacal competitiveness. Kobe Bryant, a Jordan disciple, essentially rebranded the same win-at-all-costs intensity as "the Mamba Mentality," influencing another generation.
"When Nothing Else Matters," Michael Leahy's 2004 book about Jordan's comeback with the Washington Wizards, shows how Jordan's rough edges look when there aren't enough wins to sand them off. In it, longtime Jackson assistant Tex Winter offers a perspective absent from the new documentary:
In Los Angeles, thinking back on their Bulls days together, his old assistant coach Tex Winter thought he saw a thread running from the star's beginning to end. "I think the [Wizards] are better for having had him," Winter said. "But I think he expects too much from teammates. ... No doubt, an awful lot of the players that he's played within the past, at least in their own minds, believe he alienated them; they've resented the treatment they've received."
Winter wondered: Did he make the humiliated better? At what cost?
Horace Grant, he thought, never had entirely forgiven Jordan.
And the others? In Chicago? In Washington?
Winter wasn't sure.
In the end, he didn't think the humiliations had been good for morale. He worried that a new generation of superstars now emulated Jordan's criticism of lesser teammates. "They feel they have that prerogative," he said, and referred specifically to Kobe Bryant. "I don't think it's necessarily good."
Jordan's impassioned appeal to the price of winning makes for great television. But it is far more effective as a defense for ribbing Burrell at practice than it is for telling a flight attendant not to serve Grant food after a bad game or, as reported by Leahy, calling an 18-year-old Kwame Brown a "f---ing flaming [homophobic slur]" because Brown had complained about not getting calls in a scrimmage.
In "The Last Dance," Jordan says he felt small after trading punches with the 6-foot-3, 175-pound Kerr. The fight made him realize he had to be more connected to his teammates, many of whom he hardly knew. When I wrote about it seven years ago, I failed to ask why it took that kind of mistake for him to have such an epiphany. And while "The Last Dance" does not paint Jordan as perfect, it fails to ask if his fans have learned the right lessons from him, serving only to reinforce its protagonist's point of view, never challenging it.