The penultimate weekend of episodes of ESPN’s acclaimed docuseries “The Last Dance” gave fans an inside view into the mind of Michael Jordan unlike ever before. The episodes, which centered around Jordan’s disposition following his father’s 1993 murder, showcased how he left the NBA to take a shot at playing baseball. But ever the competitor, the athlete would push himself and his teammates beyond his and their limits.
Here are four takeaways from episodes seven and eight of “The Last Dance.”
1. The Fear Factor of Michael Jordan
“Let’s not get it wrong: He was an a******, he was a jerk, he crossed the line numerous times,” former Bulls teammate Will Perdue said of Jordan.
It has been well documented that Jordan was a fierce competitor. Even in a prior episode of “The Last Dance,” he tells longtime friend Ahmad Rashad when he was confronted by the TV personality on his gambling headlines, Jordan told him he didn’t have a “gambling issue” he had a “competition issue.”
Being the best was like a venom pulsing through his veins, consuming the superstar throughout his career.
Following his father’s murder, Jordan went to play baseball and left the NBA for what seemed to be for good. In April 1995, he returned to the Bulls and wasn’t in the right shape to compete at the elite level that he was known for.
Losing to the Orlando Magic in the 1995 playoffs at a chance to go to the NBA Finals turned out to be the motivation he needed to rally himself and his team.
“They may say, ‘He wasn’t a nice guy, he was a tyrant.’ That is you, that is because you never won anything,” Jordan says in episode 7. “I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well.”
Interviewees in the series have been candid about what Jordan was like during practice. He would chastise his teammates and get in their heads to motivate them to do better and play at his level. Oftentimes it would lead to humiliation.
“People were afraid of him. We were his teammates and we were afraid of him. There was just fear. The fear factor with MJ was so, so thick,” his former teammate Jud Buechle said in the series.
“Was he a nice guy?” teammate B.J. Armstrong said. “He couldn’t have been nice. With that kind of mentality he had, he can’t be a nice guy. He would be a difficult guy to be around if you didn’t truly love the game of basketball. He is difficult.”
On one occasion, Jordan’s temperament sparked violence as he took his aggression out of teammate Steve Kerr after faulting Kerr for not practicing hard enough. Kerr, frustrated, shoved Jordan who then punched him in the face. Jordan was sent home from practice and later apologized to Kerr.
“It is who I am. That is how I played the game,” a reflective and emotional Jordan said at the end of episode 7 when describing his personality on the court. “That was my mentality, if you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.”
2. Was Jordan’s Departure from the NBA a Ruse?
Speculation was rampant in 1993 that Michael Jordan was considering retiring following his third NBA championship that June.
Just weeks after the big win, his father, the man who he called “my rock,” was murdered. James Jordan’s death set his son on a path that many aside from his closest friends knew about, the man known as “Sir Airness” was leaving the sport that made him a household name to play baseball.
Yet, as his October 1993 press conference to announce his decision would take the entire media world by surprise, Jordan told the press “being retired means you can do anything you want.”
“I am doing something I choose to do,” he added.
However, his decision didn’t sit right with some who believed that No. 23 on the Bulls was not really retiring from the NBA but placed on an unwritten suspension due to his gambling.
Headlines appeared that all of this was an attempt to distract from the reality that Jordan was in trouble with his bosses at the Bulls and the NBA.
After a series of pundits weighed in on the absurdity that the NBA sent him away in a secret suspension, former NBA commissioner David Stern came on screen to denounce any rumor or conspiracy that has weighed over the situation for 26 years.
“The urban legend that I sent [Jordan] away because he was gambling, ridiculous. No basis in fact,” he declared.
Eighteen months after signing with the Chicago White Sox AA team the Birmingham Barons, Jordan was back on the court for the Bulls.
3. Could Jordan Have Been as Good a Baseball Player as Basketball Player?
At 31 years old, Michael Jordan suited up to play baseball. The last time he had picked up a bat and glove was when he was 17.
His whole mentality and workout regiment had to rapidly change and he had to change his body to get into “baseball shape” which used more of his core muscles.
Speaking to the cameras of “The Last Dance,” his older brother, Larry, in a rare interview, says that he and his brother were being primed in their youth to play professional baseball, not basketball, by their dad.
While Michael Jordan wasn’t playing Major League Baseball, he was still training as hard as he could in order to make it there someday. His competitive nature was sparked by something new.
“His work ethic was the best I’ve ever been around,” then-Barons coach Mike Barnett said. “He would come in after regular batting practice, hit some more before the game and then would hit again after the game. … He kept getting better and better.”
But his career in baseball was short-lived. Despite being a cathartic experience for the athlete and despite Jordan boasting solid numbers in his 18 months playing the game, in August 1994 the MLB went on strike and his promise of going to baseball’s top flight was looking grim.
In April 1995, he returned home with one of the most famous press releases ever sent to announce his comeback. It simply stated “I’m Back.”
4. The Rusty Flight of No. 45
When Jordan returned to basketball it wasn’t the same hero who walked off the court at the end of the 1992 / 1993 season.
While his return did spark a frenzy among fans who did all they could to get tickets to his comeback games in and out of Chicago, something was off.
In his first game back he had his shorts on backwards, but the differences went beyond that. Known to be No. 23 on the team, he went with No. 45, which was the number he had when he played baseball as a kid and teen as well as the number he rocked during his brief time with the Birmingham Barons.
"I didn't want to go to No. 23 because I knew my father wasn't there to watch me, and I felt it was a new beginning," Jordan said in the series. "And 45 was my first number when I played in high school."
But No. 45 wasn’t No. 23, it was evident as he made his way back to the game missing shots, getting airballs and looking more like the basketball player who is writing this piece than the icon of the game.
"I was nervous because I hadn't played competitive in a long time, and I just felt naked because my father wasn't there," Jordan said. "It just seemed so different."
Five games back in the NBA, he seemed to find his stride. In a match against the New York Knicks Jordan sunk 55 points at Madison Square Garden, his favorite place to play.
As his short season progressed, Jordan at times seemed sluggish. This came to a head during the Eastern Conference Finals against the Orlando Magic who boasted Shaquille O'Neal, Penny Hardaway and former teammate Horace Grant.
In the dying seconds of Game One, the Bulls were up by a point and as Jordan was dribbling up the court, Magic player Nick Anderson stole the ball from him and turned the score around giving Orlando the win.
After the match, Anderson told reporters "45 isn't 23," which prompted Jordan to change back into his old number. The Bulls would lose the series and the Magic would go onto the finals but it humbled Jordan and gave him the fuel for the following three seasons as the Bulls went on to win another three titles.