“If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would never want to be considered a role model. It’s like a game that’s stacked against me. There’s no way I can win.” — Michael Jordan, in Episode 6 of the ESPN Films documentary series “The Last Dance”
You’re left to process those words, digesting the sentiment but perplexed by it.
You understand where that thought process stems from, aware of the intense pressure and incomparable fatigue that came with being Michael Jordan. With pursuing excellence. With living every day amid a constant swarm. With establishing a pristine reputation and fighting to keep your flaws from surfacing.
A stacked game? With no way to win? And no desire to be considered a role model?
Suddenly you feel a need to object.
Maybe now is the appropriate time to acknowledge you’re not a completely unbiased passenger on this joyride down memory lane “The Last Dance” is providing. Not by a long shot. Jordan was your boyhood idol. And you were far from alone.
You were 7 when the Bulls drafted MJ, a first-grader on the Northwest Side falling hard for basketball. And you were 21 when he played his final game as a Bull, that unforgettable Friday night in Salt Lake City in 1998.
Which means “The Last Dance” has been taking you back through meaningful parts of your childhood.
And early adulthood.
You had forgotten what these adrenaline rushes felt like. How Jordan’s game was equal parts majestic and ruthless. How it felt to loathe the Pistons and later the Knicks.
Most of all, you had forgotten the presence Jordan had within your life.
In your bedroom, he was much of the wallpaper — all of those Sports Illustrated covers, the felt pennants, the 6-foot-tall poster of MJ dunking over Kenny Walker.
He was your screen time too. You had “NBA Superstars” at the top of the VHS tower and always felt a certain excitement every time the transition from Larry Bird’s highlight montage to Jordan’s began.
You wore out “Come Fly With Me” in your VCR too, so much so that for more than 30 years now, you’ve been randomly mixing the “He dunked on Mel Turpin” anecdote into casual conversations. Just for kicks.
He looked over at the guy and said, “Was he big enough?”
Jordan wasn’t an in-and-out flash for one short stage of life. He was a constant, a Chicago icon, a living legend throughout those 14 years from 1984 to 1998.
You went from hitting the shot over Ehlo on your basement Nerf hoop to punctuating college flip-cup victories with six fingers thrust into the air. And then seven. Then eight? Nine?
Like Mike. Just to be like Mike.
But the adulation went well beyond superfan deification. You also loved observing how Jordan handled himself, how he treated the pursuit of success as a mission to be attacked.
As fulfilling as it was watching Michael and the Bulls win those six NBA championships, you also appreciated the experience of witnessing their struggle, of seeing Jordan fall short, of noticing how he dealt with failure and channeled his disappointments.
The Pistons beat him down. He fought back.
The playoff exits tore a hole in him. Until they became nonexistent.
All along the way, you were taking notes.
You were fortunate to have so many others in your life who served as incredible examples. Your parents pushed you at everything you did but always with a welcome combination of encouragement and support. Your siblings set standards for academic excellence that forced you to create good habits to keep up. And through school and sports, you were blessed with terrific teachers and engaged coaches and similarly ambitious friends and teammates.
Still, you realized fairly early that the basketball court, the baseball field and the golf course could be your classrooms too. And Jordan was an easy-to-access study guide.
Sure, you always had natural drive burning inside you. But Jordan, at least in some small way, offered an example of how to channel your competitiveness; how to strengthen your confidence and utilize it under adversity; how to turn failure into motivation.
These were lessons you used as a young athlete, throughout school and deep into your career.
Keep squeezing the most out of your talent. Embrace your grandest visions. Attack with constant purpose.
There’s always a way to find those extra reserves, that grind, that willingness to outwork everyone else climbing the same mountain.
Thus, you were nodding during Episode 6 of “The Last Dance” when Jordan offered this introspective nugget.
“The way that I go about my life is that I set examples,” he said. “And if it inspires you, great. I will continue do that. And if it doesn’t, then maybe I’m not the person you should be following.”
Sure, Jordan has always been flawed, a hero with obvious imperfections. And you realize this documentary series is a sanitized portrayal, focusing so much on who he was as a basketball player and a competitor and not digging all that deep into his personal life or his detachment from Chicago or his unimpressive record of community involvement.
It’s fair to wonder about those things, to be at least a tad curious about his gambling urges or his failed first marriage or the harsh treatment he frequently gave teammates.
It’s fair to ask whether Jordan’s single-minded focus prevented him from having a fuller vision of the world.
But right or wrong, when you were in grade school and junior high and high school, you weren’t really consumed with any of that. You just knew Jordan and the Bulls, for whatever reason, provided your life with more ebullience.
Over the last few weeks, you’ve asked friends you grew up with and old basketball teammates whether they, as kids in Chicago, believe Jordan helped shape them. The responses were immediate.
One thousand percent.
It was that next-level energy that watching Jordan and the Bulls created, a sense that you had some sort of ownership of their success. Jordan allowed all of us to sample the intoxication of achievement and sharpened our appreciation for the drive that sparks it.
Of course, that’s easy to remember all these years later.
On a Wednesday night in November 1992, you were in the second-to-last row of Chicago Stadium when Jordan rose near the right wing and hit a 28-footer at the overtime buzzer to beat the Pistons by two. You’re not sure you have ever heard a noise quite like that, a TNT drum exploding inside every one of the 18,676 fans inside that building.
You’re not sure your feet hit the ground for the next week.
That was one snapshot moment out of hundreds.
For most of the 1990s, you remember the rhythm of your spring. The playoff watch parties with friends. The daily trips to the double-rimmed hoop down the block to fire jumpers and play pickup. The June nights — Sunday, Wednesday, Friday — you always kept clear for the NBA Finals.
You also remember that heightened concern when the Knicks had the Bulls backed into a corner; when the Pacers extended the Eastern Conference finals to seven games; when the Suns and Jazz had league MVPs and home-court advantage for the championship series.
Sure, that led to jangled nerves and intense anxiety. But there was always this feeling of confidence and security that proved exhilarating.
Michael’s got this.
That was the vibe, the presence he had. And he rarely let you down in that regard. In fact, if it was the ‘90s and Jordan participated in the Bulls’ first practice, the season always ended with a championship rally at the Petrillo Band Shell.
Every. Single. Time.
Yep, Michael had it all under control. And that helped you realize how much of an engine that mindset can be.
Now, as you’re watching and rewatching each episode of “The Last Dance,” it’s clear how widespread Jordan’s influence was then and still is now.
NBA legends are turning up all over TV with personal reflections about playing with or against Jordan. Current stars are recalling the way they looked up to him. Players across all sports, many who were in diapers when Jordan’s career ended, are filling social media with the G.O.A.T. emoji.
During Episode 5 of “The Last Dance,” the goosebumps went head to toe when you recognized that Kobe Bryant always looked at Jordan through similar eyes as you. Only Kobe was the rarest of the rare who actually had the requisite combination of elite talent and drive and cutthroat competitiveness to truly be like Mike.
And, damn, did he ever want to be.
Still, you were struck by Bryant’s reverence in the documentary as he referred to Jordan as a big brother, fulfilled that he had maximized his opportunities to drink from Jordan’s fountain of knowledge.
He loved emulating Jordan’s approach as much as he loved copying his moves.
Bryant never liked hearing comparisons, averse to any suggestion that he might have been better than Jordan in any way.
“I feel like: ‘Yo. (Chill.) What you get from me is from him,’ “ Bryant said. “I don’t get five championships without him. Because he guided me so much.”
Kobe’s thankfulness was so heartfelt, so profound.
Thus, you think back to that original statement, to Jordan’s disappointment that he wasn’t able to keep everybody happy and his declaration that if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t want to be considered a role model.
It’s like a game that’s stacked against me.
You hope he would take a bit longer to think that through, to realize that he never had a choice in participating and that, when he played that game, he enjoyed high-level success.
“There’s no way I can win,” Jordan insisted.
In short, you disagree.
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