The Last Dance is over. The music has wound down. The confetti has been swept aside. And everyone has gone home.
Remaining is one 57-year-old ex-jock, sitting in a house that is not even his own as the camera equipment is packed away and a production assistant with cold hands reaches for the microphone latched to his hip. And Michael Jordan is left alone.
Based on the 10-part ESPN documentary about his life and tenure leading the dominant 1990s Chicago Bulls, “alone” is a familiar position. Jordan has a billion dollars, a second-rate NBA franchise (which must drive him batty), and what seems like a moat between himself and the people with whom he has spent the past 40 years of his life. In The Last Dance, Jordan’s bodyguards received more airtime than his barely present children. His first wife, Juanita, with whom he was married for 17 years, went utterly unmentioned. His current wife, Yvette Prieto, also was not interviewed.
As for the people in the game that he mastered, they can only describe his greatness, intensity, and fits of anger at a remove. None are able to describe the person beneath that now-brittle shell. He never let them in—and they would have needed a machete to chop their way to the person inside. All the slights that Jordan nurtured, the way a kid takes care of one of those treasured small plants in a Styrofoam cup that you get in second grade science, have become ropy weeds. The only human connection that Jordan seems to share with others is either a distanced respect for teammates with whom he would “go to war” or animosity toward those against whom he holds a grudge: people worthy only of revenge.
He no longer talks to his onetime good friend Charles Barkley, because of Barkley’s years-ago criticism of Jordan’s management decisions for the Hornets. He keeps people at an emotional remove as sure as his beloved “body men” from years ago kept away the adoring throngs. In the last two episodes of The Last Dance, they put about as finely cured a spin on this as they could. His coach Phil Jackson said that Jordan lived “in the moment” like no one he had ever been around. That’s certainly one way to describe it. Another way is to say that Jordan came across as emotionally constipated: He seemed to fear that if he ever started to express his feelings, he might not ever be able to stop.
The Last Dance suggests that Jordan had to be this way, that this was the price of his greatness. Be monomaniacal. Be closed off from the people around you. Be the bully. And how many rings you accrue as well as how much money you make is how you keep score. As I wrote last week, this is absurd, jock-fantasia nonsense. The history of sports is peppered with winners who cared about the people around them as well as about the broader society. Maya Moore, arguably the greatest women’s hoopster in history, took two years off from her sport in her prime to fight alongside her family for a wrongly incarcerated man named Jonathan Irons. That is the way she chose to use her fame.
But Jordan has never looked for another way to be. In Wright Thompson’s masterful look at Jordan at the age of 50, he said to Thompson about his needing to be number one,
It’s consumed me so much. I’m my own worst enemy. I drove myself so much that I’m still living with some of those drives. I’m living with that. I don’t know how to get rid of it. I don’t know if I could.
This is someone tortured by his need to find success. Yet it’s impossible not to wonder, given the absence of success that Jordan has had in the basketball world since his time with the Bulls, if he’s become Al Bundy with a billion dollars: talking about the glory days, and still vexed by everyone who did him wrong.
Perhaps someday there will be a documentary that probes this affliction of the winner who repels everyone around them except for those paid to be in their presence. This wasn’t it. It was a hagiography about one man’s quest for greatness. But it was also, unintentionally, about someone who had the world in his hands and was oblivious to how, with each passing year, his own world was becoming smaller.