Infallible: Separating the Man from the Myth that is Michael Jordan
This week ESPN's 10-part docu-series chronicling the 97-98 Chicago Bulls quest for an NBA championship titled "The Last Dance" premiered on ESPN. The series will be using unseen footage and interviews to lift the veil off Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls quest for a third straight NBA title.
For a generation of sports fans, Michael Jordan represents the "gold standard" in athletic achievement. Jordan's epic scoring outputs, gaudy aerial displays, and clutch theatrics validated his standing as the game's preeminent figure, his off the court success as an entrepreneur and brand ambassador transformed him into a cultural icon. Jordan's legacy and impact have placed him in a space where he's beyond reproach; all criticisms are deemed blasphemous, Jordan has become infallible. Let’s try and separate the man from the myth as we go down memory lane.
One of the biggest and more frustrating misconceptions surrounding Jordan is that he never played on a superteam. I'd never deny that Jordan was the catalyst for the Bulls' success, but his teammates deserved better than the "Michael Jordan and the Jordanettes" moniker. Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman receive their obligatory praise but their impact on the Bulls has been criminally understated.
Scottie Pippen's defensive prowess and ability to facilitate the triangle offensive as a point forward made him an indispensable foil for Michael Jordan. Much has been made of Jordan's perimeter genius, but Pippen's length and lateral quickness made him a comparable threat on the wing; having Pippen meant that Jordan no longer had to carry the burden of being the team's primary scorer and defender. Pippen spelled Michael Jordan in meaningful stretches, allowing Phil to be strategic and intentional with Michael's minutes and assignments.
Rodman's legacy has been overshadowed by his larger than life persona. Off the floor, Rodman's eccentric lifestyle changed the narrative on how professional athletes were supposed to look, dress, and speak; he was a rockstar, a free spirit with his own code. On the floor, Rodman was an athletic anomaly, an undersized 6'7" power forward, who used his rugged strength and quick feet to dominate the boards and harass scorers of all sizes.
Rodman won two championships with the "Bad Boy" Pistons before joining the Bulls and ended his career with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. Rodman made the NBA's All-Defensive first team seven times, including a stretch where he led the NBA in rebounding for seven consecutive seasons.
Rodman, Pippen, and Jordan were not the only hall of fame talents on that roster. While some may remember Toni Kukoc as the Bulls versatile sixth man, the rest of the world remembers "The Pink Panther," one of the decorated players in European basketball history and an inductee in the FIBA Hall of Fame. Ron Harper averaged 20.1 PPG 6.1 RPB and 4.6 APG before joining the Chicago Bulls. Horace Grant made a slew of all-defensive teams, had an All-Star appearance, and even won a championship away from Chicago. Say what you want about Jordan's greatness; just don't do so at the expense of his teammates.
Another Jordan narrative propagated throughout the years is that Michael Jordan never publicly bemoaned management, his coach or his teammates. In these fans' wild imaginations, their selfless savant never sought to have teammates traded, or personally asked to be traded.
Sam Smith wrote a book titled "The Jordan Rules" that charted the Bulls rise from Eastern Conference cellar dwellers to NBA champions. In that book, Smith exposed the rift that existed between GM Jerry Krause and Michael Jordan. The common theme connecting both generations is the player's sense of agency; everything is a negotiation, players and front offices are obligated to use whatever means they have at their disposal to move the needle. Sometimes it's a trade request or a comment to the local press expressing your frustration. Players recognize more than ever that they are in charge of their future, Michael Jordan has a lot to do with that.
Jordan has accomplished more in basketball than most will accomplish in their lifetime, he’s a living legend who deserves all of the praise and adulation he’s received through the years. Jordan’s story is one which needs to be told to future generations, let’s just hope we can continue to celebrate his legacy while keeping it in context.