Michael Jordan’s winning mentality and competitiveness are almost as legendary as the feats he accomplished on a basketball court while becoming a Hall of Fame player for the Chicago Bulls. Those exploits were well documented Sunday in Episodes 7 and 8 of “The Last Dance” docuseries.
“My mentality was to go out and win at any cost,” Jordan said. “If you don’t want to live that regimented mentality, then you don’t need to be alongside of me because I’m going to ridicule you until you get on the same level with me. And if you don’t get on the same level, then it’s going to be hell for you.”
Jordan’s ability to push teammates to a higher level was well chronicled throughout his career. But the honesty with which Jordan and many former teammates described his tactics was one of the most interesting takeaways from the episodes.
“Winning has a price,” Jordan said. “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 [other] teammates came after me. They 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.”
Jordan’s words were prescient as the docuseries delved into how hard the six-time NBA champion was on young teammate Scott Burrell during Jordan’s final season with the Bulls in 1997-98. Jordan admitted that he was trying to push Burrell to fight him at times, but the UConn alum was too nice of a guy to fight back.
“You’re playing with a guy that has the highest standards of any basketball player ever,” Burrell said. “You want to live up to that challenge. It’s tough. Tough love. You’ve got to go out there and do your job. … Each and every day, he’s going to push you and push you to try and get you where he is, but I’m not sure he knows that only he can achieve those goals. But he can push other guys to try to get there, though.”
Jordan’s propensity for bullying teammates at times has been on display throughout the episodes. Episode 8 chronicled a practice fight Jordan had with teammate Steve Kerr during the second three-peat, an exchange that Kerr admitted earlier this week he “wasn’t proud of,” but both men agree that it brought them closer in the end.
“People were afraid of him,” former teammate Jud Buechler said of Jordan. “We were his teammates, and we were afraid of him. And there was just fear. The fear factor of MJ was so, so thick.”
“Let’s not get it wrong: He was an a–hole,” former teammate Will Perdue said. “He was a jerk. He crossed the line numerous times. But as time goes on, you think back about what he was actually trying to accomplish, you’re like, ‘Yeah, he was a helluva teammate.'”
Jordan’s drive to succeed — and the feeling that he wanted his teammates to put in the work that he had over time — was the biggest motivator for a man who always understood that his career would be defined by winning championships.
“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,'” Jordan said in the documentary. “When people see this, they’ll say, ‘Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.’ Well, that’s you. Because you never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted [my teammates] to win and be a part of that as well.”
Former Bulls coach Phil Jackson admitted that there were times during practice when he would have to ask Jordan to tone down the competitiveness and be a better teammate.
“He’d get feisty in a practice and maybe go up against people,” Jackson said. “I’d have to talk a little bit about toning it down and make amends and keep that level of team camaraderie. That’s your role, too, as a part of this, in being a captain.”
Former Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong acknowledged what many people have said about Jordan over the years: As much as they respected his talent and his ability to raise everyone’s game, he was not an easy teammate to deal with on a daily basis.
“Was he a nice guy?” Armstrong said. “He couldn’t have been nice. With that kind of mentality he had, you can’t be a nice guy. He would be difficult to be around if you didn’t truly love the game of basketball. He is difficult.”
Episode 7 ended with Jordan, holding back tears, describing just how much the game and the passion to win drove him over the years.
“Look, I don’t have to do this,” Jordan said. “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.”
Other highlights from Episodes 7 and 8:
Scottie Pippen’s decision to sit out the end of Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals against the New York Knicks was discussed. Pippen, who led the team all season while Jordan played minor league baseball, was upset that Jackson drew up the final play for Toni Kukoc instead of him and refused to go back into the game. Kukoc hit the winning shot at the buzzer, but teammates admitted that the atmosphere after the game was muted because they couldn’t believe Pippen’s decision.
“It’s one of those incidents where I wished it never happened,” Pippen said in the episode. “But if I had the chance to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t change it.”
Speaking of baseball, Jordan’s decision to retire from basketball and pursue a career in baseball was well documented in Episode 7. “Rare Air” author Mark Vancil recounted an interesting conversation, with Jordan telling Vancil during the 1992 season that he was going to retire a year later and play baseball. This tied into a portion of the episode in which both Jordan and former NBA commissioner David Stern brushed off the long-running speculation that Jordan retired from basketball after the 1992-93 season because he was secretly suspended by Stern for connections to gambling. Vancil told of how he knew that speculation was laughable.
“I had sat with [Jordan] a year earlier. He told me what he was going to do,” Vancil said. “It was the summer of ’92, and it was the Dream Team summer. You can tell he was really tired. As tired as he looked and as beat up as he looked, I said, ‘So what are you going to do?’ There’s a long pause, and he said, ‘I’m going to shock the world.’ He said, ‘No, I’m going to quit and go play baseball.’ And I said, ‘When?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’d do it right now except [Larry] Bird and Magic never won three [NBA championships] in a row. And I got to do the Olympics. But if it wasn’t for that, I’d be playing this summer.'”
Jordan said the final conversation he had with his father, James, before the elder Jordan was murdered in the summer of ’93 revolved around the younger Jordan’s desire to begin a professional baseball career.
“We were debating, me and him, we were debating about me playing baseball,” Michael said. “‘Dad, I’m thinking about retiring. I want to go play baseball.’ And all the things that he was saying, ‘Do it. Do it.’ Because he had gotten me started in baseball.”
Finally, Jordan recounted what motivated him in the 1996 Finals against the Seattle SuperSonics. Jordan said he was at a restaurant during the Finals, having dinner with close friend Ahmad Rashad. Sonics coach George Karl, a fellow UNC alum, deliberately walked by Jordan without saying hello.
“He walks right past me,” Jordan said. “And I looked at Ahmad, I said, ‘Really, oh, so that’s how he’s going to play it.’ I said, ‘It’s a crock of s—. We went to [North] Carolina. We know Dean Smith. I’ve seen him in the summer. We’ve played golf. And you’re going to do this? OK, fine.’ That’s all I needed. That’s all I needed for him to do that, and it became personal with me.”
Karl, appearing on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt after the episodes, admitted that the story Jordan told in the documentary was accurate.
“It is true,” Karl said. “I had Brendan Malone on my staff from the Detroit Pistons, and he said, ‘Michael plays head games with you all the time. And he said, ‘You don’t want to mess with him in the series. Say hello at the beginning of the series. Shake his hand at the end of the series. But during the series, don’t let him use anything to motivate himself to be a better player than the greatest player in the game of basketball.'”