It was an early '90s game at the old Garden, and Michael Jordan was seated in the visitors' dressing room. The Bulls were embarking on a historic run of championships, but the future looked anything but guaranteed to Michael on that day.
It was a couple of hours before tipoff against the Celtics, and he was complaining to me about what he believed was a roster weakness. I pointed across the room to a player I thought could meet that need, saying, “He's pretty good.”
Jordan turned to me and said earnestly, “Yeah, but he's (expletive) stupid.”
It was the kind of normal conversation one could expect to have with Michael in those days, and some of that seeps into ESPN's long-anticipated documentary “The Last Dance.” NBA dressing rooms had yet to become so crowded with additional assistant coaches, player development people and media from platforms yet to be fully conceived.
Private moments could be had, and Jordan loved them. He was certainly relaxed and engaging in group sessions, but once he got comfortable with a reporter and trusted that the bounds were understood — what was quotable, for informational purposes only, fun gossip, etc. — the door was truly open.
There was no ethical dilemma. If you didn't accept something would be off the record, he wouldn't say it. Your call. But hanging with the conversation was worth it, because you never left a one-on-with Jordan not knowing a hell of a lot more than when you sat down — and with that the ability to provide greater inside to your readers.
Though you could get the impression some players and coaches are good with certain media types as a way of co-opting them and buying better coverage, this wasn't the case with Jordan. You weren't his buddy, and he wasn't yours. In fact, he relished disagreements, and one we carried on for years centered on the contention that he had to be better to his teammates to build their confidence and get the most from them, with his response essentially boiling down to that he had to do his job and they damn well had to do theirs. At the end of each session, Jordan would smile and say something to the effect of, “We'll pick it up next time.” And he'd seek it out.
Though Michael eventually said he'd reconsidered his side of the debate (and went on to provide the basis for a nice column), he never really spared the rod when it came to his teammates. And it was a lot worse than questioning someone's intellect to a writer.
He punched Steve Kerr during a training camp scrimmage, he berated numerous players and challenged others to the brink of physical confrontation (Bill Cartwright, Robert Parish). Most of the great ones threw their stardom around at one time or another — at one point in the 1984 Finals, Larry Bird said the Celtics were playing like “sissies;” Magic Johnson got Paul Westhead fired — but Jordan was more regularly a drill sergeant who'd gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. And he could never lighten up, Francis.
If there is anything that defines him to me, it was his manic competitiveness. It's what separates the greatest ones. Bird was a far better athlete than the narrative that surrounds him, but he was an even more superior competitor. Likewise, Jordan didn't just want to win, he HAD to win.
And, in the end, he walked away with six championships. It's fair to make the argument he couldn't have done all that without Scottie Pippen and the later acquisitions of people like Dennis Rodman, but rings don't lie. He did it his way, and it worked.
And he'd talk about it with most any pen, microphone or camera. Jordan was accessible. He was even more so with a number of reporters, but it didn't make him bulletproof. He took a hit for not publicly supporting Harvey Gantt in his senatorial campaign against Jesse Helms. His “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” line was revealed by Sam Smith, then of the Chicago Tribune, to be more of a throwaway crack than a statement of position, but it has followed him.
Jordan was excoriated for an all-night gambling trip to Atlantic City during the playoffs, and speculation that other wagering issues led to his sabbatical from the NBA found its way into many written opinion pieces.
He was different when he came back, less available. As the league reached new heights of popularity, too, there was more insulation around him. And now that he's owner of the Hornets, Jordan has come to the realization that he's speaking for a larger enterprise and that, with social media, a certain percentage of people are bound to take anything he says out of context. I mean, the man is decidedly not (expletive) stupid. Nowadays, he rarely takes part in press conferences.
But there was a time when things were much different, and it was some hellaciously interesting stuff.
You didn't get that totally in the first two episodes of the documentary, and it's a fair mortal lock you won't receive the unabridged picture of Michael in the remaining eight. But there's more than enough here to explain why he was an intriguing figure for more than just his game.
Michael Jordan was pretty much always unguardable by the time he got to the NBA. The evidence can be found with a click or two. It's very much a known element. But more fun in “The Last Dance” are the glimpses of the unguarded Michael.
And therein lie elements of his personality that made him greater than merely the sum of his athleticism.