Sunday night’s part four of The Last Dance—the penultimate segment before next week’s season finale—started and ended with the undeniable impact Michael Jordan’s father had on MJ’s life.
In addition to portraying the emotional side of Jordan, episodes seven and eight explore MJ’s retirement in 1993, his short stint playing minor league baseball, and the long-standing controversy regarding whether or not the six-time Finals MVP was an exemplary leader.
Michael and James Jordan epitomized the father-son relationship that all dads strive for. “He was my rock,” Michael explained, as he recalls a conversation in which James expressed concern for his misbehavior in ninth grade, “and that’s all I needed to hear… from that point on it was like tunnel vision.”
Early footage of MJ energetically celebrating his 1993 NBA Finals victory with his father quickly shifts to a somber mood, as details surrounding James’s sudden death emerges.
After missing for three weeks, James Jordan’s body was found dumped in a creek near the border of North and South Carolina. Two teenagers recognized a red Lexus on the side of the highway—license plate number “UNC0023″—and proceeded to rob James Jordan, shooting him in the chest and demolishing the car. Even worse, several media outlets and journalists erroneously tied James’s death to Michael and his gambling habits.
Three months later, Michael Jordan announced his retirement from basketball, a seismic event that shocked the sports world.
As one reporter described the press conference as a parallel to “The Last Supper,” Jordan remained poised and confidently stated, “the biggest positive I can take out of my father not being here with me today is that he saw my last basketball game.”
At the end of part four, unseen footage of Jordan after his fourth NBA Finals victory—the first without his father—unveils his raw emotion alone in the Bulls’ locker room. Winning his fourth ring on Father’s Day underscored his heartbreak from the void he felt.
The iconic photo of Jordan on the locker room floor is followed by never-heard-before audio footage of Jordan sobbing in his father’s absence.
During the postgame interview, Jordan officially dedicated his fourth ring and Finals MVP to his late father amid MVP chants: “I know he’s watching… this is for Daddy.”
A Future MLB Star?
The Last Dance makes it clear that Jordan’s decision to retire from basketball and eventually pursue baseball was heavily influenced by James Jordan. According to Michael, one of his final conversations with his father involved the two debating about whether the NBA champion should seek a ring in a second sport.
Due to inadequate press facilities, Jordan immediately joined the Double-A Birmingham Barrons instead of starting on a Single-A team. The man who ultimately made this decision was Jerry Reinsdorf—who continues to own the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox today. Although he was playing AA baseball, Jordan was still making NBA money, as Reinsdorf continued to honor his $3 million/year contract.
Despite not having played baseball since he was 17-year-old, Jordan managed to hit .202, add 51 RBIs, and steal 30 bases in 127 games. Considering that hitting a baseball has long been argued the hardest thing to do in sports, Jordan’s numbers are pretty miraculous. It remains hard to tell how far Jordan could have taken his baseball career, but Barons manager—and eventual 2x World Series Champion manager of the Boston Red Sox—Terry Francona believed MJ could have reached the MLB “with 1500 at bats.”
Leadership Has a Price
Before the premiere of The Last Dance, Jordan voiced his concern about viewers thinking he is “a horrible guy” for the way he treated other people at times. More specifically, via director Jason Hehir’s interview with The Athletic, Jordan thought, “When people see this footage I’m not sure they’re going to be able to understand why I was so intense, why I did the things I did, why I acted the way I acted, and why I said the things I said.”
Through the first several episodes of The Last Dance, the audience doesn’t see a malicious side of Jordan. Sure, he pokes fun at GM Jerry Krause’s height and weight. He was notorious for talking trash, and making people pay for their words, using it as fuel for his fire. But Jordan never crossed any lines.
However, in part four, Jordan inches closer to crossing that line. “Leadership has a price… winning has a price,” Jordan willfully explains.
But “the price” in this situation involved Jordan’s teammates fearing him instead of respecting him. Perhaps this fear was most evident in practice, where Jordan routinely called his teammates out in front of the whole team. According to MJ, “I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged.”
This ruthless strategy can backfire, but an important component of Jordan’s leadership was that he led by example. Whether running sprints, lifting weights, or performing at maximum effort, MJ was the first one in the gym and the last one to leave.
An emotional Jordan tears up again, this time at the end of episode seven. It’s clear that Jordan’s leadership methods have cost him a few friends along his successful journey, and he takes criticism as personal to who he is as a human, not just an athlete.
In one of the greatest moments from the documentary thus far, Jordan states, “When people see this, they’re going to say “well he wasn’t really a nice guy… he may have been a tyrant”, well that’s you, because you’ve never won anything… 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.”