My time covering Michael Jordan, Bulls’ ‘The Last Dance’
There is a scene I would like to see in “The Last Dance.” There are eight episodes left. I don’t like my chances.
It happened at the Bulls’ practice facility in suburban Chicago. Michael Jordan spotted me as he walked on to the practice court. He hadn’t seen my face in months. Not since he attempted to play Major League Baseball and I was a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, shadowing his every move.
He walked into the gaggle of media, put me in a headlock and dragged me to the center of the practice court.
Television cameras rolled. I became a spectacle on that night’s evening news, a clip shown on every station to lighten up the broadcast. I was mortified. My bosses were tickled.
Watching “The Last Dance” is more than entertainment for me. I lived that story. Former President Barack Obama says he couldn’t afford a seat in the nosebleed sections. I was paid to sit courtside and write stories about those Bulls teams.
I’ve caught a lot of breaks in my life, and that one is near the top.
Michael Jordan changed the world. In France, a young Tony Parker saw Jordan play and switched from soccer to basketball. In Germany, a young Dirk Nowitzki set his alarm at 3 a.m. to watch Jordan’s NBA games. And in Italy, a young boy named Kobe began imitating every move, right down to the wagging tongue.
Covering Jordan as a basketball player was breathtaking and sublime. He never took a night off. He never sat out games for load management. He insisted on playing basketball even when the Bulls didn’t want him anywhere near the court, making him the antithesis of the modern player. His competitive compulsion and need to annihilate made failure irrelevant. It just wasn’t going to happen.
But my private audiences with Jordan started under much different circumstances, after he reported to the White Sox’ spring training facility in 1994.
I was responsible for charting every swing he took in batting practice and delivering the information as hard news. It was absurd, but so was the story, and Chicago readers demanded nothing less. So I reported on swings and misses. How he grunted like a warthog when he grew fatigued in the batting cage, when his hands were cracked and bleeding from sheer effort. But he kept hacking away, convinced his work ethic would conquer a devilish new sport.
Jordan’s presence wasn’t always appreciated by some of his White Sox teammates. Some of the existing stars didn’t like all the attention afforded to the new guy, the one that was gifted a roster spot and a locker that could’ve been awarded to someone more deserving.
One of them was Kirk McCaskill, a curveball specialist who went out of his way to embarrass the icon during a live hitting session, buckling Jordan’s knees with a steady diet of off-speed pitches.
I thought it was mean-spirited and awful. But it’s exactly what Jordan would’ve done to an inferior teammate during any NBA practice. He once referred to Will Perdue as Will Vanderbilt, stating the Bulls’ center wasn’t good enough to be named after a Big Ten university.
But Jordan was great with the media. He was candid. He came from a working class family and had a healthy respect for people doing their jobs.
He trusted me. He devoured crossword puzzles and occasionally asked for my help on the most stubborn clues. And nearing the end of his first spring training, I took my shot. I was young and in shape and asked him if I could join in one of his upcoming pickup games, writing a story about it afterward.
I was caught off-guard by his response.
The affability immediately disappeared. He turned dead-serious. He cocked his head in my direction, one eyebrow raised.
“Why?” he asked with disdain. “You can’t play.”
In that moment, our relationship shifted. I tapped into Jordan the competitor. I had entered the realm of an assassin, the den of a lion. I went through the breach and was suddenly fresh meat.
I dropped the idea entirely.
My initial hope was that “The Last Dance” would make clear what I’ve known for 25 years, that nobody will ever impact the NBA like Michael Jordan. That Father Time is the only one who could ever beat him 1-on-1.
Now, my hope is that a generation of young players will be motivated and inspired by an icon they never experienced in real time. They’ll learn there’s never a good time to take a day off. Not if they’re truly pursuing a higher standard set by the Greatest of All Time.