Episode seven and eight of The Last Dance focused on Michael Jordan’s time as a baseball player and the relentless drive that made him such a great competitor.
There are only two more episodes left of ESPN’s The Last Dance, and if they’re as emotional as episodes seven and eight, we’re in for a treat. In this week’s episodes, there are some questions answered about Michael Jordan’s flirtation with professional baseball and how that affected the trajectory of his career as well as the relationships with his teammates. Here are five highlights from the latest episodes of The Last Dance.
1. Jordan’s gambling “suspension”
"If the urge comes back, if the Bulls will have me, if David Stern lets me back in the league, I may come back."
Michael Jordan announcing his 1st retirement.
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) May 11, 2020
Remember Michael Jordan’s gambling — “competition” — problem that came to light when he went to Atlantic City the night before a playoff game during the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals? The league investigated Jordan’s late-night trip but found no evidence that he violated any league rules. However, the story didn’t end there. In what is still one of the more shocking moves in sports history, Jordan decided to exchange his basketball shoes for baseball cleats and retire from the NBA to take a swing at the MLB. Once the media got over the initial shock of the best player in the league retiring in his prime, his motives were then questioned. Some started to speculate that Jordan’s “retirement” was really a suspension given by then-NBA commissioner David Stern for the gambling fiasco in ’93.
Those rumors could not have been more inappropriate as they came after the murder of Michael’s father, James. Some thought Michael’s gambling past was the reason his father was murdered, but any evidence to that — and the gambling suspension for that matter — was unfounded.
“There is no truth to that,” Michael said of his alleged NBA suspension. “I needed a break. My father just passed, and I retired.” Michael’s father had always wanted him to play baseball and his passing — along with the brutally demanding three years of basketball Michael went through — was a catalyst for him to give it a shot.
2. Scottie Pippen’s stain
In the 1993-94 season, Scottie Pippen had one of the hardest jobs in America: replace Michael Jordan. Pippen, to his credit, did elevate his game as best he could. He ended the season in 3rd place for MVP voting, behind centers David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, and took Chicago to the playoffs.
“Everyone expected me to try to be the man,” Pippen said. “But we beat teams by committee.” Where Jordan was a brash and ruthless teammate, Pippen took a lighter approach to leading and was more encouraging.
“Michael would just bludgeon everybody around him and Scottie was the much softer touch,” ex-teammate Steve Kerr said. “[Pippen] would comfort you when things weren’t going well, put his arm around you and [say] ‘Hang in there, you’ll be alright.'”
Pippen was the model teammate for all but 1.8 seconds of that season. In Game 3 of the Conference Semifinals against the New York Knicks, the score was tied and the Bulls had a chance to draw up a play to win it. Coach Phil Jackson drew up a play that had Toni Kukoč taking the last shot, with Pippen inbounding the ball. Pippen was outraged he wasn’t taking the shot and refused to be put in the game. Jackson didn’t bend and had Pippen watch Kukoč hit the game-winning shot from the bench.
“It’s one of those incidents where I wish it never happened,” Pippen said. “But if I had the chance to do it over again I probably wouldn’t change it.”
3. The Jordan punch
Michael Jordan breaks down exactly how he ended up punching Steve Kerr in the face during Bulls practice. Afterward we discuss the difference between then, when a fight could go largely unnoticed, and now, where if a guy subtweets his teammate, there is large-scale FREAKING OUT. pic.twitter.com/DHwcDQ2dnm
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) May 5, 2020
On the outside, winning championship after championship after championship looks like a lot of fun. But after seeing some of the Bulls’ practice footage, it looked more like hell or even, on one occasion, a boxing match.
During practice, Jordan and teammate Steve Kerr began to get frustrated with one another to the point of a physical altercation. According to Jordan, Kerr started the quarrel by punching Mike in the chest. MJ responded by punching Kerr in his eye. Coach Phil Jackson kicked him out of the practice and Jordan was very apologetic to Kerr afterward. Kerr stood up for himself — which ultimately gained the respect of Jordan.
“It was probably, in a weird way, the best thing I ever did,” Kerr said. “[Jordan] tested everybody he played with, and I stood up to him…From that point on, our relationship dramatically improved in our trust in each other.”
4. Michael Jordan would make things up to motivate himself
— Jumpman History (@HistoryJumpman) May 11, 2020
One of the more interesting tidbits of The Last Dance has been the many things Michael Jordan would use to motivate himself. Jordan would take an insignificant moment in his life and crank it up to an evil supervillain origin story type level. Maybe when you have as many accolades as MJ does you have to find unconventional ways to motivate yourself. Whether it be ex-Seattle Supersonics head coach George Karl not exchanging pleasantries before a Finals game or ex-teammate BJ Armstrong hitting a jump shot over him, MJ took everything personally.
In a 1993 game against the Washington Bullets, second-year player LaBradford Smith had a career night against Jordan, scoring 37 points in the game. Smith went up to Jordan after the game and said, “Nice game, Mike,” according to Jordan. This was all MJ needed. The Bulls and Bullets just so happened to play again the following night and Jordan, bothered by Smith’s comment, decided to seek vengeance. MJ had 36 points by halftime. Poking the bear that is Michael Jordan has never worked out for anybody but don’t blame Smith. Jordan later admitted that he made up Smith’s postgame comments as a motivator — or maybe an excuse — to embarrass him the next game.
5. Michael Jordan had to rework his body after playing baseball
(1995) Pick up games at the ‘Jordan Dome’ where MJ played against Reggie Miller, Juwan Howard, Dennis Rodman and others.
Mike would film ‘Space Jam’ during the day and play these pick up games at night. 🎞
— Timeless Sports (@timelesssports_) May 11, 2020
Michael Jordan’s work ethic is unparalleled as we’ve seen throughout The Last Dance, but his training regimen during the summer of 1995 looked exhausting. Jordan had just unretired after playing baseball and joined the Bulls toward the end of their 1994-95 season. Having played just 17 regular-season games, Jordan was physically unprepared for the playoffs and was knocked out in the second round by the Orlando Magic.
Jordan’s body wasn’t built for basketball anymore and he had to start all over.
“I spent 15 months turning my body into a baseball body,” Jordan said. “I had to reconstruct my whole body — which was hard.”
Jordan was filming the movie Space Jam that summer but still made time out of his 12-hour shooting days to prepare for the upcoming season. He built an indoor practice facility on the Warner Bros. set, and when he wasn’t filming he was either lifting weights and practicing individually, or playing pickup games with NBA players he invited to the “Jordan Dome.”
Revisit our recap of Episode five and six of The Last Dance, and check back every Monday for new installments.
Jordan Pandy is a writer from the DMV who covers culture, music, and sports. You can follow him @JordanPandy_