The latest episodes of The Last Dance mark the first time we see Michael Jordan feel pressure from powers outside of basketball.
This week marks the midway point of ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary series. In episodes five and six we go through a rollercoaster of high and low points during Michael Jordan’s playing career: The Dream Team, his activism, his shoes, and his gambling. Here are five highlights from the latest episodes of The Last Dance.
1. Michael Jordan didn’t want to sign with Nike
Michael Jordan signed his first shoe deal as a rookie in 1984. The marriage between Jordan and Nike now seems like a perfect fit, but back then Nike could barely get a meeting with him. In the ’80s, Converse was the official shoe of the NBA — their roster included stars like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson — and the American shoe company didn’t really have any more room for another superstar. Accepting that fact, Jordan had his mind set on adidas.
Jordan’s agent, David Falk, wanted him to give Nike a shot but he wouldn’t even take a meeting with the upstart company. It wasn’t until Jordan’s mother, Deloris, got involved that he accepted a meeting from Nike. She made him get on a plane and meet with them saying, “You have to give them an opportunity.” At the time, Nike was most known for making running shoes and was just getting into the arena of basketball footwear. The whole deal was really an experiment that Nike hoped would pay off long term. Nike expected to sell $3 million worth of Air Jordans in the first four years of Michael’s deal. They sold $126 million in the first year.
2. “That little Laker boy’s gonna take everybody one-on-one”
ICYMI: "That little Laker boy's gonna take everybody one-on-one."
— ESPN (@espn) May 4, 2020
So far, the highlight of The Last Dance has been previously unreleased behind the scenes footage from the 1997-98 season. Episode five was dedicated to the late great Kobe Bryant. And the first couple of minutes featured intimate footage of the first time the two went head to head in an All-Star Game.
The footage is incredible. In the locker room, you see an older Jordan say, almost admirably, “He don’t let the game come to him. He just go out there and take it.” Later, Kobe, who was interviewed for the series, says that Jordan was a mentor to him, and that he probably wouldn’t have five rings without the moves he took from him.
3. MJ confirms his “Republicans buy sneakers too” line
and so, i hear what mike is saying right now, but it's been about 30 years since "republicans buy sneakers, too" and he hasn't shown much more interest in social matters or controversy. that wasn't about his time of life. just how he gets down. #thelastdance
— bomani (@bomani_jones) May 4, 2020
The infamous quote: “Republicans buy sneakers too.” For the most part, Michael Jordan has kept a positive image in his basketball career and beyond. But one of the few blemishes on his legacy would have to be this quote and the context surrounding it. In 1990, Harvey Gantt was running for senator in North Carolina — Jordan’s home state — and was hoping to become the first Black man to win. Gantt was running against incumbent Jesse Helms who was, essentially, a segregationist. Jordan stayed silent throughout the campaign, even turning down a PSA appearance alongside his mother endorsing Gantt.
“I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player,” Jordan said. “Was that selfish Probably. But that was my energy — that’s where my energy was.” Jordan did say that he donated to Gantt’s campaign, but a lot of people, especially his Black fans, were disappointed in his lack of action.
Matters became worse when it was reported in Sam Smith’s book Jordan Rules that he said, “Republicans buy sneakers too,” in response to throwing public support behind a political figure. Thirty years later, Jordan defends the quote, admitting for the first time that he said it but that it was said in jest. He also added that he can’t always win with everybody.
“It’s never going to be enough for everybody — I know that, I realize that,” he said. “Because everyone has a preconceived idea in terms of what they think I should do or what I shouldn’t do.”
4. Jordan’s role in keeping Isiah Thomas off of the Dream Team roster
— tyrese (@londonstheory) May 4, 2020
Before the 1992 Olympics, American NBA players commonly sat out of international play. After embarrassing performances (by American standards) in previous Olympics, the United States basketball team decided to ask professional players to join for the 1992 Summer Olympics. That year boasted some of the best talent ever on the same team, but was missing one all-time-great — Isiah Thomas.
Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas’ beef can be traced back to the ’80s when Thomas and the rest of his “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons walked off the court without shaking the Bulls’ hands after losing to the team in 1991. The lack of sportsmanship did not sit right with MJ and most of the players in Chicago. When the 1992 Olympics approached, it was speculated that Jordan asked the team to keep Thomas off the roster.
“I don’t know what went into that process,” Thomas said later on. “I met the criteria to be selected but I wasn’t.”
Jordan denies keeping Thomas off of the Dream Team, but admitted that Thomas would have negatively impacted the team atmosphere.
“The Dream Team, based on the environment and the comradery that happened on that team, it was the best harmony,” Jordan said. “Would Isiah have made a different feeling on that team? Yes.”
5. Michael Jordan’s gambling problem
my guy beat michael jordan at pitching quarters and then hit him with the shrug lol pic.twitter.com/yxjNe5FvkX
— Shea Serrano (@SheaSerrano) May 4, 2020
After a second straight loss to the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1993, questions about Michael Jordan’s focus began to surface. The evening before Game 2 of that series, Jordan was seen leaving a casino in Atlantic City, and rumors about his alleged gambling addiction started to swirl. The question wasn’t whether or not Jordan gambled — he’s seen multiple times throughout the series betting on anything from cards and golf to flicking quarters against a wall — but people were concerned that his gambling was affecting his career both on and off the court.
James “Slim” Bouler, a golf hustler, was arrested on drug and money laundering charges in 1992, and the feds found a check addressed to him from Michael Jordan for $57,000 to pay off a gambling debt. Richard Esquinas wrote the book Michael & Me, which documents Jordan’s gambling problems. Esquinas claimed that Jordan owed him $1.2 million in gambling debt from golf.
MJ chalked his gambling problem up to his competitive nature, saying he didn’t have a gambling problem but “a competition problem.” Jordan was so fed up by the rumors that he took a hiatus from speaking with the media in the middle of the playoffs. Ultimately, this fueled Jordan and the Bulls, and they went on to win four straight games against the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals and advanced to the Finals for the third straight year.
Revisit our recap of Episode three and four 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_