The death of his father, retirement, baseball, and the comeback; it was a busy mid-nineties for Jordan.
This recap of The Last Dance Episode 7 and The Last Dance Episode 8 contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous two episodes by clicking these words.
The Last Dance Episode 7 and The Last Dance Episode 8 cover a lot of ground, and much of it includes many of the most interesting aspects of the middle of Jordan’s career.
The Last Dance Episode 7 picks up in following the 1993 championship win. Already feeling physically and emotionally exhausted from winning three consecutive NBA championships and dealing with press speculation about his gambling habits, Jordan has finally had enough of basketball (at least for a while). Tragically, after going missing, Jordan’s father James is found murdered in North Carolina. Inevitably, the loss has a profound impact on the already burnt out Jordan and after unfounded media speculation that Jordan’s gambling was somehow connected to his father’s death Jordan retires from the Chicago Bulls.
Following his and his father’s dream for him, Jordan surprises the sporting world by signing onto play pro baseball. The account of Jordan’s time in baseball is interestingly presented here. The picture that emerges of Jordan the baseball player is similar to the one we see of the basketball player, a driven and committed professional. The media, of course, take it as an offense that Jordan would have the arrogance to assume that he could simply walk into another sport and play it at the highest level.
Contrary to the popular narrative that Jordan was a baseball flop, the coaches and people around him at the time tell the story of a player that performed above and beyond expectations for anyone entering the league at the level. Other than in a sporting context, Jordan found the break from basketball to be cathartic. One of the more fascinating episodes in his career, it would have been nice to have a bit more depth to explore this aspect of Jordan’s legacy.
Back in 1998, and we are given another glimpse of Jordan the competitor, this time through the lens of his relationship with Scott Burrell, Jordan’s pet project. In an attempt to bring the competitive animal out of “nice guy” Burrell, Jordan is trash talking and cajoling. “My mentality is to win at any cost”. That approach pays off and the Bulls win.
Is Jordan a nice guy? The answer it seems is complicated. Can you be a nice guy and set and maintain such relentlessly high standards, not just for you but for everyone around you? In one of the series’ highlights, Jordan gets visibly upset at explaining his own thoughts on the complicated subject. Again, I’d like to see more of this in the last couple of episodes when it comes to assessing Jordan’s legacy.
The Last Dance Episode 8 mostly focuses on Jordan’s exit from baseball and return to the NBA. Due to a players’ strike, Jordan is asked to cross the picket line and play, he refuses, paving the way for a return to the Bulls. Initially, just with an informal game of one on one, Jordan gradually gets the old fire back in his belly and returns to a hero’s welcome.
Jordan’s return revitalizes the ailing Bulls, and the break seemingly restores Jordan’s ambition and edge. Returning to the court is bittersweet for Jordan however, as stepping out on the court brings some difficult memories of his father with it.
The return has its highs and lows. It’s clear that Jordan still has what it takes but it does take a little time for him to really feel at the top of his game. Of course, knowing what we know about Jordan by now, all he really needs is for there to be any doubt at all about his ability and he finds an extra gear.
The bitter taste of defeat forces Jordan into an even higher plane of workload and he spends the offseason working on his fitness and his game (and of course filming Space Jam). Jordan engineers the shooting of Space Jam to create an opportunity to play informal pick-up games with the brightest talent across the league.
At the start of the 95/96 season, Jordan is fresh and ready to compete at the highest level. He has new teammates around him and makes it clear what he expects from them. In preseason Jordan is keen to test the mettle of everyone in the group and there is an account of Jordan and Steve Kerr coming to blows in an early practice. The standards are set, and the Bulls get out to a record-breaking start becoming the best team, with the best record, ever.
The Bulls overcome the Seattle Sonics to win the championship on Father’s Day and an emotional Jordan collapses to the ground in relief. He is back at the top of the game, but his father is not with him to see it.
Nothing is as compelling as a comeback and Jordan’s return to basketball is one of the most successful in sports. Understanding how driven he was, we understand what he was prepared to do to ensure that success.
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