"The Last Dance": Retirement, Baseball and Michael Jordan's "Tough Love"

Plus Pippen benches himself and Steve Kerr gets punched in the face

May 11, 2020 8:40 am
Episode 7 of "The Last Dance" saw Jordan step away from the NBA to try his hand at baseball.(Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Episode 7 of "The Last Dance" saw Jordan step away from the NBA to try his hand at baseball.(Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
MLB Photos via Getty Images

We knew it was coming. After Episode 6 left off with Michael Jordan considering retirement, it was only natural that we’d see him walk away from basketball at the height of his powers in Episode 7. This latest installment of The Last Dance faced a unique challenge in that it dealt with one of the most memorable periods of Jordan’s career — the death of his father in ’93, his subsequent retirement and decision to pursue professional baseball, his foray into Hollywood stardom with Space Jam, and the two words everyone was waiting for: “I’m back.” Anyone with a passing knowledge of Jordan and his career already knows all the lore (and all the conspiracy theories) about it; how, then, do you offer a unique perspective on it?

The Last Dance‘s solution was to tackle the questions and urban legends head-on (unequivocally denying the latter, as you might expect) while asking us to reevaluate Jordan’s brief baseball career and providing some behind-the-curtain insight into just how much of a taskmaster he was in practice. (Let’s just say “poor Scott Burrell.”) Here are all the highlights from Episodes 7 and 8.

The conspiracy theories about Jordan’s retirement were “total bullshit”

Given Jordan’s close involvement with The Last Dance, it was always highly unlikely that the docuseries would devote a serious amount of time to the conspiracy theories about his father’s murder, his gambling and his subsequent retirement from the NBA. But Episode 7 briefly reflects on the callousness of the media reports from ’93 implying that James Jordan’s death had anything to do with his son’s gambling debts — despite there being no evidence of such a connection. It also attempts to put to bed the longstanding theory that Jordan’s retirement and decision to play baseball was actually a secret suspension for betting on games.

“I didn’t retire because the league kicked me out or they suspended me for a year and a half. That is not true. There’s no truth to that,” Jordan said in the doc. “I needed a break. My father just passed. And I retired. And I retired with the notion that I wasn’t going to come back.”

The late David Stern also appears in the episode to categorically deny handing down any sort of secret punishment to Jordan. “The urban legend that I sent him away because he was gambling…ridiculous,” he said. “No basis in fact.”

Stern’s senior communications advisor Brian McIntyre’s response was even more to-the-point. “How can I put this delicately?” he responds when asked about the conspiracy theory. “Total bullshit. Can you use that?”

Terry Francona thinks MJ could have made it to the big leagues

If you remember anything about Michael Jordan’s short-lived professional baseball career, it’s probably his total inability to hit a curveball — or the fact that it was obviously the first time we saw him be truly mediocre at something. But The Last Dance reminds us just how impressive it was that Jordan was able to do as well as he did with the Birmingham Barons in AA. (As Jerry Reinsdorf freely admits, the only reason he was there instead of single-A is because he needed to be playing in ballparks that could handle the media circus he’d attract.) While his .202 average might not look impressive on paper, it’s important to remember he was a 31-year-old rookie who hadn’t played baseball since high school; the fact that he was able to waltz in and be as successful as he was (he stole 30 bases!) is just further proof of his athleticism and his determination to win. And as Terry Francona, who managed Jordan on the Barons, says in The Last Dance, had it not been for the player’s strike, who knows what would have happened? “In my opinion,” Francona says, “with 1,500 at-bats, he’d have found a way to get to the major leagues.”

Scottie Pippen “probably wouldn’t change” sitting out that final play vs. the Knicks in ’94

While Jordan was trying his hand at baseball, Scottie Pippen was stepping into more of a leadership role on the Bulls in his absence. And while that went smoothly for the most part, there’s one infamous incident that casts a shadow over that time for Pippen: his decision to sit out the final 1.8 seconds of Game 3 of the ’94 Eastern Conference semifinals with the game tied.

Upset that Phil Jackson had drawn up a play giving the final shot to Toni Kukoc instead of him, Pippen refused to reenter the game, and his teammates recall being shocked and hurt by the decision in the doc.

“Scottie is one of our favorite teammates and favorite people in the world,” Steve Kerr said. “He quit on us. We couldn’t believe that happened. It was devastating…The worst part is we knew it was not Scottie’s character. We knew that wasn’t him. And we knew it was going to be a stain on his reputation.”

Kerr and some of the other players recall a tearful locker room speech from Bill Cartwright (as Cartwright says in the episode, “We had come too far with that team to go out like that”) which led to an emotional apology from Pippen. Jordan reveals that he called Jackson the next day and said, “I don’t know if Scottie is ever going to live this down.”

“It’s always going to come back to haunt him at some point in some conversation,” MJ adds. “Pip knows better than that.”

And yet, surprisingly, when asked about the incident, Pippen revealed that he wouldn’t take it back. “It’s one of those incidents that I wish had never happened,” he said in Episode 7. “But if I had a chance to do it all over again, I probably wouldn’t change it.”   

Jordan was an asshole, but it motivated his teammates to win

Jordan’s trash-talking was the stuff of legend, and his teammates were famously never safe from it. Much of Episode 7 is devoted to the way he pushed his teammates — often belittling them and trying to get them to fight him in an attempt to inspire greatness — and the fact that MJ wasn’t exactly fun to be around in practice.

“People were afraid of him,” Jud Buechler says in the doc. “We were his teammates, and we were afraid of him.” Will Perdue is even more frank: “Let’s not get it wrong,” he says. “He was an asshole. He was a jerk. He crossed the line numerous times. But as time goes on, you think back about what he was actually trying to accomplish. You think, ‘Hey, he was a hell of a teammate.’”

Steve Kerr recalls how his famous fight with Jordan at practice — in which he wound up with a black eye after the pair exchanged blows — led to the two of them becoming closer, and Jordan defends his actions in the The Last Dance, insisting that “winning has a price, leadership has a price” and his teammates would all say “he never asked me to do something that he didn’t fucking do.”

“My mentality was to go out and win at any cost,” Jordan said. “If you don’t want to live that regimented mentality then you don’t need to be alongside of me because I’m going to ridicule you until you get on the same level with me. And if you don’t get on the same level, then it’s going to be hell for you.”

The episode ends with a stunning glimpse of that fire from Jordan, as he insists, “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 never won anything.” He then gets visibly emotional as he says, “I don’t have to do this. I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that, don’t play that way.” The episode ends with a choked-up Jordan signaling that he needs a moment with one word: “Break.”

Jordan had “no problem with the Glove”

While Episode 7 featured plenty of raw emotion from Jordan, Episode 8 included a delightfully lighter moment after he’s presented with footage of Gary Payton saying his defense “took a toll” on the Bull in the ’96 Finals.

That, naturally, is absolutely hilarious to Jordan, and in one of the series’ most memorable moments, he giggles at the idea that “The Glove” got the better of him, bugging out his eyes and smirking when Payton suggests that “at that point, the series changed.” He laughs a little more for good measure before finally saying matter-of-factly, “I had no problem with the Glove.”

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