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Padecky: 'The Last Dance' portrays Michael Jordan as jerk, would any of us have acted any differently?

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ESPN recently aired a 10-episode Michael Jordan hagiography entitled “The Last Dance.” It was the Chicago Bulls’ remarkable run to six NBA titles in the ’90s. It was immensely entertaining, revealing, riveting at times. A nice peek behind the curtain. Many warts came to light, none more dramatic and unsettling than Jordan’s.

The best basketball player who ever lived came across as vain, ruthless, obsessive, obnoxious, unkind, unforgiving, arrogant, hostile, a bully, a one-dimensional jerk. Jordan was as soft and cuddly as a cobra. He had to approve of the film for it to be shown and so the portrayal obviously didn’t bother him as much as it did for so many others.

Which leads to an obvious question that has yet to be asked.

Would any of us have acted any differently? If we had owned such a mercurial talent, if we had been surrounded with such adoration, if we had such a drive — almost felt like an obligation — to resurrect a moribund franchise, could we have played the humble, appreciative warrior?

We like our sports icons to be compliant, cooperative, cordial, someone who plays well with others and is loved as a complete human and not only as someone who is only admirable for handling a stick or a ball. No one wants to root for a jerk.

This column is not as much to exonerate Jordan as it is to explain him. What was it like to be Michael Jordan? What was it like to walk in his shoes?

I asked him that question on one of his last road trips to Oakland to play the Warriors. Sitting in front of his locker at the Oakland Coliseum, Jordan paused, sighed.

“There is a single-lane road the players take after practice from the stadium,” Jordan said. “It’s one-way. Gives us a chance to avoid crowds. One day as I was leaving a woman had laid down on the road, her body blocking my path.

“I got out of my car and asked if she could move. She said she wouldn’t. I said she had to, otherwise I’d run over her and she’d probably die. She said, ‘I know. That’s OK. I want to have your tire tracks over my body.’ ”

At that point Jordan paused, looked at me as if he had just spoken with someone who described to him the nutritional benefits of eating a box of nails. He said he called security. They took her away for a mental evaluation.

His outsized talent that had to be seen to believed was matched by the spotlight that had to be seen to be believed. In 1984 Jordan, then a rookie, received a standing ovation from Knicks fans at Madison Square Garden. Before he ever took a shot. By just walking on the court for the first time. As a rookie, I repeat.

Jordan was never just a guy trying to fit in. He was The Guy in which his teammates had to find his flow and go with it, whether that flow meant him screaming to keep up, to shut up, to man up. There was no wiggle room with him. His obsession had better be your obsession. Otherwise don’t let the door hit you in the booty on your way out.

From a distance, such an attitude produced remarkable results beyond those six NBA titles. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006. He makes $44 million a year just from endorsements. He’s worth $2.1 billion. He owns four homes, a 154-foot yacht, his own jet. He’s funded the construction of two medical clinics. And there’s that oh-so-cute story of a woman willing to lose her life so she can get imprinted by Michael’s tires.

Sounds terrific, doesn’t it? Easy to envy, sure. This is the rarified air Jordan travels in, and it goes way beyond when he jumps with a basketball. The Bulls don’t win six without Jordan pushing his teammates with his verbal whips and chains. They took the abuse because they knew the upside. Ask the Warriors of the last few years how difficult it is to sustain excellence. Ask the Patriots and Bill Belichick the same question. They’ll all say the same thing — it’s tougher staying on top than getting there.

Jordan was the Bulls’ Belichick. He was there to win. Everything else was a footnote for someone else to discuss. So what if Jordan couldn’t let go of the past? It’s been 22 years since the Bulls’ last NBA title and yet he still carries a grudge against certain players. He couldn’t let bygones be bygones. Gary Payton, Isiah Thomas, among others, Jordan dismisses them more as a nuisance than a worthy foe. Yes, that is petty.

Yes, Jordan had no trouble putting himself out there as someone who, while without peer on the court, was less than charming off it. That’s the message “The Last Dance” sent out. In many ways Jordan still lives in the ’90s. He was venial without compromise. Everything but winning was written in the margins. You think I’m a jerk. I don’t care.

Now, that attitude doesn’t feel very flattering.

Then, who among us could have resisted? When you are being called “The Black Jesus” by Indiana’s Reggie Miller, shoot, acting like a ruthless and obnoxious bully would feel like a fair compromise.

To comment write to bobpadecky@gmail.com.

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