Air Jordans, American Narcissism, American Racism, Chuck Modi(ano), Dave Zirin, Detroit Pistons, Docuseries, Donna Summer, Fandom, Isiah Thomas, John Starks, Labor Exploitation, Michael Jordan, MJ, Navel Gazing, New York Knicks, Nike, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen, Self-Aggrandizement, The Last Dance
I’ve been thinking on this for a few weeks now. Ever since the buildup to the first episode of the documentary The Last Dance that aired on April 19, I contemplated the idea of a docuseries on the last Chicago Bulls run for an NBA title, hoping it would be a larger commentary about Michael Jordan, about the Bulls, about basketball and the NBA, about sports and society and so much more. And, in a number of important ways, The Last Dance is a larger commentary. But mostly not in a good way. Mostly, it nakedly celebrates American racism and American narcissism, embodied in Michael Jordan, and enmeshed in every aspect of the docuseries’ text, context, and subtext.
Two of my favorite sports and society columnists have it right. Chuck Modiano writes in Deadspin that The Last Dance is “Michael Jordan’s 10-Part Nike-Approved Commercial.” And although I believe Dave Zirin is correct to describe Jordan as “showing us who he is—exactly who we thought he was” — an “antihero” — he is so much more typical than that. He is an American narcissist, one who has internalized and interpersonal racism issues, sprinkled with patriarchy (like, where are women in this series, particularly his wife and ex-wife?) and Black masculinity and gross classism to the point of zero empathy for marginalized people. All this makes Jordan all-too-typical, and all-too-ordinary, in the broader scheme.
I have written a bunch on the connections between American narcissism and American racism over the past four and a half years, on this blog and in mainstream publications. What I have not touched on much are the connections between American narcissism and American racism in popular culture. Mostly because the narcissism, racism, and cultural appropriating in pop culture is obvious. It’s more than just low-hanging fruit. It’s the fruit laying all on the ground, ripe and rotten, ready for folks to eat and to throw out, and at the same time.
Ah, but pop culture icons are by definition narcissists, no? They must be, because they self-aggrandize, they’re extroverts, they navel-gaze, they refer to themselves in the third-person, etc., right? Sure, as a general rule, whether a Hollywood actor, a bankable music artist, an over-the-top rapper, a famous out-in-the-world writer, or an athlete among the “greatest of all time,” narcissism might be a significant part of their personality matrix.
But, there’s a difference between confidence — even cockiness and bravado — and actual narcissism. For starters, narcissists tend to lack empathy, the ability to even begin to put themselves in the position of acknowledging the pain, suffering, and difficulties people who are not them face in life, some of which they may have caused themselves. So many in pop culture put on airs and take on public personas who are only a facsimile of who they are in real life. Some artists create an alter-ego in order to cope with the pressures of being in the fickle world of celebrity and fandom. It would be unfair to ascribe narcissism to every individual who has ever “made it” through movies, music, writing, or athletics.
However, so many like Jordan show us exactly who they are, and in the process, show us who we are as a society. And ours is a narcissistic society, of winners and losers, of great disparities in wealth justified with systemic and collective racism. That Jordan’s sneakers still sell for well over $100 million a year for Nike nearly two decades after his retirement says more about the US and the world, and about the narcissism we possess as a society and have exported around the globe, than anything else.
Air Jordans are as much a projection of American narcissism and racism as is the US military, a McDonald’s Big Mac and Coke, and a Starbucks’ venti latte. China has been producing Air Jordan’s at its factories for decades, where workers frequently make $120 a month to produce a pair at $16 raw value. They sell in the US and in the world for between $110 and $250 for mass-produced models, and as much as $100,000 for one-of-a-kind pairs or creations. I couldn’t afford Air Jordans in the years between 1985 and 1999, when they often sold for $150 a pair (and kids were mugging and killing each other over them). In the decades since, I have found that my feet need ergonomic support, something Jordans typically do not provide. Figures. So I am happy to say that while I have tried on a pair or two, I have never owned a pair.
But as for The Last Dance, Jordan’s fourth lap around the world is the text, but him getting in his digs at his friends’, nemeses and haters’ (real and imagined) expense is the context and subtext. His constant put-downs of former Bulls’ GM, the late Jerry Krause went quickly from funny to sad to mercilessly demeaning, all in Episode 1. Jordan’s lack of empathy and leadership, though, comes through with Episodes 2 and 3, in the side story of Scottie Pippen. Jordan, who would have zero titles without Pippen, did nothing but shake his head at Pippen’s low pay and contract woes. Seven years, and you couldn’t be bothered to use even one percent of your influence to get Jerry Reinsdorf to renegotiate for your compatriot? That alone makes Jordan not the GOAT, not in basketball, nor in terms of his humanity.
His complete ignoring of both Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons in the universe of all-time great teams of his era, another example of Jordan’s narcissism, and quite frankly, racism. Pull up any quote from Jordan about the great teams he and the Bulls had to beat to get their first rings. Always “Larry and Magic,” “the Celtics and the Lakers.” Nothing about Isiah and the Pistons, not unless a reporter forces his acknowledgement, not unless Jordan can be begrudging and dismissive in the process. Hey, Jordan! The Pistons beat the Bulls three straight years in the playoffs, 1988, 1989, and 1990, on their way to three straight Finals appearances and two titles. Isiah played well in all the closeout games. Isiah may be an asshole, but he’s been far more gracious in victory and in defeat than you will ever be. But I guess that you needed to keep your distance from a man who has been calling out racism since his playing days. Because as we all know, “Republicans [really, White folx] buy sneakers too.”
As a die-hard Knicks fan, I knew there would be a snippet in an episode or two about the 1990s Knicks, Patrick Ewing, John Starks, and one-time Pitt Panther Charles Smith and their failures against Jordan and the Bulls. So I didn’t bother to watch those episodes. I mean, I lived and died by the Knicks every March, April, May (and sometimes June) between 1990 and 1999. Seeing Jordan smirk and smile in real time about my team and their blown layups, the uneven refereeing (Smith was fouled at least twice at the end of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 1993), and the long scoring droughts mostly because of streak slumps and poor shooting choices was bad enough.
Why would I want to relive these memories via a self-serving docuseries? It would be like White men celebrating how their ancestors used to enslave Black men and rape Black women, and how their grandfathers and great-grandfathers used to lynch Blacks with impunity. Oh wait a minute — White men still do this! With idiotic protests to reopen states, with stand-your-ground laws, and by taking law enforcement jobs. And Jordan is the same way, but with a basketball and a microphone instead.
So, after watching parts of the first four episodes of The Last Dance, I am done. Jordan will never be the GOAT in basketball, as great as he was to dance between 1982 and 1999. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain will always come first, with LeBron possibly somewhere in between. Objectively, MJ’s in the top three or four, but the other three have carried teams to the NBA Finals. But, more importantly, Jordan is the worst combination of American narcissist and indirect supporter of American racism the US has. Just like millions of other ordinary Americans. History will remember, because despite what autocrats think, history is as much determined by the downtrodden as it written by the victorious myth-makers.