ESPN’s Wilbon recounts Michael Jordan’s incredible drive

ESPN’s Michael Wilbon is one of the greatest communicators of our time, in print and broadcast journalism. It’s something Michael Jordan has always appreciated and respected, going all the way back to Wilbon’s days as a columnist for The Washington Post.

Through their mutual respect, a relationship was formed, and Wilbon was allowed access in to Jordan’s inner circle.

The final two episodes of the 10-episode Netflix docuseries, “The Last Dance,” on Jordan’s final season, in 1998, with the Chicago Bulls, aired Sunday night on ESPN.

Jordan finished his time as a player with the Bulls with his sixth and final NBA Championship. That final title cemented Jordan’s legacy as a competitor first, and a clever marketer, second.

Wilbon closely covered Jordan during the time chronicled in the “The Last Dance,” and witnessed firsthand the making of a legend.

Over the last five weeks, we have been reminded again of Jordan’s incredible drive and desire, his brutal honesty with teammates, and take-no-prisoners attitude with opponents.

Our conversation addressed why Jordan finally decided to show the world why he lived his basketball life the way he did. Wilbon recounted a recent conversation about the documentary with Jordan.

“I have said to him as recently as last week, ‘Why do you care [what people think of you]? You won, and it worked, and that’s all you have to say,” Wilbon said of their conversation.

“He doesn’t believe that (he doesn’t need to offer an explanation), he really wants people to understand, and that’s why it’s emotional to him,” Wilbon said. “[Jordan] wants people to get it, and not that he was just some mean old dude. He is hoping when you see the process, how the sausage is made, you get some sense this is why he did what he did.”

As he was becoming the greatest basketball player of all time, and yes, that will start a debate, Jordan did not stop to offer explanations.

Through Jordan’s play and countless commercials he was — and still is — in the public eye, but he is not a public person.

Jordan attracted attention, but did not seek it, and for the most part, stories about him came from others.

“The Last Dance” was Jordan’s narrative, and it’s why each week, between five and six million people have watched it live, and millions of others have viewed it on demand.

One of the most entertaining stories of the docuseries centered on how the Bulls managed Dennis Rodman.

In the middle of that 1998 championships season, head coach Phil Jackson allowed Rodman to leave the team for a 48-hour break in Las Vegas.

“Can you imagine this happening on the Wizards and the coach not telling Ted [team owner Ted Leonsis]? That’s not happening,” said Wilbon.

“They didn’t bring Jerry Reinsdorf [Chicago Bulls owner] in. The general manager Jerry Krause didn’t even come into that. Phil calls Michael, Rodman, comes to their hotel room. They figure this out and Rodman goes to Vegas, and they [the Bulls] keep going to New York. I mean there’s nothing like it in modern sports in my life,” Wilbon said.

Through the lens of “The Last Dance,” Jordan’s closeness with his family is also brought to life.

Jordan talks about the pain of losing his father James, who was murdered in 1993, and how it led to his short retirement from basketball and pursuit of baseball.

And on lighter note: Jordan, who wanted to wear Adidas, was forced by his mother to travel to Portland, Oregon, and meet with Nike.

“Dolores Jordan still said, honey, get on the plane and be quiet,” said Wilbon.

“And the relationship with his dad, and you see how close Michael was with his dad, and he had to get away. He had to break with basketball that represented symbolically, OK, I don’t have my dad anymore I got to do something else. It was a bridge, if you will, back to basketball. Baseball was that,” Wilbon said.

After Jordan retired from basketball in 1993, he did pursue the sport his father loved — baseball — and started a journey in the Chicago White Sox farm system.

Jordan played 127 games for the White Sox Class AA team in Birmingham in 1994.

In 1995, it was back to basketball for Jordan, and that led to three more titles with the Bulls, ending with the season commemorated in “The Last Dance.”

“It’s interesting to see Michael want to explain himself to the public in a way that he has never engaged,” said Wilbon.

“He’s not LeBron [James] and Kevin Durant tweeting every day and posting on Instagram like Dwyane Wade. He doesn’t do that. This is the time you’re going to see him. This is his time to do this. I don’t know that we are going to get it again.”

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Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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