For Michael Jordan fans, The Last Dance is a wonderful nostalgia ride. It takes us from his early years out of North Carolina to 1998, when the great Chicago Bulls team broke up after winning their second three-peat.
But episode six of the 10-part series starts and ends with Jordan, 30-years-old and at the clear-cut peak of his basketball powers, declaring he’s ready to leave the circus all behind.
“This is not one of those lifestyles that you envy,” Jordan says early in the episode, “I’m ready for getting out of this life. You know when you get to that point… I’m there. With no reservations at all, I’m there.”
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Later, he insists: “If I had a chance to do it all over again, I would never wanna be considered a role model. It’s like a game that’s stacked against me. There’s no way I can win.”
At this point, Jordan was the most popular athlete on the planet. His celebrity status had coincided with the network TV boom in the US and boosted by being continually on the screen through multiple endorsements.
This was before the internet boom but Jordan was everywhere. Giant billboards would stare down at fans. The Air Jordans were the most coveted shoes on the planet. He was witty, charming, had a squeaky clean image and was a winner. As the Gatorade ad put it, everyone wanted to ‘Be Like Mike’.
With only a touch of irony, Playboy called Jordan “the quintessential gentleman, consummate sportsman, clean-living family man and modest, down-to-earth levitating demigod.”
Then, at a certain point, it all just became too much. The pressure to be perfect was overwhelming. In public, Jordan would often smile it off. But perhaps that is also why he felt most at home on the court. He didn’t have to be perfect there, he could just be himself.
Jordan’s competitiveness is legendary. He simply didn’t like to lose at anything – it could be golf or even a simple game of cards. He had to win. But sometimes, that winning came at a price.
“I have a competition problem, a competitive problem,” he says at one point in the documentary.
His gambling addiction became big news. It shattered the myth of perfection. And that is when the media circus around him exploded.
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The Jordan Rules, the best-selling book by investigative-reporter-turned-sportswriter Sam Smith, spoke about the tactics the Detroit Pistons came up with to stop the main Bulls player but it also dove deep into Jordan’s heart of darkness. He was a whiny, trash-talking troll who wasn’t exactly loved by his teammates.
Bit by bit, it all seemed to pile up until it was teetering on the brink of destruction. One could see it and one could feel it. The suffocation that a top athlete must feel. It wasn’t pretty and it took a toll on Jordan.
“A lot of people say they’d like to try and be Michael Jordan for a day or for a week. But I don’t think they quite understand that it’s no fun.”
“People build you up to tear you down.”
But what is true of Jordan is perhaps also true of the modern sports celebrity all over the world. There are expectations and there is reality. There is public life and there is private life. But the lines blur far too quickly and far too regularly.
It can leave the athlete confused. It can leave the athlete living a lie. Trying to fit in with the image others have of him, rather than just trying to be himself.
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We’ve seen it happen in India too. When the cameras follow you around constantly, your mind starts functioning differently. Sachin Tendulkar felt the pressure. MS Dhoni felt it too. And as does Virat Kohli.
The pressure of people wanting them to do what they feel is right. The pressure to donate. The pressure to donate enough. The pressure to speak up. The pressure to stand up. The pressure to support. But mostly the pressure to do everything that is ‘right’ in the minds of the ones demanding it.
In a sense, the criteria should only be what the sportsperson wants to do. But because they are so big; because of the impact they have on our minds, we expect them to do exactly what we have built up in our minds. And when you think about it… everyone has a different perception of perfect.
In sport, perfection is easier. One just needs to get a score or do things in a certain way. One might even say, perfection is attainable. But can one truly expect it to happen in life too?
And if we can’t, then why do we expect it from them?