There will never be an athlete as satisfying as Michael Jordan, in any sport, ever again, for as long as the world spins
ESPN's "The Last Dance" and Michael Jordan are the talk of the sports world right now, or at least shares top billing with the NFL Draft, and while I had my issues with the first two episodes of the documentary, I will not sit here and pretend that I'll be anything but fixated for the next three Sunday nights, instantly shushing anyone who dares break my reverie. (And for what it's worth, episodes three and four on Sunday night were top-notch.) The truth is, you could stage a Michael Jordan puppet show put on by second graders, and my reaction would be exactly the same. I'd be dying to see how puppet Jordan handled the puppet Pistons on his way to the first title, and woe to anyone who got in the way. Jordan content is great content, full stop, and the quality almost doesn't matter.
People love comparisons, sports fans especially, so when you have someone as epic as Jordan—I hate that word, but this is one of the few cases where it actually applies—the discussion will inevitably turn to others. Is LeBron like him? Is Tiger Woods? Tom Brady?
No, no, and no. We need to answer this question definitively because it's like comparing really big boulders to Mt. Everest. The mystique of Jordan is our massive, unknowable peak, solid and remote all at once, and nobody is ever going to come close to matching that aura. He wasn't just a once-in-a-lifetime sports figure...his like won't come around again as long as sports exist.
LeBron may be a better all-around basketball player, at least by some metrics. Tiger may have been more socially transformational since he was a black athlete dominating a very white sport. Tom Brady may have had a more complete career, long-term. Internationally, players like Messi or Ronaldo or whoever the most famous cricket guy is might compare favorably in limited measures.
Who cares? None of that matters, because Jordan is a legend. What distinguishes him from all of those athletes, and the reason he'll always loom largest in our imaginations is that he carried inside him a pathological competitiveness that knew no limits, and that laid the groundwork for a storied career, unlike anything we've ever seen. People talk about the "focus" of champions, but in a world where perfect focus is impossible, Jordan's focus on being the best player of all-time was more complete and monomaniacal than anyone else has ever been. And it's that merciless, remorseless, unyielding urge to conquer and dominate that leaves us today with so much material, and so many terrific chapters, that we'll probably get to the end of this 10-hour documentary and think, "I'm not sure it was enough."
To think of Jordan as a guy who won six championships and made a few clutch shots is to miss the point completely. He resonates because his life follows a series of challenges and victories that are almost comforting in their regularity, but simultaneously intriguing and exciting because of the elemental viciousness of the conflict. Every single time somebody challenged him, Jordan didn't just emerge as the winner; he humiliated them in the process, added a few pages to his legend, and taught a lesson. The man is a living fable-maker. The Michael Jordan story is a power fantasy, it's one many of us covet in the real world, and we can't help but worship someone who lived out that fantasy, so reliably, at the top of his sport.
It's why the smaller Jordan stories are just as good, if not better, than the big ones. Like the time he got so frustrated that his teammate Dave Corzine kept beating him at Pac-Man games in airports that he bought his own machine and practiced until he was better. Or the legendary Dream Team scrimmage where someone—sources differ on whether it was Magic Johnson or Charles Barkley—started talking trash to Jordan, and suddenly it was the most intense game any of them had played in, reaching a climax when Mike Krzyzewski, coaching the other team, said "plenty of time left!" from the sideline and Jordan slammed the ball at the foul line and yelled, "f*** that, there's no time left at all! It's over!" Or how in his third finals, against the Phoenix Suns, he had it out for Dan Majerle because Bulls GM Jerry Krause, who Jordan despised, wouldn't stop praising Majerle. When the Bulls clinched that series, Jordan's first words were, "Thunder Dan Majerle my f***ing ass!"
These stories are endless and include various one-on-one games that have become legend. One of my favorites is the summer camp battle against O.J. Mayo, then the country's best high-schooler, where Mayo made the mistake of trash-talking Jordan—who was already retired—and invoked his wrath. In the video below, pay particular attention to the last shot, where you can hear Jordan taunting Mayo as he backs him down by saying "yeah, mamma! Yeah, mommy!" as he gets ready to score, hitting Mayo for his youth:
A few other great athletes have had moments like this—I'm thinking of Tiger's win against Abraham Ancer at the Presidents Cup, complete with the "Abe wanted it, and Abe got it" quote—but nobody has amassed anywhere near the staggering number of victories. And that's before you even get to the win against Magic in the finals, against Drexler the next year, against Barkley after that, and the comeback victories against Gary Payton, Shaun Kemp, and finally the two victories over the Jazz.
When the entire goal of your existence, and the sole focus, is victory, and you're fueled in part by burning competitiveness, in part by grudges, and in part by total confidence, those are the rewards. Nobody achieved that level before Jordan, and nobody will achieve it after. It's why none of us can away when the story is re-told: We know all of this stuff happened in real life, but we also know that we're witnessing a timeless myth. Unlike his many championships, and his endless, personal triumphs, Jordan is unrepeatable.