“Last Dance”: Jordan’s Competitive Edge Ruled, But Didn’t Shut Out His Humanity

By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)

“The Last Dance” premieres today, the long-awaited 10-part series docu-series focusing on the life of Michael Jordan and his shared struggles with the Chicago Bulls to make good on winning a sixth NBA championship at the end of the 1997-98 season.

Among the sea of preview coverage given to this television event, reports have surfaced of MJ’s reaction to the documentary, which has him believing that the public will view him as a “horrible guy” after watching it.

In many ways after years of reflection and revelation through other sources, Jordan’s persona can’t be seen as clean-cut as it was during his public ascension in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but in talking to people who knew His Airness through that important time in his life there is more beyond his well-known competitive edge and desire to win that made him the still-reigning King of Basketball, as well as a person to be valued beyond the court.

Cheryl Raye-Stout of WBEZ is one of the most respected and tenured sports reporters of any medium in Chicago. Having covered Jordan from 1985 to his waning days as a Bull, Raye-Stout has spent countless hours observing and interviewing Jordan at practices, games and press conferences. Initially as a reporter for WCBR radio, she existed as one of the few female reporters to cover sports at any level in Chicago.

Raye-Stout can go all the way back to a time when Jordan’s entire career was in peril during the 85-86 season, Jordan’s second in the NBA, when he broke his foot. That harrowing time will be addressed in “The Last Dance” as being crucial in making Jordan into the competitor he would be known to be. She admits that during that season it was unknown how great of a basketball player Jordan would be and not much thought was given at all to what his impact would be on society. 

But from an early point, Raye-Stout could see that MJ had a particular impact on people that others didn’t. Once on her birthday, which she actually shares with Jordan, she was working on a radio broadcast at the Auto Show and her station was set-up near Chevrolet, which was a sponsor of Jordan’s.

Chevrolet asked MJ to stop by the show before heading on a trip back home to North Carolina. When Jordan stopped by, they made the announcement over the intercom, and the Auto Show’s crowd swarmed to them. It was on that day Raye-Stout says she knew how special he was to the public and what he was willing to do to please that public. 

Credit: WBEZ.org
Cheryl Raye-Stout

“What was great about Michael was that he would talk prior to games as well as after games.” Stout said. “He always talked in the locker room and he took every question. There was no cut off time. He was very respectful. I was able to really develop a rapport with him prior to him leaving for baseball and coming back to the league.” 

Fast forward to his return to basketball in 1995 after his first, baseball-filled retirement and Raye-Stout saw Jordan’s relationship with the media change a bit.

In some ways it was damaged irreparably after he got ripped by some for leaving basketball for baseball and ridiculed for not excelling in baseball, but his rapport with Stout remained, and often times their connection played a huge role with her getting exclusive news that made her reporting stand out. Jordan respected her off the court, but as we know, he was a completely different person on the court and often times Raye-Stout saw the various sides of Jordan clearly, especially during that last championship season.  

As the ’97-98 season unfolded it became painfully obvious from the team to the Bulls front office and to observers of all types around them that this would be the last go around for the Jordan/Scottie/Phil era.

In recounting that time, Raye-Stout notes that it was a long, up-and-down season that many people were fine seeing complete when it did. She believes that although he never said it publicly there was a feeling that even MJ had a sense of finality that he wanted to achieve with the Bulls. Often times, covering the team during that time was uncomfortable, Raye-Stout said, but that competitive edge never that Jordan had kept the Bulls on edge and ultimately pushed them to another championship. What she was able to witness truly showed the competitive spirit that MJ had.

“I saw a player that was overly competitive,” Stout said. “There are only two players I covered that had that competitive edge, and that was Michael Jordan and Walter Payton. They are two most competitive players I ever seen, but also the two greatest players I’ve ever covered.”

From a players’ perspective, Jordan’s competitive edge made him MJ, but one thing about Jordan was his role of being a team player and family man. Twice an NBA champion with the Bulls as well as a two-time 3-point shootout champion, Chicago native Craig Hodges played with Jordan during the Bulls’ first 3-peat run and saw MJ mature into the superstar he’s known as today.

While others have openly admitted that his competitive drive often times made him hard to deal with, one special moment highlighted the humility and emotional depth behind Jordan, and that was the moment he shared with his father after winning his first championship in ’91. As a father himself, that moment stood out for Hodges.

“To see MJ and his father after the first championship, his father putting his arm around MJ while Jordan is in tears and to know how cool Poppa J was, you see the impact he had on MJ’s life to keep him grounded,” Hodges said.

“You see how far MJ has come as a player and see how he maintained that father-son relationship. As a father, that was cool for me.”

Jordan went through a lot of ups and downs dealing with the death of his father, and every championship he won came at a cost, but it never altered the humane connections he made with others.

Raye-Stout speaks on the time Jordan met a young girl from Make-A-Wish Foundation who wanted to meet him and cried in tears after making the young girl’s wish come true and how after winning of his championships he asked Stout to bring her three-and-a-half month old son to a game to meet him. 

Reporting on Michael Jordan had its fair share of ups and downs, she said, there were lots of moments that Stout was able to witness, but in covering MJ she always noted that MJ showed her kindness and respect, and often times it wasn’t just always to her, but fans and the general public.

As we watch the documentary and maybe laugh or let our jaws drop at some moments it would be best to not be completely swayed into thinking that Jordan was a one-dimensional competitive tyrant. He had a heart too, Raye-Stout says.

“That’s just the way he was.”

 Joshua M. Hicks is a Senior Writer for WARR Media 

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