Meeting the Michael Jordan We Didn’t Know


Even with that spotless 6-0 record in the N.B.A. finals, and 27 victories in the 29 playoff series he contested in the 1990s, Michael Jordan is unlikely to ever completely shut down the Greatest of All Time debate.

There will always be someone out there who prefers Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or, yes, even LeBron James.

Yet such rampant winning does engender tremendous privilege. No other luminary in league history could have managed what Jordan just pulled off: His Airness made the N.B.A. stash exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of his Chicago Bulls’ sixth and final title run in 1997-98 for nearly 20 years, then had the 10-part documentary series that he finally blessed attract an audience of 4.9 million to 6.3 million for each serving.

As we got deeper and deeper into “The Last Dance,” criticism about the unparalleled control that Jordan had — with two of his closest business associates, Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk, operating as executive producers — grew louder and louder. Our own Sopan Deb was on this point from the start, but nothing amplified the noise like the two-fisted blast to The Wall Street Journal from the noted documentarian Ken Burns, who asserted that Jordan’s influence over the project is “not the way you do good journalism” nor “the way you do good history.”

Those staggering audience figures, though, slammed home this reality: The basketball public was not looking for another Burns-ian documentary.

Viewers just wanted Jordan, in a chair, speaking for the cameras with greater candor than ever before, no matter what had to be sacrificed to put him there.

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