As we have made our way through four-fifths of the addictively entertaining hagiography “The Last Dance,” there is one thing, I believe, that can be stated with absolute historical accuracy.
Jeff Van Gundy was right.
Van Gundy, you may recall, went on a Chicago radio station in the winter of 1997 — right in the middle of the Bulls’ second three-peat — and, in essence, called Michael Jordan a con man. Actually, these were his exact words:
“I think for some reason he’s so good and he’s done it for so long that there is such a mystique about him. Everybody wants to be like him, be as good as he is, make as much money as he does, be able to do all the off-court things,” Van Gundy said.
“You watch him game-in and game-out and he sidles up next to guys and smiles at them, pats them on the ass, and then he goes out there and kicks their ass. And they hug him after the game like that was some great thing that he got 45 on them. I don’t understand it.”
If you have watched tale after tale of similar Jordanesque maneuverings these past four weeks, it will not surprise you to learn that while these comments were made in early January, it wasn’t until the Knicks were in town on Jan. 21 when Jordan soaked them in and let them fuel his hyper-competitive DNA.
The result: an 88-87 Bulls win at United Center. Fifty-one points for Jordan, who held his designated patsy for the night, Allan Houston, to 5-for-18 shooting. And he had enough in the tank to offer a postgame message for Van Gundy.
“He called me a little hockey puck, or something,” Van Gundy said, “something” almost certainly being a word that actually rhymes with “puck.”
(Because if we’ve learned something else from the ESPN version of “Last Dance” — the one that doesn’t bleep out the bad words — it is that Jordan might also be the GOAT at dropping strategically placed F-bombs.)
Van Gundy, because he is Van Gundy, never did walk those comments back and in fact said a few years ago, “It wasn’t like I was breaking new ground there, was I?”
No. Something we already knew about Jordan — the mind games he would play, the grudges he would hold, anything at all to fuel him — are getting weekly treatment in this 10-part series, and of course the thing that’s amusing about all of it is that if Jordan was conning anyone with regularity, it was himself. He was already better than everyone else in the league, but that wasn’t enough.
History tells us Alexander the Great wept when he realized there were no more worlds to conquer. Jordan went another way (although it was Jordan, and not Alex TG, who would become the subject of a famous “crying” meme). He lit one of his cigars the length of his arm, sat back, and began inventing insults and slights, treating all of them like the coach who cut him as a sophomore back at Laney High.
Sunday we learned the story of poor LaBradford Smith, whose signature highlight of a career that lasted only 183 games was a 37-point explosion against the Bulls on March 19, 1993 — a game, for the record, won by Chicago, 104-99. Afterward, Jordan vented about postgame, when Smith had the temerity to shake his hand and say, “Nice game, Mike.”
Fully engaged, when the two teams met the very next night in Washington, Jordan dropped 47 on the then-Bullets, saving most of his daggers for when Smith guarded him. Fun story. Except even Jordan laughs and admits that Smith’s slight — if that even qualifies as a slight — never happened.
Later, Jordan talks about seeing Seattle coach George Karl in a restaurant before the Bulls and Sonics played in the 1996 Finals. Jordan was stunned when Karl didn’t come over to his table — both men played for Dean Smith at North Carolina, knew each other for years, knew all the secret Tar Heel handshakes. Jordan says he was floored.
“Oh, so THAT’S how it’s gonna be?” he said, and of course Jordan had a terrific series and smothered the Sonics in six (while offering a genuine extended guffaw while watching Gary Payton on an iPad dare to say he guarded Jordan well for a couple or games), and he credits Karl with fueling his tank.
Of course, if we’ve learned anything about Jordan in this series, it’s this: Had Karl come over to his table, hugged him, wished him well, broke into a chorus of the Carolina alma mater “Hark the Sound,” Jordan would’ve sneered 24 years later and said, “So he wanted to be friends, huh?”
Of course he would’ve. Because Jeff Van Gundy, along with many, many others, might never have figured out a way to beat Jordan. But he was right about him.