The seventh and eighth episodes of The Last Dance, the ESPN and Netflix 10-part docuseries, are in the rearview mirror.
And with this column coming out in the Friday edition of The Brazil Times, there shouldn’t be any spoilers for whoever may be reading my thoughts (if you haven’t watched the first two episodes yet, fold the paper up or minimize your browser, watch them on whichever streaming network you have and then come back to it).
Listed below are my takeaways from Episode VII and VIII:
Early retirement to go play…. baseball?
• Throughout Episode Seven, Michael Jordan made it clear, baseball was the sport he loved first. But coming off three straight championships and being the best player in the game of basketball, why would that matter? Well, while attending a Chicago White Sox playoff game, word got out that Jordan would be retiring from the NBA, forcing him to speed away from the ballpark in the seventh inning to avoid speaking with the media. The next day, Jordan, alongside Bulls higher-ups – including owner Jerry Reinsdorf, general manager Jerry Krause and coach Phil Jackson – and Commissioner David Stern, No. 23 announced that he was hanging it up. Although he did leave the door open regarding a possible return someday, the fatigue Jordan was feeling made the decision an easy one.
• With this happening in October of 1993, I was just two months old. But while watching it on Sunday, all I could think about was what people’s reactions were in Chicago and around the country when it came out that Jordan was walking away from basketball. It wasn’t that long ago, but I remember vividly the night Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck retired from the NFL and how that was taken by fans. Luck, while looked like a top-tier signal-caller in the game with a bright future ahead of him, wasn’t anywhere close to the star Jordan was when he stepped away from the game, though. Thinking it through, the fact the game’s best player walked away from the sport at the pinnacle of his career after winning three straight championships is absolutely mindboggling.
• The episode then moves forward to February of 1994 when Reinsdorf, also the owner of the White Sox, announced that Jordan had inked a minor league contract with an invitation to major league spring training. Being a 31-year old former NBA player that hadn’t played baseball in 14 years, the typical starting point would have been at the rookie-level or Single-A. But needing as much space for media members to cover him, the Sox elected to send Jordan to Double-A Birmingham where he suited up for the Barons while wearing No. 45.
Jordan got his baseball career off to a scorching hot start with a 13-game hitting streak. But pitchers quickly adjusted to His Airness and began flipping breaking ball after breaking ball his way, cooling off his bat in a hurry. While Jordan finished his lone professional season with a batting average of .202, he did drive in 51 runs and walloped a few balls over the fence for homers. Then-Birmingham manager – and current Cleveland Indians manager – Terry Francona saw the work Jordan put into the craft of living out the childhood dream of himself and his late father, James, and even stated, ‘With 1,500 at-bats (or roughly three full seasons), he’d have found a way to get to the major leagues.’
• We’ll never know how long Jordan would have given baseball a shot before heading back to the game he was so dominant in, but when Major League Baseball went into a work stoppage during the 1994-95 season, replacement players took the field in place of the regular guys, it made the decision that much easier for him to make. Jordan refused to be one of those replacement players and ended up walking out of White Sox spring training and never returned. He then began to put the wheels in motion for a return to the Bulls and had his agent write out a press release to announce the news. Jordan didn’t like the rough drafts, though, and eventually penned his own letter, simply stating, ‘I’m back.’
• Jordan, who spent the last 18 months building muscles to become a baseball player, didn’t miss a beat upon his return. Appearing in 17 regular-season games before the beginning of the playoffs, Jordan showed just how great he was. In his return game, he broke out a new jersey number. Sporting No. 45, Jordan put up 17 points in a hostile environment against the Indiana Pacers at Market Square Arena. He went on to drill the game-winning shot against Atlanta and then torched the New York Knicks for 55 points days later. The Bulls went into the playoffs on a high but were stopped in their tracks by an up-and-coming Orlando Magic team that was led by Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, and former Chicago teammate Horace Grant. Jordan switched back to No. 23 in the middle of the second-round series, but the change in jersey numbers wasn’t enough to overcome the wrath his body was taking. However, the day after the Bulls were eliminated, Jordan told his trainer, Tim Grover, that he would see him in the gym in the morning, which turned out to be the start of him taking back the crown of the game’s best player.