LEG· A· CY
Something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past. — Merriam-Webster
Professional athletes in the television age have absconded with the word legacy and returned it mangled beyond recognition. Seemingly every basket, home run or touchdown is accompanied by a player absorbed by his own moment, breathlessly declaring, I’m just trying to cement my legacy, when he’s actually just adding to his accomplishments. There’s … a difference.
Legacy is what is left after there are no more clutch jumpers to make and no more opponents to stare down. It isn’t what you’ve done but what it will mean. Legacies cannot be immediately assessed, for they have nothing to do with the present. They’re not about you. At the end of 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa thought their legacies were secure, and they were — but not nearly in the way each envisioned. You must wait and see what time does to your time. Legacy is not yours. It’s how the rest of us navigate what you’ve left in your wake.
Few boats have left a larger wake than Michael Jordan. At a remove, weeks after the ESPN premiere, following the ABC encore and now about to head to Netflix (July 19), his documentary, “The Last Dance,” still reverberates. Twenty-two years removed from when he took his last shot in a Chicago Bulls uniform in 1998, the reappearance of Jordan in “The Last Dance” reminds me of an old joke from my Irish friends growing up in Boston, when they would ask if I knew what “Irish Alzheimer’s” was. When I said no, they would respond, “It’s when you forget everything — but the grudge.” They would laugh because it was funny and they would laugh that intra-clannish laugh reserved for people in the tribe because it reminded them of some fond relative for whom they knew it was fearsomely true. Jordan is of a different tribe, but the grudges still hold, alive, fierce. He has forgotten none, forgiven even fewer.
The film affirmed that his dominance was as we remember, while also confirming darker suspicions. To teammates, Jordan resembled Darth Vader in “The Empire Strikes Back,” killing anyone who disappointed him. To adversaries, he was Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” unsatisfied in defeating all rivals, unsatisfied in his net worth exceeding that of Bulls and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf — the same Reinsdorf who once, in a streak of envy toward Jordan, attempted to reduce him to a mere laborer, saying, “Unlike him, nobody signs my checks.” Unsatisfied even in total victory. Michael Jordan has more bloodlust in him, but his moment has passed, there’s no one left to kill, and time — the rival that motivated him to do the film in the first place — can never be defeated.
Jordan lived for the kill, but for all the gossipy sensation of Jordan and Horace Grant calling each other “snitches,” for all the cringing as we watched him humiliate role players on his own team, I thought about Jordan through the true meaning of legacy, about what this ancestor left behind.
“The Last Dance” has been criticized for being an inside job, a Jordan-brand vehicle instead of independent documentary journalism, and it is true that heavy-hitting insiders combined to make the film possible. Along with Mike Tollin at Mandalay Sports Media, Jordan business partners Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk served as executive producers. Polk is Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets co-owner. Portnoy is Jordan’s business and brand manager. Tollin and NBA commissioner Adam Silver have been close for decades. Mandalay chairman and CEO Peter Guber is a longtime powerhouse in the sports field and executive chairman of the Golden State Warriors, and he serves on the NBA board of governors. Jordan’s brand Jumpman paid prominent journalists to take over its live Twitter feed for the documentary with one stipulation: They were prohibited from criticizing Jordan, his teammates or anyone he played against.
Jordan and the NBA jointly own the footage of “The Last Dance” — footage the public likes to believe belongs to them, memories of what they witnessed on TV, or if they were lucky enough, saw in person. Whether it be from the White House, the basketball court or the commissioner’s offices, billionaires aim to control the media. Information is the target of privatization as surely as the post office, Social Security or your local trash pickup. The goal is to curb public accountability, what the public knows, to smother the constitutional, traditional expectation of a free press. All presidents have learned well the lessons of Watergate and Vietnam, and in the half-century since have manipulated media so completely they have virtually guaranteed the press never takes down an administration again.
The same is true of the NFL, NHL and MLB. All footage occurring within an arena of a professional sports team belongs to the league. If a fan who pays for a ticket at Staples Center shoots a 10-second cellphone video of Kawhi Leonard during warm-ups, the NBA owns that footage, even though those stadiums are funded by the public. Your tax dollars fund private property. They control what you see.
“The Last Dance” was not a celebration. It was not an invitation to share and reminisce, but a reiteration of domination — not over the Lakers, the Suns, Jazz, Sonics or Blazers, but over everyone, teammate or opponent, fan or writer, the unborn rivals to the throne, over anyone who’s ever thought about dribbling a basketball. Jordan is no different from the artists and generals, the Wall Streeters and scientists, and all of the other obsessives who push themselves to the point of insanity, and often beyond it, to complete the quest. He has captivated the world because of it. The film will stand for its moments of humanity and truth: Michael Jordan was willing to die to win, but he was also willing to destroy to win, and when seen through the lens of his isolation, loneliness, physical and mental exhaustion, the price of total victory has already killed off very important parts of himself, because even in total victory, this biggest man often looks so terribly small. Compassion, collaboration, friendship, the instinct to celebrate over dominate, these qualities were absent from “The Last Dance” because they were missing from him. They may be unimportant qualities worth ridicule in the theater of Game 7 competition, but Game 7 is long over, and they are now essential for Jordan’s second act, after the dance. As an owner, executive, colleague and mortal, he has appeared adrift, uncertain how to exist without empire — without the need to remind you of Michael Jordan’s place, without someone to beat. Without these qualities, looking backward at his conquered foes appears to be the only satisfying place for Michael Jordan to be.