DUBAI: So Michael Jordan wasn’t such a nice guy when it came to basketball. The only surprise is that this has come as a surprise to so many.
The revelation that one of the greatest sportsmen of all time was so consumed with winning that he often bordered on being callous to his teammates and opponents has been one of the big takes from ‘The Last Dance’, the currently-airing 10-part documentary on brilliant 1990s Chicago Bulls team.
It says something about Jordan, and the times we live in, that the hottest, most topical sporting action at the moment took place more than 22 years ago.
The documentary series, revelatory - and at times edgy - yet ultimately Jordan-approved, has what you’d expect; extraordinary feats from Jordan, and a superb supporting cast, as the Bulls win six NBA Championships. It also has a little dirty laundry.
While his gambling habits are touched on several times, as was the tragic death of his father, it’s Jordan’s obsessive streak and relentless pushing, some would say bullying, of his teammates that has become the main talking point.
Arguably the greatest athlete to take part in a team sport, Jordan will hardly care. Or at least during the 1990s Jordan didn’t.
Here and there in ‘The Last Dance’, you can detect the present-day Jordan perhaps having the odd sliver of regret. His former team-mates, some who would become opponents, and other long-time rivals are forthright about their feelings towards him. Respect and admiration, certainly, but not necessarily love, or even endearment.
The discord lends Jordan’s story an element of Hollywood drama, but this is hardly a new phenomenon in team sport. Away from the glamorous world of American sports, this has long been the case in the world of European football, for one.
Sports changing rooms can only accommodate so many egos, and when one alpha male towers over all others, familiarity will inevitably breed content.
In his 1984 book ‘No Half Measures,’ the captain of the all-conquering Liverpool team of that era, Graeme Souness, gave an insight into the dynamic of the dressing room. At a time when behind the scenes stories were not as readily available to the public, disharmony was far more prevalent than fans could have imagined.
Here’s what Souness - himself a decisive personality throughout his career as a players, manager and pundit - said about Emlyn Hughes, one of his predecessors as Liverpool captain.
“When I first arrived at Anfield I was surprised at how cliquey the club was and, in particular, the jealousy felt towards Emlyn. There seemed to be a resentment that he was the big dressing room earner, always called on when a personality was required for television or to earn some extra cash. But why not? He was a personality and had the charisma that was wanted by agents. I got on fine with him and he never did me any harm.”
All the smiles as European Cups and league titles were won on the pitch did not necessarily translate into tight friendships of it.
In more modern times, another Liverpool captain, another obsessive, though a self-confessed introspective and sometimes insecure figure, saw certain colleagues as obstacles to be removed from his path to the pinnacle of the game.
“I was obsessed with moving people out of my way. I’d go into training in my car obsessed with being the best player in training every single day, and if I didn’t, I’d go home and think about it and try and do it again the next day,” Steven Gerrard said after his retirement.
“You have to be obsessed. When you get that little sniff, that little bit of hope, even though they’re your team-mates, you’ve got to be obsessed to move them out of the way, and once you’re in, they’re staying out of the way and they’re not coming back.”
The message is clear. Friendships take a distant back seat to being the best.
The team that in the 1990s succeeded Liverpool as England’s most successful dynasty, Sir Alex Ferguson’s unstoppable Manchester United, also had their internal squabbles.
Famously, it emerged that Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole, both pivotal in the club’s treble winning 1998-99 season, barely spoke to each other. Captain Roy Keane, also, barely hid his distaste for certain club and international colleagues, and very often fell out with them publicly.
Perhaps it might come as a bit of shock, even disappointment, for some of the younger fans who like to think their idols are all best pals, but it is proof that such disdain is common place at the highest level of team sports.
At Barcelona, Messi’s critics call him the dictator, and it’s often been rumored that other big money signings must bend to his demands, or move on. Even the notoriously self-regarding Zlatan Ibrahimovic lasted only one season at Camp Nou. Meanwhile Messi’s great nemesis, Cristiano Ronaldo, with an ego to trump all other egos, has been known to not celebrate goals scored by team-mates so self-obsessed he can be.
Ibrahimovic in turn, barely hid his disregard for most team-mates - not to mention, opponents - in the second half of his career,
Fights and disagreements with colleagues became a common theme, and in 2010 he famously head-butted AC Milan team-mate Oguchi Onyewu, and he, himself, ended up with a broken rib after an altercation during a training session.
Perhaps never was his contempt for colleagues more apparent than after joining LA Galaxy of the MLS, a league Zlatan clearly saw as beneath him from day one.
On landing in California, he took out a full page advert in the LA Times that said, simply, “Dear Los Angeles, You’re welcome,” which, while strangely lapped up by thirsty fans, could not possibly have engendered a sense of unity among the Galaxy squad.
Instantly, his new teammates were relegated to little more than midgets alongside a giant. How well that would have gone down in the dressing room is not hard to discern.
San Jose Earthquake’s German defender Florian Jungwirth recalled a match in 2018 during which the Swede spent the entire match “insulting” his team-mates, who looked petrified of the big alpha dog.
The American media loved the Zlatan act.
And Zlatan being Zlatan, he would have hardly lost a wink of sleep worrying about being liked, as he scored one outrageous goal after another. He, like Jordan, though in an infinitely less competitive environment, really was on a different level to his peers. And he knew it.
Which takes us back to Jordan. Even Scottie Pippen, the Robin to his Batman, thanks to ‘The Last Dance,’ is now seen as more a subordinate than a partner.
With two more episodes of the series to run, perhaps there will be yet another twist, with Jordan emerging as a nice guy after all.
But the story doesn’t need it. After all, if he had played the nice guy all those years ago, there might not have been a story to tell in the first place.