SportsPulse: While breaking down “The Last Dance,” former Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong tells the lesser-known story about how the Air Jordan empire initially exploded onto the scene.
If they hadn’t been so lethal to his opponents, the slights Michael Jordan used — or even the perceived slights and invented ones — to motivate himself would have been comical.
Throughout “The Last Dance,” we’ve seen how Jordan didn’t let any snub — no matter how big, small, relevant or inconsequential — go without a response of some kind. It is an insight into Jordan’s mind and how he mined any material to push himself.
And in Episode 8 on Sunday, Jordan’s use of those slights for motivation was on full display, starting with the Chicago Bulls’ second-round series against the Charlotte Hornets in 1998.
Former teammate B.J. Armstrong played for the Hornets. While Armstrong was near the end of his career, he still had a little left and scored 10 points in Game 2, including a dagger of a jump shot late in the fourth quarter to help Charlotte even the series.
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After hitting the jumper, Armstrong screamed at the Bulls bench.
“I felt like B.J. should know better,” present-day Jordan says in the documentary. “If you’re going to high-five, talk trash, now I had a bone to pick with you. I’m supposed to kill this guy. I’m supposed to dominate this guy and from that point on, I did.”
Jordan scored 27, 31 and 33 points in the final three games of the series. He picked all those bones clean.
“He constructed reasons why to play hard that night,” author Mark Vancil told filmmakers. “These little slights were deep indignations to him. That’s all he needs. That’s like throwing meat to a tiger. He’d find a game within a game to keep him interested, but it was all in his mind.”
The most notable slight detailed on Sunday was indeed in Jordan’s mind.
LaBradford Smith had exactly one 30-point performance in his 183-game NBA career. Late in the 1992-93 season, Smith, playing for the Washington Bullets, torched Jordan and the Bulls for 37 points on 15-for-20 shooting. Mind you, the Bulls still won the game in Chicago. But Jordan shot just 9-for-27.
Jordan claimed Smith said after the game, “Nice game, Mike.”
The Bulls and Bullets just happened to play each other the next night in Washington.
Jordan told teammates, “Tomorrow in the first half, I’m going to have what this kid had in the game.”
Well, Jordan had 36 in the first half and 47 for the game, and Bullets announcer Phil Chenier said Jordan is “concentrating almost solely on LaBradford.”
Years later, reporters asked Jordan if the story was true and if Smith actually said, “Nice game, Mike.”
Jordan replied, “No, I made it up.”
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Jordan just didn’t need every edge, he craved it. It’s part of what made him Michael Jordan.
He wore No. 45 when he returned from his first retirement late in the 1994-95 season. The Bulls made the playoffs, and after a Game 1 loss to Orlando in the second round, Magic guard Nick Anderson, who had 20 points, told reporters, “No. 45 doesn’t explode like No. 23 used to. No. 45 is not No. 23. I couldn’t have done that to No. 23.”
Well, Jordan didn’t forget, and in the 1996 Eastern Conference finals, he and the Bulls swept the Magic. Jordan had 45 points in Game 4.
“Because of last year and the number change and 45 didn’t look like 23 and whatever, but we all were disappointed last year and we can back to redeem ourselves as a unit and I think we did that — effectively,” Jordan told reporters after the series-clinching win.
Jordan’s friend Ahmad Rashad told a story that hasn’t been shared often. It was during the 1996 NBA Finals between Chicago and Seattle, and Jordan and Rashad were at a restaurant. SuperSonics coach George Karl was there, too, and he left, walking by Jordan’s table without saying hello.
Rashad thought to himself, “Uh-oh, shouldn’t have done that.”
Present-day Jordan remembered thinking, “Oh, so that’s how you’re going to play it.”
Jordan didn’t like that one bit, considering Karl and Jordan both went to North Carolina and played for Dean Smith, saw each other in the summer and golfed together.
“That’s a crock of (expletive),” Jordan said.
“That’s all I needed for him to do that, and it became personal.”
It took six games, but the Bulls beat the Sonics for Jordan’s fourth title and first of the Bull’s second three-peat.
— ESPN (@espn) May 11, 2020
Said ESPN’s Michael Wilbon: “There’s nothing he would not do to get himself to the place where he’s going to beat you.”
Winning was all that mattered to Jordan, and if he needed to find something for motivation to defeat an opponent, he found it — no matter how trivial, how insignificant or how contrived.
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Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.