Dominant as Michael Jordan was during his 90s heyday, even the most ardent MJ supporters would have to admit feeling conflicted about the Hall-of-Famer’s portrayal in ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary. Challenging teammates is one thing but as Scott Burrell and others would attest, Jordan’s confrontational leadership technique often straddled the line between tough love and outright bullying.
Jordan was an intimidating presence in the Bulls’ locker room, but he didn’t strike much fear into The Chief. Celtics great Robert Parish, who spent the final year of his Hall-of-Fame career playing alongside Jordan on the 1996-97 Bulls, remembers MJ hounding him for flubbing a play at practice early in his Windy City tenure. Rather than take the abuse, the nine-time All-Star gave it right back to Jordan.
“I told him, ‘I’m not as enamored with you as these other guys. I’ve got some rings too,’” Parish told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan in an interview from 2012 that’s begun to resurface on social media. “At that point he told me, ‘I’m going to kick your ass.’ I took one step closer and said, ‘No, you really aren’t.’ After that he didn't bother me.”
You have to admire Jordan’s stones threatening to fight a seven-footer, but according to Parish, seeing MJ dress down teammates at practice was par for the course in Chicago. “Michael has a tendency to test his teammates, especially the new faces on the team,” Parish elaborated last month on the Locked on Celtics podcast. “I think it was more of a test than a threat. He was testing my reaction to his being a bully.”
Jordan made a habit of bulldozing his bewildered teammates on The Last Dance, but Dan Gartland of Sports Illustrated wishes the documentary had shown more instances of players standing up to MJ instead of constantly cowering at his will. “A story like that—or [Horace] Grant’s assertion that teammates fought back against Jordan—would have made the section in the film about MJ’s bullying so much more interesting,” Gartland wrote in Wednesday’s column for SI. “Admitting that Jordan’s teammates weren’t afraid to give him a taste of his own medicine ruins the illusion that they viewed him as a god.”
ESPN’s Pablo Torre shared a similar take in his parting shot on Outside the Lines this past weekend, arguing that Tim Duncan and Wayne Gretzky both enjoyed highly successful careers without ever resorting to the verbal and mental abuse Jordan inflicted on many of his former teammates.
Jordan may have been able to get under Scott Burrell’s skin, but that approach clearly didn’t work on Parrish. As MJ learned early on, if you come at the Chief, you best not miss.