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Even in a world without live sports, Sunday evenings have become appointment television for fans.
For the past four weeks, ESPN has taken advantage of the sports-sized hole created by COVID-19 and aired the 10-part documentary series The Last Dance, a nostalgia trip about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ quest for a sixth NBA championship in 1998. The documentary, which ESPN says is averaging 5.6 million viewers across its eight episodes, will see the final two episodes air this Sunday.
The series, directed by Jordan Hehir, has captivated viewers for its behind-the-scenes look at Jordan’s eventful career as the era’s most famous athlete in the world, and also touches on his past controversies. (Although, with Jordan’s inner circle working as producers, the documentary has also courted valid criticism for pushing a pro-Jordan narrative, including by filmmaker Ken Burns.)
Among those featured in the film are well-known media members with local ties like Michael Wilbon, David Aldridge, and J.A. Adande. Last fall, Aldridge, who is now the editor-in-chief of The Athletic D.C., sat down with the filmmakers for two and half hours to talk about his days covering Jordan and the NBA, first as the Washington Bullets beat reporter for the Washington Post and then at ESPN, where he was an NBA reporter.
City Paper caught up with Aldridge, who has been watching the episodes live on Sunday evenings like the rest of the world, to get his thoughts on the documentary, his memories of covering Jordan, and what exactly Bullets player LaBradford Smith said to rile Jordan up.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
WCP: What do you think of the documentary so far?
David Aldridge: I think it’s been pretty good. I understand what Ken Burns is saying. I was a history major and understand that you want it to be as objective and dispassionate as much as possible. But what history isn’t is subjective. All history is subjective. It really is. The things that get taught in schools are subjective.
So, everybody’s version of history is according to their own individual prism. We think that smart people can deduce that this is the story of Michael Jordan as told by Michael Jordan and make their judgements accordingly.
WCP: It’s definitely entertaining.
DA: Obviously it’s very entertaining, but any documentary of Jordan is gonna be entertaining for sure. Just because of the the athletic pyrotechnics and things like that. But I give them credit. They went into some detail on the gambling [controversies]. I’m sure they could have done more.
A dispassionate observer might be more critical of somebody’s decisions, but there’s only so much you’re gonna be able to get into any format, even a 10-hour format like this. You still have to make choices about what goes in and what gets cuts. It’s difficult because they wanted this clearly to not just be about the last season. This is kind of the definitive Michael Jordan documentary or definitive Michael Jordan’s story. There’s a lot to get in.
WCP: What were your best memories of covering Jordan?
DA: To me it was being in Chicago Stadium, the old Chicago Stadium and just because it was the loudest arena I had ever and to this day still been in, because it was just one of those old buildings where the fans were right on top of you and there was very little room. It was just so closely constructed. It wasn’t a spread out like they are now. It was a very intimate setting.
And Chicago fans are great fans, and they were all in on Jordan as they should have been on Jordan and those teams, so the atmosphere was just always so electric … The Bulls with Steve Schanwald, their vice president, they were one of the first teams to have the modern kind of pyrotechnics of player introductions and things like that. I shouldn’t say pyrotechnics, but a lot of music and things like that. And so it was really kind of iconic. Their intro was Alan Parsons Project and “Sirius.” It kind of just became associated with the Bulls. So it was just a lot of fun.
WCP: How was Michael with the media?
DA: Michael for the first five or six years was very accessible … When you got to the Bulls locker room, he had the first locker on the right, right by the entrance way, and so I remember many times when I was at the Post and covering the Bullets, you come in and he’d be sitting there, trying to dole out tickets because he needed dozens of tickets for every home game for his various entities and charities and all the things he was doing.
So he’d be sitting there kind of putting tickets into envelopes and or signing balls or something and Mike loved to gossip, he loved talking about the league. He wanted to know what was going on with what the teams and, what have you heard, and, I heard this. So he was very easy to talk to. And there were many times where it was just me and him or me and maybe one or two other reporters and he was just kind of holding court. In the earlier days, you could talk to him. And he was very engaging. Michael can be really charming when he wants to be.
WCP: On his “feud” with Bullets guard LaBradford Smith, what do you remember about the back-to-back games?
DA: I remember [the games] very well because it was becoming such a big deal. You have to remember the Bullets were in constant rebuilding mode back in those days. And LaBradford had been the first round pick … John Nash was the GM at the time, that was when they still had draft parties. And so when they announced they drafted LaBradford, there were some boos from the fans. And John went up to the podium very confidently and said, “You can judge me by what LaBradford Smith does in this league.”
That one night, LaBradford had his career night. He couldn’t miss. Now all of those points weren’t on Jordan, but a good portion of them were. So I remember that night because the story was, to me, not whether or not [the Bullets] won or lost—they lost—but it was just that this was a guy that they were counting on to be a big part of their future. And that was kind of his breakout game. And so the story was, is this real? Is this something that’s repeatable? Or is this a one off for this guy?
And, of course, it was a back to back. So you knew that no matter what Jordan claimed happened later, you just knew he was gonna come back that next night. And so it was just a matter of how hard was he going to come back at him. And it was pretty hard. [Laughs]
WCP: Jordan claimed Smith said something to the effective of, “Nice game, Mike” to him, which fueled him for the second game. He later admitted he made it up. What do you remember?
DA: He completely made it up. It didn’t happen. Because as soon as the game ended … it was not more than a minute before I was down by the Bullets locker room because it was a big story that wow, LaBradford Smith had a great game against the Bulls and Michael Jordan. I didn’t want to waste any time, and so I was there the whole time. There was no interaction between the two of them, there just wasn’t.
It was just very odd to hear that and to cover my tracks to make sure I was right. I found Melissa Isaacson’s game story that night for the Chicago Tribune. There was no mention of it. There was no “Jordan was hot after the game because he said LaBradford Smith dissed him.” There was none of that because it didn’t happen … It would’ve been all of our ledes if we had gotten wind of that. I went to the Bulls locker room after the game, there was no, “Can you believe what LaBradford did to MJ?” There was none of that. He totally made it up.
[Ed. note: FWIW, former Wizards broadcaster Phil Chenier remembers it a little differently.]
WCP: What do you hope younger NBA fans and viewers learn from this documentary?
DA: The main thing is just how competitive the league was back then. And it’s hard to kind of explain, because I think the modern game is so much different in terms of its emphasis on the three point shot and things like that, spacing the floor really as much as three point shot. The game was played in the box, basically, in the paint back then. So there was a lot more physicality to it. And because of the rules back then, which allowed a lot more physical play, hand checking and all the bumping cutters through the lane and all those things that were just allowed back then that the game, by definition, was more physical.
You also had very little movement in terms of players. There was next to no free agency back then. So unless the team traded you, or traded for you, teams tended to stay together, at least their cores tended to stay together over a four or five year period. So the same people played each other every year … Playing against each other year after year after year … tends to build up a little animosity over time. So there was a lot more not just desire to win, but to dominate the other team, and that was at the behest of all the great superstars of that era. … Magic [Johnson], [Larry] Bird, Isaiah [Thomas], they were all tough on their teammates, all of them. Jordan was probably the worst offender, but he wasn’t the only offender. It’s just how it was back then.
I just hope that younger people understand that that’s why it was so compelling because the drama was real. It wasn’t this ginned up, artificial kind of rivalry. No, it’s real, like they really wanted to destroy each other. And that’s what I hope, and I think the earlier parts of the documentary kind of showed you, that these guys were legit elite competitors against one another.
WCP: What do you hope younger viewers take away about Jordan himself?
DA: I think it’s just important to know that it’s not all hype. It wasn’t just NBA Entertainment videos. The guy was that good. He really was that good. I didn’t see Bill Russell play live. So I can only depend on what people tell me who saw him live. And same with with Oscar Robertson and Wilt [Chamberlain] and all those guys. And so I have to respect the fact that those men were great players, they were among the best ever.
The best I’ve seen in 30 years is Michael Jordan and it’s not especially close. He was that good. He was just incredible … You can descend into hagiography if you just make it about how great he was in all things, and he wasn’t great in all things. He wasn’t especially a great teammate, right? But he was a great basketball player, and his will was the most amazing thing about him. Even more so than the physical gifts. He just would not let that team lose.
WCP: When you say the greatest you’ve seen, are you wading into the GOAT debate?
DA: No, you can’t because the rules are completely different. You got to tell me what rules we’re playing under. If we’re playing under today’s rules, then today’s players tend to have the advantage. As I’ve said many times, Michael Jordan with no hand check? Oh my god. Oh my god. And no bumping him when he comes down the lane? Oh, Jesus. [Laughs]