The GOAT who keeps chewing on his grudges

Four years after "The Last Dance" I don't find Michael Jordan's tendency to harbor and feed off resentment nearly as charming as I did when the series aired.

When I saw Jerry Krause’s widow appearing visibly pained as some people in the Chicago crowd booed her husband’s induction to the Bulls Ring of Honor last month, I thought immediately of Michael Jordan.

Jordan has been both consistent and open about the hostility he bears toward the former Bulls GM for more than 20 years now. Jordan mentioned Krause in 2009 when he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, and it was a major plot point in “The Last Dance.”

The second person I thought about when I saw the reaction of Krause’s widow was the author Will Leitch, but not because Will had anything to do with making that poor lady uncomfortable. Lietch is from Illinois, and he has written a great deal about sports and his review of “The Last Dance” in the Washington Post has stuck with me in the four years since it was published.

“By the time Jordan is imagining feuds with third-string small forwards just so he can have one more machine to rage against, I’ll confess I stopped particularly enjoying his company.

“Jordan’s insatiable, ravenous competitive urges made him great, but they also make him an oppressive, exhausting presence to sit with for eight hours.”

— Will Leitch, Washington Post, April 26, 2020

I did not agree with Leitch’s assessment when I read his review. I specifically quibbled with his description of Jordan as an “unreliable narrator.” I think Jordan is an utterly reliable narrator in that he tells you – quite consistently – the lens through which he views the world. Back then, I found Jordan’s tendency to not just harbor grudges but invent reasons for their existence to be incredibly amusing.

I can’t think of anyone who’s gotten more out of grudges than Jordan. His mastery of this dark art was part of his mystique, and his most consistent refrain in “The Last Dance” is about specific things that he took personally. He’s so competitive that he’s willing to reduce everything and anyone around him into a foil who deserves to be destroyed because they have opposed or underestimated or disrespected him in some way.1

Of all the grudges Jordan has born over the years, his beef with Krause has been the most enduring. The issues go back to Jordan’s second season in the league when he suffered a broken bone in his foot and Krause -- in his first year as the team’s general manager – advocated a more conservative timetable than Jordan wanted. Krause was so controlling that he would actually keep track of the amount of time Jordan spent on the floor during games, motioning the coaches to take him out when he reached the designated limit.

It escalated from there. Jordan came to resent the trades and personnel decisions that Krause made. Jordan didn’t like that Krause traded Charles Oakley. He didn’t like that Krause drafted Brad Sellers. He hated how much Krause liked Toni Kukoc. But most of all, Jordan hated Krause because Krause said that organizations win championships, and Jordan believed that was trying to steal credit for who really won: the players and the coaches. Jordan came to believe that Krause was trying to prove his value by deciding that Phil Jackson would not return to the Bulls after the 1997-98 season despite Jordan’s explicit statement he would not play for anyone other than Phil.

Is Jordan wrong to feel that way? Nope. I can see why he resented both the way Krause monitored his recovery from injury and I definitely understand why Jordan was angry that Krause did not do everything possible to keep that team that had won six titles in eight seasons together as intact as possible for as long as possible.

So that means Jordan is right, then? Not completely. Jordan’s antagonism toward Krause has prevented him from recognizing all of the things that Krause did right, and there were a lot of them, starting with finding Scottie Pippen at a freaking NAIA school in Arkansas. Krause effectively traded up in the draft order, getting the Sonics to choose Pippen on their behalf at No. 5 overall. For as angry as Jordan and Pippen were about Krause’s interest in Kukoc, he turned out to be a hell of a player. While Krause did not draft Jordan, he built a hell of a team around him, and one look at Lebron James’s history shows that it’s not exactly easy to win a title even if you do have the best player in the league.

When I watched “The Last Dance,” I chalked up the villainization of Krause as an example of history being written by the victors. I feel differently about that now not just because I didn’t like seeing Krause’s poor widow bothered by the boos. I feel differently about grudges than I did four years ago in large part because I’ve come to understand how my own tendency to harbor resentments had led to behavior that would make me feel worse.

I would ruminate over ways that I felt I’d been wronged, effectively sticking my finger into an old wound or pushing down on a scar until I felt something that would refresh my anger. My insistence on keeping this pain fresh made it harder for me to accept what had happened and move on from it. I got really good at staying very mad, and I don’t think you have to look very hard to see the same tendencies in Jordan. In fact, I’ve even come up with a little logo for my grudges.

The question I have about Jordan: Why is he doing it? There are no more games to be won so the grudges no longer serve a motivational purpose. All that’s at stake is ego and reputation and I was going to say legacy but that’s way too overwrought so I’ll just say memories.

Does knowing that some Bulls fans booed the franchise’s attempt to honor Krause provide Jordan with a level of validation or maybe vindication? Does that make him happier in some way? Is that level of happiness offset by the observable pain it caused an old lady?

And this got me to thinking again of that review by Will Leitch I mentioned earlier. Leitch is a founder of Deadspin and someone who has written a great deal on sports. He also has a newsletter here on Substack, which I enjoy a great deal. He’s an author who’s had four fiction books published as well as two non-fiction books on sports. I loved his book “The Time Has Come” and realized only when I talked to him that it’s a sequel so I’ve ordered “How Lucky” which was blurbed by Stephen King, which is pretty awesome.

I interviewed Leitch earlier this month, and we had a really enjoyable conversation. I wanted to talk to him not just about had happened with Krause’s widow but grudges in general. While we were talking, I wondered if he thought Jordan felt bad about what how that boos in Chicago affected Krause’s widow.

“Did you hear anything from him?” Leitch asked me.

It’s a fair point. Jordan wasn’t in Chicago that night, which was a snub in its own right, but while he didn’t tell anyone to boo that night, he – more than anyone else – has portrayed Krause as a villain. To simply write it off as an example of terrible behavior on the part of some Chicago fans completely overlooks the impact that Jordan in shaping that view.

“It says more about Jordan,” Leitch said, “and the pit at the center of Jordan’s soul than it does about Jerry Krause or than what it says about Bulls fans or even fans in general.”

I’m inclined to agree with him. I think that Michael Jordan is not only a singularly talented basketball player, but one of the most ruthless competitors I’ve ever seen. I think that Tiger Woods 1.0 (i.e. pre-sex scandal Tiger) is the only person who comes close. It’s possible that the only way Jordan could achieve the level of success he did was by approaching everything as a zero-sum game, and his need to win compelled him to make sure that others always lost at everything and in every way. This strikes me as a very grim world view, though, and one that is destined to make you increasingly isolated and bitter not to mention the possibility of making a poor ol’ lady cry.

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