Last month, like a large portion of the country, I greedily devoured ESPN’s documentary The Last Dance, which covered the basketball career of Michael Jordan through the lens of his final season with the Chicago Bulls. I enjoyed it for what it was: a fun, somewhat interesting nostalgia trip replete with many delightful basketball highlights. Before I became a diehard NBA fan in the aughts, my knowledge of the league revolved around Jordan. So much of it was a trip down memory lane.
Unsurprisingly, the documentary left off his wishfully forgotten two seasons with the Washington Wizards, which happened three years after his second Chicago retirement. Jordan had the perfect narrative arc of any athlete from college to Game 6 and no one really wants to remember those two brutal seasons where he frequently looked overmatch on an uninspired team.
I owned this book years ago and I remembered enjoying it when I began it but I kept hearing how it was a hack job, so I put it away. These were the internet’s nascent days, when you couldn’t easily double check things because much of what is there now had yet to be terraformed. Yet being desperate for something new to read after seeing the doc, I finally decided to tackle this book.
This book gives credence to both its supporters and detractors. It should be more universally lauded. Leahy does a great job embedding himself in the Wizards locker room and teasing out the many player dynamics. No one comes off here looking good, not Jordan, not Doug Collins and especially not Abe Pollin. Leahy is clearly frustrated with the way his colleagues were deferential to Jordan to the point of being glorified PR gofers. He takes no sentimental road here, dissecting how bad things were in Washington before and during Jordan’s time. It’s not all his fault but he perhaps deserves the lion’s share of the blame. It felt like a miserable experience being in this locker room, similar to Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules but without the winning.
With a better editor, I would laud this as one of the best sports books I’ve ever read. But another person who doesn’t acquit themselves well in this endeavor is the writer himself. Leahy comes off as an easily aggrieved ninny at times, ferociously defending his conduct as if he’s the reason we’re reading this. He also suffers the sin of redundancy. So much of this book was repetitious: the comparisons to Babe Ruth, the musings of what it meant to be a star in exile. It heaped a decidedly melodramatic tone on a story that didn’t need it. About 25-50 pages of this could have been easily cut.
On top of that, Leahy doesn’t tease out the racial dynamics between the majority black players and the majority white owners. This came out in the mid-aughts and in that time, white writers still did not effectively write on racism. There’s been a modicum of progress; I’m thinking of Jack McCallum stumbling through it in Glory Days highly imperfectly but with some degree of recognition. Yet, Leahy never once stops to question the problematic nature of Pollin using Jordan’s body and name when it was convenient for him and dumping him when he was no longer needed.
So what you have is a quality, if imperfectly written sports tale that should serve as a great supplemental read to The Last Dance if you want the full picture of Jordan’s career and don’t mind having your narratives busted.