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'Maybe I suppressed a laugh that it took 30 years for Jordan to say, 'Ok, I was a jerk, but who cares?'

Sam Smith, author of the controversial Jordan Rules, is our guest on this week’s Behind the Lines.

Michael Jordan.
Michael Jordan.
Image: Imago/PA Images

THIS WEEK’S GUEST on Behind the Lines is Sam Smith, basketball writer and author of a notorious diary of the Chicago Bulls’ 1990/91 season, The Jordan Rules. 

Behind the Lines is our weekly sportswriting podcast on The42, in which we interview sportswriters about their career and their favourite writing. It’s exclusive to members of The42, and to gain instant access to a 28-episode back catalogue, head to members.the42.ie. 

The book caused a sensation when it was published, lifting the curtain on the Bulls’ season and showing the world an image of Michael Jordan at odds with the one they had known to that point. It showed Jordan was often a very difficult and demanding team-mate, once punching team-mate Will Perdue during practice and, at another point, warning Scottie Pippen not to pass the ball to Bill Cartwright in the final stages of games or else he wouldn’t be getting the ball from Jordan. 

Jordan saw Cartwright as clumsy and unreliable, and while their relationship improved when Cartwright stood up to Jordan, coach Phil Jackson learned never to play the pair on the same team during practice games. 

“Part of it was the marketing”, says Smith on the podcast. “It’s not to say Jordan wasn’t a decent guy, but the advertising campaign- which was brilliant – associated him with all of these comfortable, home-made, American brands: Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Chevrolet. 

“The marketing plan was of this ideal guy next door, every mother’s son. 

The reality is yeah, he’s not a criminal or a bad person, but he can be really nasty sometimes. In his view, it was a necessity to drag these young players like Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen along. He’s trying to herd these cats along in the same direction to success, and these kids want to run around and have fun.”

One of the viral moments from The Last Dance comes at the end of episode eight, as Jordan chokes back tears when he reflects on his treatment of team-mates: “It is who I am, that was how I played the game and that was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.” 

Almost 30 years after the publication of the book, Smith – who appears in the series – takes a little bit of satisfaction from that scene. 

“A lot of what came out was interpreted as Jordan being a jerk and being mean-spirited, that was the controversy about the book at the time. Some of his old coaches were on TV saying ‘This is all a lie, this isn’t Michael Jordan.’

“30 years later, Jordan finally cops to it. ‘Yeah, that’s the way I was. So what? It’s worked, who cares?’ 

“I was comfortable the book was true, but I couldn’t control people’s views of it. But maybe I had a suppressed laugh that it took 30 years for Jordan to finally circle around and say, ‘Ok, I was a jerk, but who cares?’ 

“It sort of shows how comfortable he is with who he is.”

The book was published to a ruckus. Smith worked for the Chicago Tribune and the rival Chicago Sun-Times rushed out to get copies so as to splash it across their paper and scoop Smith’s own employers. To Smith’s frustration, they took details out of context.

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“When I wrote it I believed it was even-handed. Yeah, I pointed out some things in which Jordan was difficult but I basically liked the guy, so I pointed out a number of things where he was nice to kids, the terminally-ill kids would come around and he’d greet everyone, but sometimes, things are taken out of context. 

“There was a lot of that: if you point out seven negative things and don’t point out any positive things, it sounds like a negative approach. The Bulls had won their first title, Chicago hadn’t got a history of winning teams, and suddenly I write this book and the narrative becomes ‘Now the Bulls are going to be destroyed’ as I’ve revealed all of this internal fighting. The community was outraged, Jordan’s defenders nationally were outraged. There was no Twitter and Facebook and all that stuff, but there were media and I was getting threats, so the newspaper told me to take a week off. 

Capture Sam Smith, speaking on the Last Dance. Source: Netflix

“I was getting called for interviews and there were no cell phones, so the phone was ringing all the time and I took it off the hook. I didn’t answer the phone, and the Associated Press published an item saying I was missing. Nobody could find me and I wasn’t answering the phone. 

“My son was two then and I’d take him to the mall to walk around and stay away from people, and even then I’d hear people walking by saying, ‘Awh that Sam Smith, that so-and-so…’ and my mother ends up calling me and I finally answer the phone, asking me where I was as she had read I was missing.” 

Capture 2 Smith (centre) with Jordan in the Bulls' locker room.

As for Jordan’s reaction? 

“When I was an investigative reporter, my first editor had this policy I’ve since always followed, which I’ve always felt is the right way to exhibit yourself if you do a strong story.

“When I’d written a tough story, he always made me go and see that person the day it appeared in the paper, to ask if they have any questions or problems. 

“I did that with Jordan. I went up to him at the locker and said, ‘Just to let you know, I’m going to be here covering the team so if you have any problems or issues with me, let me know.’

“He never said anything, and to this day he hasn’t said a word to me about the book or anything related to it.”

Listen to the full interview with Sam on the podcast by subscribing to members.the42.ie. 

If you need some more persuading – highlights of the series’ second run of a dozen episodes are available for free at this link. 

 

 

 

 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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