The Last Dance: What Michael Jordan teaches about defeating Trumpism
(L-R) Michael Jordan, his mother Deloris, and his father James for an event celebrating Michael's 26th birthday in 1989. | Charles Bennett/AP

Like millions of other viewers, I have been riveted to each episode thus far of ESPN’s The Last Dance. This ten-part documentary charts the Chicago Bulls’ rise to dominance in the 1990s, a decade in which Michael Jordan willed the Bulls to six NBA titles, only to have the team dismantled by the organization’s petty, insecure, spotlight-seeking general manager Jerry Krause.

While Krause’s mantra throughout Bulls’ historic decade was “Organizations win championships,” the drama in fact chronicles a dysfunctional organizational leadership that couldn’t handle its own success and often countervailed the excellence and aspirations of Jordan and his Bulls teammates.

Having grown up in Chicago and followed the Bulls from the early 1970s on, suffering happily through mediocre season after mediocre season during my childhood, and then as a young adult watching Jordan’s Bulls struggle to overcome the Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys” team of the late 1980s, The Last Dance has been a kind of therapy for me. It has unearthed from the archeological layers of my psyche mountains of feelings far from fossilized, for my examination. I have been surprised at their emotional force, and so have my two sons, who look at me wide-eyed and maybe a little frightened when I vociferously rail against Bill Laimbeer as a dirty thug or call out Isaiah Thomas as a piss ant.

And yet as Freud teaches us, the emergence of childhood emotions and experiences tends to be triggered by events in the present that share features of and hence recall those past traumas.

I had to ask myself what was accounting for the force of my emotional response as I watched, in particular, the footage of the multiple conference championship series between the Bulls and the Bad Boy Pistons.

And then it became obvious: The Pistons and Jerry Krause were villains embodying all of the virulent characteristics of modern-day Trumpism.

The Pistons rose to dominance in the late 1980s, unseating the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, the previous and long-time NBA stalwarts featuring the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird; and they did so, inarguably, through what could be characterized minimally as a rough-and-tumble style of play designed to intimidate and brutalize their opponents.

When it came to Jordan and the Bulls, the documentary reveals, the Pistons realized they were simply outmatched by Jordan’s superior talent and that of the Bulls as a whole, so they adopted a win-at-all-cost approach that involved not letting Jordan get off the ground. Every time he came down the lane he would know he was subject to injury, that he would be tackled, thrown down, and manhandled. And while the Piston players called these the Jordan rules, this treatment wasn’t just reserved for Jordan. We see Bad Boy James Edwards throwing elbows at Horace Grant and Rick Mahorn advising teammates that if they’re going to foul, it might as well be as hard and violent as possible. At one point, we see Dennis Rodman bearhug Scottie Pippen as he comes down with a rebound, and then, after Pippen is already out of bounds and off-balance, push him in the back into a row of seats.

The point?

The Pistons ceased to be playing basketball, recognizing they could not win by playing the actual game fair and square. It was just about winning, no matter whom they hurt.

Ring a bell?

The Bad Boys’ “game” plan sounds a lot like Trump’s. Trump can’t win by playing the game of democracy fair and square, so with his win-at-all-cost attitude, he simply disavowed the rules of the game. He eschewed the “war of ideas” centering the game of democracy, instead resorting to cheating, soliciting foreign interference, lying constantly, firing career government officials who disagreed with him, intimidating others into doing his bidding, showing no respect for the laws, the rules of the game. One could go on. In short, as we all know, Trump has destroyed democratic norms just as the Pistons in their time destroyed the norms of basketball, playing outside the bounds because they couldn’t handle losing.

Indeed, when the Bulls finally defeated them in the Eastern Conference Championship series in 1991, the Pistons infamously walked off the court without shaking the hands of Bulls players, even though the previous two years the Bulls players certainly shook theirs.

Sound familiar? Do you know who won’t shake Nancy Pelosi’s hand? That’s right: Donald Trump.

So how did Jordan and the Bulls respond?

Their choice was crucial for basketball, really, just as the choice of Trump’s successor will be crucial for American democracy.

Jordan toughened himself, pushing himself and the other players to train and practice harder to get stronger and better, develop their skills to a higher level so they shot better, passed better, defended better, played as more of a team. Coach Phil Jackson was no small part of this transformation.

The point is that they did not choose to out-Piston the Pistons in a thuggish degradation of the actual game but rather to respect the game. They excelled at the game itself, just as hopefully the nation’s next leader will seek to excel at democracy and humanity.

Imagine if Trump wasn’t just interested in “winning,” whatever that means to him, but rather wanted to excel at democratic governance itself?

Democracy is not about “winning” in any simple sense, about a quest for power. It’s about a willingness and desire to share power, to ensure it is distributed throughout the people for the sake of a healthier and more humane polity.

Take Trump’s desire to open up the economy. He has chosen the thuggish path, trying to force workers back to meat processing plants while putting in no effort to secure their safety. If he had put effort into the work of governing by, say, coordinating efforts to test people and trace the virus, helping states secure medical equipment and supplies, letting experts guide policy decisions and responses, he could actually be getting what he wants, an opened economy, while supporting American lives.

Trump has chosen the Pistons’ path, not that of Jordan’s Bulls.

And Trump, like the Pistons, only pretends to represent working-class Americans. The Pistons sought to excuse their play as “blue collar,” and as somehow representing the working-class people of Detroit, as though “blue collar” and “working class” were terms distinguished by brutal and violent behavior. Hardworking, Jordan showed us, is not the same as thuggish and injurious. And, of course, the Pistons actually played in affluent Auburn Hills, a suburb far from working-class Detroit.

And let’s not forget Jerry Krause. He was tired of Jordan and the players getting credit for the Bulls’ success, so he wanted to dismantle an already excellent team so he could make the Bulls great again on his own. He fired Phil Jackson prematurely, which sparked Jordan’s departure as well.

Trump similarly cannot endure others’ excellence. It threatens him; hence, he silences Anthony Fauci and fires other experts who speak truths and offer information learned through study, research, and hard work.

The restoration of democracy in America will require a Jordan-like effort, one focused on excelling at and respecting the game of democracy, one geared toward making us all better and seeking to avail itself of all the expertise and talents we have to offer.

Hopefully, the nation will make this choice, and 2020 will be Trump’s last dance.


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.