The Netflix docuseries The Last Dance, an intimate portrait of Michael Jordan’s career with the Chicago Bulls, is to recall how disconnected the world was back then. For the first nine seasons of Jordan’s professional career, culminating in three championships from 1991 to 1993, we in India caught only snatches of His Airness. We made do with news briefs, the occasional magazine story and video snippets on The World This Week. We drank in every USA game in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. When relatives visited from the US, we pestered them to tell us about the Bulls. A distant uncle had seen Jordan live! A classmate who relocated from Chicago brought along a collection of sports magazines. At once, he was the most popular kid in class.
Jordan was the last great sportsman from the pre-Internet age. He loomed large in our imaginations since we saw so little of him — until around 1995, when we began to get coverage of the NBA Playoffs and Finals. We watched his last act for the Chicago Bulls in 1998, which, in keeping with his aura, was a jump shot that sealed his sixth title. But the world had to shrink for us to take in the sweep of his career. Only over time — thanks to online newspaper and magazine archives, biographies, video clips and documentaries — could we fill in the vast gaps in our imagination. We scoured the Internet for games from the 1990-91 season to see what he was like at his best. And in the process, we got a glimpse what America was like. In a career that ran parallel to the fall of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War and the early tech boom, Jordan was, as Matthew Continetti wrote in the National Review, “both the exemplar and symbol of American achievement”.
Watching The Last Dance took me back to the 1990s, when we were in the grip of our own sporting megastar. In the Indian context, Sachin Tendulkar was the first great sportsman of the satellite TV age. He loomed so large since we saw so much of him, from the days when he wore a white helmet, his shirt partly unbuttoned, batting as low as No.7.
As per Manu Joseph in The New York Times: “In an impoverished, chaotic nation, [Tendulkar] swiftly became the most reliable agent of mass euphoria.” An increase in per capita income and advancements in technology through the decade made Tendulkar a daily habit, but no book, movie or documentary has adequately captured the visceral thrill of Tendulkar in the 1990s. Write-ups and videos say plenty but they stop short of articulating that feeling that enveloped those who saw him at his peak.
In The Last Dance, Jordan lounges on a white armchair sofa with a glass of amber Cincoro tequila always within reach. This brand of liquor, which he co-owns, reportedly retails for $1,800 a bottle. He occasionally puffs on a cigar and is always the final word on any topic, which the director has said was a pre-condition. Jordan’s body language is of a mogul detailing his rise. He talks of setting straight those who dared to thwart him and of repeatedly proving the naysayers wrong. Handed an iPad, he watches the former Seattle Supersonics point guard Gary Payton being interviewed. Payton, nicknamed The Glove, talks about his plan to tire out Jordan in the 1996 NBA finals and says his aggressive defense “took a toll” on Jordan in Game 4. This brings on two contemptuous guffaws from Jordan. Followed by a dead-certain: “I had no problem with The Glove.”
The setting, the swagger, the disdain: none of it spells Tendulkar. Never in a hundred years will he display such practised arrogance in an interview. And neither are we likely to know his thoughts on controversial issues. Jordan describes drug-fuelled parties involving his early teammates at the Bulls. He says he “hated” the Detroit Pistons of the late ’80s, and adds: “That hate carries to this day.” It is unclear if Tendulkar has ever used the word “hate” publicly. Match-fixing, selection gaffes, board politics: he has responded to them with silence. What angers him? Does he carry grudges? Jordanian certainties don’t work here. Nor are opponents verbally beaten down. In Tendulkar’s words, he rose thanks to the grace of God. His contributions are a service to the nation. He is forever grateful to his opponents. It’s not his critics he wants to satisfy but himself.
The year 1998 is crucial: Jordan’s last with the Bulls and Tendulkar’s most radiant. With the buzz intensifying around his impending retirement, Jordan mania swept across North America. The Bulls sold out all 82 regular season games. An article in Sports Illustrated described a scene from Indianapolis in March that year: “… so many fans gathered outside the Canterbury Hotel to witness the Bulls walk four feet… from the hotel’s secured lobby onto the magic bus that police had to close off the street. For an hour.”
Such shows of adulation were routine for Tendulkar, especially in 1998. Newspapers teemed with stories of truant school kids, reluctant office-goers, delayed trains and extended waits outside stadiums and hotels: all to get a glimpse of their hero. The sportswriter Rohit Brijnath captured the mood in the end of 1998: “In his own restaurant Jordan must sit in his own private dining room; Tendulkar dare not even go out to dine.”
Jordan ended the 1997-98 season with his lowest per game numbers in points, assists, rebounds, steals and blocks. And yet he was so far ahead of the rest he won the MVP awards for the regular season, the Finals and All-Star Game, as well as his 10th scoring title. Chew on that for a moment: even when nowhere near his best, he was the best.
For Tendulkar, 1998 was his Mt Everest. There were more runs and more hundreds than in any other year. He dominated Shane Warne in both Tests and one-dayers and scored nearly 70 runs each time he walked out to bat. The next-best batsman had 750 fewer runs. And nobody else scored more than five hundreds. Tendulkar managed 12.
These achievements were never followed by a show of superiority. The more peaks Tendulkar scaled, the more down-to-earth was his demeanour. Which endeared him to both fans and cricketers like Warne and Bradman.
The only time Tendulkar visibly carried a Jordanian sense of victimhood was that one evening in Sharjah in 1998. Henry Olonga had surprised him with a lifter in the previous game, which had led to sleepless nights and a harmless jibe from Ajay Jadeja.
“Watch the next game,” Tendulkar had told Jadeja, and gone on to smash a 92-ball 124 in the final. It was an innings so full of insolence, a response so atypical, he dwelt on it for precisely one paragraph in his autobiography. In a near-apologetic tone he wrote – “…some of my shots were not what you might call orthodox cricketing shots, as all I was doing was smashing the ball. That’s what happens when you are batting well — even slogs go for boundaries…”
You can see him cringing while watching the replay. And forsaking the final word.
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