‘The Last Dance’ shows how Michael Jordan created rivals to conquer
Highlights of Washington Bullets guard LaBradford Smith scoring 37 points against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
Washington Bullets rookie Don MacLean walked into the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., on the second night of back-to-back games in 1993. The night before, his team, one of the worst in the East, played a tough game in Chicago, almost upsetting the Bulls thanks to 37 points from second-year guard LaBradford Smith.
One night later, they would play Michael Jordan and the Bulls again on the Bullets’ home court.
“As I walked in, the security guard stopped me and told me Jordan had been here since 3:30,” MacLean remembered this week. “And I was like, ‘Oh [expletive] … ’”
“He was exacting revenge.”
Seemingly offended by Smith’s audacity to play well against him and the Bulls, Jordan locked his focus on the smaller, younger Bullets guard and went right at him, nearly equaling Smith’s best game ever by scoring 36 points … in the first half.
The response was swift, cruel and personal.
“I remember [John Paxson] talking to me about it. Somebody else, maybe Horace [Grant], said, ‘Do yourself a favor. When Michael gets the ball, get the hell out of the way,’” Bulls center Will Perdue remembered. “... It was almost like the eulogy was already written, and you were like, ‘Oh, God, I feel sorry for that guy.’”
When the latest episodes of “The Last Dance” air Sunday on ESPN, Smith will join the list of those who have somehow wronged Jordan, the people who have provided the gasoline to a high-powered engine.
There’s Leroy Smith, no relation to LaBradford, the player who beat Jordan out for a spot on the high school varsity team. (Jordan brought him to his Hall of Fame induction). There were Hall of Famers George Gervin, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, the masterminds who allegedly froze Jordan out in his first All-Star game.
The story of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan sharing the court the last time on March 28, 2003, when the kid scored 55 points and the G.O.A.T. had 23.
Jerry Krause’s love for Toni Kukoc led to Jordan and Scottie Pippen trying to humiliate Kukoc, a future teammate, during the 1992 Olympics. We know comparisons to Clyde Drexler led to Jordan’s famous shrug in the NBA Finals. We’ve heard Jordan say that Charles Barkley winning the 1993 most valuable player award, along with Krause’s appreciation for Phoenix guard Dan Majerle, fueled the Bulls’ third straight title. Grant leaving for rival Orlando, Nick Anderson getting a steal and Gary Payton being regarded as one of the toughest defenders — they all pushed Jordan too.
And for one sort-of-meaningless game in late March 27 years ago, it was LaBradford Smith, a story that perfectly illustrates Jordan’s ability to motivate himself.
Smith has been recording “The Last Dance” episodes as they air at his Cincinnati-area home. He likes to skip through the commercials. Through three weeks, his story with Jordan hadn’t come up. But then his nephew got ahold of the eighth episode.
“He was like, ‘Unc, you know you’re in “The Last Dance?”’ And I was like, holy [expletive],” Smith said. “I thought I was gonna just ease by, they were just gonna talk about the championship stuff and all that.
“And now I’m in Episode 8.”
The legend goes that after Smith scored 37 against the Bulls he told Jordan, “Mike, good game.” And this incensed Jordan.
Smith says the reality is he didn’t seek Jordan out after the game. He ran off the court and tried to get into the showers at the Chicago Stadium as quickly as he could. He was briefly stopped by reporters.
“The shots were just falling for me. … It happens like that sometimes,” Smith told the Washington Post. “Hopefully, it’ll happen like that more often. I don’t say nothing to [Jordan]. Leave him alone. In the first couple of quarters he was helping out a lot and I was getting a more wide-open shot.”
Episode 5 of ‘The Last Dance’ is dedicated to Kobe Bryant. It features Magic Johnson recalling Michael Jordan’s relationship with Bryant.
It wasn’t like Smith was doing his scoring on Jordan, necessarily.
“You know, still to this day, one thing I can do is shoot the ball, you know, especially if I’m getting wide-open shots,” he said. “I’m not gonna miss all of them.”
There wasn’t time to celebrate the game, and by opening tip the next night, Smith already knew that Jordan was fuming. Before the game, Jordan’s teammates B.J. Armstrong and Rodney McCray found Smith stretching and relayed the same news that had MacLean cursing on his way into the building.
“You know, Mike’s been here since about 4 p.m. shooting around,” they told him. “And he told us to take the day off, so I hope you got to rest last night.”
Jordan made his first eight shots, attacking Smith and whoever else had the misfortune of trying to get in his way. He finished with 47 points through three quarters.
“I remember his body language seemed different right from the start. And maybe I was looking for that because I knew he had been there for hours,” MacLean said.
MacLean would see that look a couple of summers later when Jordan was hosting the best pickup games on the Warner Bros. lot after he finished filming “Space Jam” for the day. After a few weeks, MacLean decided to check out the games; he got hot, and his team somehow knocked Jordan off the court.
When producers of “The Last Dance” announced a new date for the series to debut, they had finished only three of the 10 episodes. The final episode still is not complete.
When MacLean returned a few weeks later to play, Jordan instantly said he would be defending MacLean.
“It wasn’t like he wouldn’t let me score. He wouldn’t even let me touch the ball,” MacLean said with a laugh. “This sums up the maniacal brain of Jordan.”
There are tons of stories like this that paint Jordan somewhere between the ultimate competitor and the ultimate psychopath.
“I don’t think any of these guys asked for this. Most of these challenges were created by Michael,” Perdue said. “… It’s part of the reason why people sometimes think these guys are [expletive]. Because winning was the most important thing, period.”
Smith, like so many others, is a part of Jordan’s story, a challenge — real or imagined — that Jordan needed to conquer. His family, along with millions of others, will be reminded of it Sunday.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools, Smith would try to walk his daughters to the door, where, like any self-respecting child, they were mortified by their father’s presence. But one day that changed, as they ran into Smith’s arms after learning about his NBA life. Someone must have Googled him.
“Everyone at school is saying you’re famous ... Why didn’t you tell us? You played against Michael Jordan?” Smith remembered them asking. “I said ‘You’d never asked.’
“I’m just your dad. It’s just something Daddy used to do a long time ago.”
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