ESPN’s 10-part docuseries on Michael Jordan’s final championship run is both a candid and an apologetic take on one of the greatest athletes of all time. While endlessly entertaining, “The Last Dance” also demonstrates over and over again just how integral and invaluable traditional masculinity and male role models were for Jordan’s unprecedented success. And it does so almost by accident.
Unfortunately, we live in a day and age where masculine ideals have been marginalized to fatiguing degrees. At best, they’re viewed as antiquated norms to be discouraged in boys and young men. Increasingly though, they’re now discarded and vilified. Anything that might qualify as traditionally masculine outside of superficialities is often derided as toxic by the media and mainstream culture.
Michael Jordan’s success, however, would be non-existent if it weren’t for these traditional masculine ideals and the men that imparted them on his life, both on and off the court.
First and foremost, his father, James Jordan, an Air Force veteran, instilled discipline and a hard-nosed work ethic in his son at an early age. Tough love was the order of the day in the Jordan household, and it proved invaluable. Michael recounts his father’s final ultimatum in the ESPN documentary that was pivotal to his athletic career:
He was my rock…we were very close. He constantly gave me advice. I remember in ninth grade I got suspended three times in one year, and my father pulled me aside that summer and said: “Look, you don’t look like you’re heading in the right direction. You know, if you want to go about doing all this mischievous stuff, you can forget sports.”
The elder Jordan was not aiming to be his young son’s best friend or buddy. That could come later when his son was an adult. Instead, James Jordan understood that his role as a father was to impart discipline, guidance, and focus in his children. Such necessary parenting values are seemingly at a premium these days.
Dean Smith, his legendary coach at the University of North Carolina, would build upon the foundation Jordan’s father set for his son. In fact, Jordan would refer to Smith as his second father. Upon Dean Smith’s passing in 2015, Jordan eulogized his coach and mentor with the following statement according to Sports Illustrated:
Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than Coach Smith. He was more than a coach – he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father. Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him and I loved him for it. In teaching me the game of basketball, he taught me about life.
Other men that played huge roles in Jordan’s life were Phil Jackson and Gus Lett, a key member of Jordan’s security personnel who also took on an important paternal role in Jordan’s life after his father’s harrowing murder in 1993. All these men ascribed to very traditional masculine ideals that include discipline, forbearance, teamwork, and toughness.
We live in a day and age where men are increasingly disposable. Fatherhood and masculinity are often viewed as unnecessary, if not as obstacles and impediments for the growth and development of children.
Popular feminist constructs such as the Duluth Model cast men as inherently oppressive and violent. Far from being just abstract academic ideas, these biased constructs against men have made their way into courtrooms, custody battles, and countless divorce proceedings for decades upon decades.
Yet, it’s sadly fascinating to witness just how imperative inherently masculine ideals and unapologetically male role models were to the success of one of the greatest athletes known to the world. That such men are now seemingly at a premium for so many continues to have a deleterious effect on current society and, possibly, for generations to come.
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