When you think of Michael Jordan, you probably imagine a fiery competitor who would do anything to win, right? For the most part, that reputation is based in reality. MJ dominated, earning individual honors and championships with apparent ease. That body of work, combined with some biting trash talk, made him a living legend. He was someone who you messed with at your own risk.
Some stories, however, paint His Airness in a different light. Take, for example, an encounter with Jalen Rose in 2003.
On that occasion, Jordan elbowed his opponent in the mouth and chipped his tooth. When asked about it after the game, though, the living legend came across as a hypocrite rather than a fearless fighter.
Michael Jordan once elbowed Jalen Rose as retaliation for some trash talk
During the course of his career, Michael Jordan left his mark on plenty of opponents. We know that at least one of those was Jalen Rose.
As documented in an AP story (h/t ESPN), Jordan’s Washington Wizards and Rose’s Chicago Bulls met on March 1, 2003. That contest was physical, verging on dirty — the Bulls were whistled for five technical fouls in the second half — and, at one point, His Airness delivered an elbow to Rose’s mouth, chipping a tooth.
“It was just so blatant,” Rose said. “He hit me in the head and knocked my tooth out. I was trying to score the ball, but it was flat-out blatant. … I didn’t get a shooting foul. He didn’t get a flagrant foul. We’re the Bulls — just take it out of bounds and whatever.”
When asked about the play, Jordan didn’t deny his part. Instead, he seemed to suggest that his opponent deserved it.
“He was advocating for all the trash-talking and trying to dirty up the game,” Jordan said. “They didn’t have any other purpose other than to try to dirty up the game and get our heads out of the game. He was an advocate for that, and I felt that was inappropriate — especially when you’ve got young guys and you’re trying to teach them the right way. He’s the leader of the ball club. … I felt [like] it was getting out of hand. Did I foul him hard? Yes, I did. … I just felt that he was not being true to the game.”
MJ is a living legend, but, in this instance, he sounded a bit hypocritical
Among basketball fans, criticizing Jordan can sometimes feel unimaginable. In this case, though, his comments feel like the complete opposite of everything the legend built his reputation around.
Let’s parse the quotes step by step.
“He was advocating for all the trash-talking and trying to dirty up the game,” Jordan said. “They didn’t have any other purpose other than to try to dirty up the game and get our heads out of the game.”
While this quote makes sense in concept, it rings hollow when we consider MJ is the one saying it. He was known for his trash talk and general intimidation tactics. If anyone tried to take their opponents’ heads out of the game, it was Jordan.
“He was an advocate for that, and I felt that was inappropriate — especially when you’ve got young guys and you’re trying to teach them the right way. He’s the leader of the ball club.”
Again, this is a noble sentiment; I think we can all understand the idea of teaching the next generation to play “the right way.” His Airness, however, seems to be ignoring the fact that, by this time, he was arguably the most famous athlete in the world. An entire generation of basketball fans had already grown up wanting to “be like Mike,” which included trash-talking.
It’s also worth noting that Jordan contradicted himself shortly before giving this quote. If you want to talk about inappropriate ways to play basketball, intentionally elbowing someone because of their actions is probably near the top of that list.
“I felt [like] it was getting out of hand. Did I foul him hard? Yes, I did. … I just felt that he was not being true to the game.”
While this one is a bit more ambiguous — what does being true to the game really mean? — it feels similar to the above points. In theory, Jordan felt Rose was crossing a line by talking trash, playing physically, and trying to throw the Wizards off their collective game. If that wasn’t true to basketball, then why was MJ allowed to play that way?
And, again, you could contend that intentionally elbowing someone is just as bad, if not worse, than whatever offenses Rose committed. Even if it wasn’t called a foul at the time, most fans and players would agree that Jordan crossed the line.
So should this incident change how we view Michael Jordan? That’s a personal question that everyone has to decide on their own. It does, however, add another facet to his complex legacy.
As we saw in The Last Dance, Jordan wasn’t a great guy. He talked trash, punched teammates, and did all sorts of things that were excused because of his success. And, in this case, he seemed like a hypocritical veteran who couldn’t stand being on the receiving end of his old tricks.
With that being said, though, it’s impossible to argue that his methods didn’t work. Jordan retired with six NBA championships, and if we take his teammates at their word, his high standards were a key part of that success. In the world of sports, it’s virtually impossible to argue with those rings.
There are multiple sides to every story, though. Michael Jordan can be a living legend and your favorite player, but he can also be a sore loser. No one’s legacy is as black and white as you might think.