Nearly everyone is talking about “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s sports documentary miniseries that revolved around Michael Jordan and his last season with the Chicago Bulls. The series aired from April 19 to May 17 and with sports on the hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it had no competition for attention from fans.
The aftermath of the series has been interesting. Jordan’s frankness about that time has been refreshing and controversial. The man many consider as the National Basketball Association’s GOAT — that’s greatest of all time — showed sides of himself that few, if any, ever saw. Yes it’s true, Michael Jordan does cry.
Gene Banks, arguably the GOAT of West Philadelphia High School, had an up close and personal view of Jordan’s meteoric rise to superstardom. Banks, who went on to collegiate fame at Duke University, was playing for the San Antonio Spurs when Jordan came into the NBA in 1984 after his junior year at the University of North Carolina. The two would become teammates on the Bulls when Chicago acquired Banks in a 1985 trade.
“I got to the Bulls in MJ’s second year into the league,” Banks recalled. “I had played him the year before, when I was with San Antonio, and I had to guard him. Got a dose of his greatness then, and then to be traded to Chicago to play with him, [I feel] blessed to have had that opportunity to be a part of and around [his rise to notoriety] but [I] saw all his greatness in the practices each and every day.”
The NBA’s GOAT title has caused fights and ended friendships. The names of contenders for the mythical honor — Jordan, Overbrook High School legend Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James and Bill Russell — have been subjected to scrutiny by basketball purists and fans. Banks has played with and against Jordan, played against Abdul-Jabbar and has seen Chamberlain, Russell and James in action. As far as he’s concerned, there’s no question who has earned the honor.
“Let me say this and it’s not because I am a Philadelphian, the greatest in the game of basketball was Wilt Chamberlain, period,” Banks said. “His stats were unbelievable. He skills were undeniable. He was an amazing specimen and athlete. He could just about do anything and had the stats to back it up. The only thing they hang on now is championship rings. But he had two.
“They changed rules, lanes and officiating mannerisms because of Wilt,” he added about Chamberlain’s influence on the game.
“But, I will say, and the championships back him along with his great talent, [Jordan] is the second best ever in the game and there were many of deserving: Bill Russell, Kareem, Kobe [Bryant] and Shaq [Shaquille O’Neal].
“Shaq and Kobe, more so because of the rings. For LeBron, it’s too early yet and the game has changed so much,” Banks said.
Banks said the documentary series was pretty accurate.
“They were pretty much on point because it was Michael telling the story,” he said. “The thing is, there are so many other and in depth stories to tell... I was the elder statesman, and he was the young lion. He was our go-to and rising star, and we all knew it.
“My role was to nurture, support and give him all of my responsibilities, and I thought I did well doing that. He respected me and Charles [Oakley] and I, were probably the only two guys that could give him words or advice, and he would listen. I appreciated that,” said the former Bulls teammate.
Looking back, Banks has fond memories of Jordan. He also realizes the role he played in Jordan’s ascent to NBA stardom.
“In my years with him, he was fine and a good teammate,” said Banks, who turned 61 on May 15.”[Jordan] didn’t pressure guys much. Called them out though, when necessary. I was so blessed to have been around that time and been a part of his history. Seeing greatness being formed and being a part of that nurturing. Representing Philly, being on that team and being with one of the greatest players on the planet, at that time, made me proud of my work ethics [allowed me to be] in that position.
“[Every] time the team came to Philly to play, Mike always came to the house [on Spruce Street] to sit, eat and feel at home. And he felt [like he was home].” said Banks