The Running of the Bulls

MIDWAY THROUGH GRADUATE SCHOOL, I started to dislike reading. I spent my days skimming academic articles and my evenings skimming novels in search of quotes for my dissertation. I turned to television: sitcoms and basketball. When I developed insomnia, I returned to books—books about basketball.

Like many in my generation, I had long been fascinated by Michael Jordan. I grew up in Jamaica and so knew nothing of American sports during the Bulls’ 1990s championship runs. But I had seen the highlights, the insulting flash of his pink tongue, and the way gravity bent around his body. And I had heard the apocryphal stories about Sam Smith’s 1991 The Jordan Rules: that it held the Detroit Pistons’ secret to guarding MJ, that it detailed how much Jordan lost gambling, and that it provided answers to all the questions and conspiracy theories about him.

The Jordan Rules was written at a slight delay and at a time when sportswriters traveled with the team. Smith’s unparalleled access to Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and the others gave rise to a surprising portrait of the 1990–91 season. The early chapters take on a tragic tone. At the season’s beginning, Jordan is frustrated with his new head coach, Phil Jackson, who wants him to play team ball, which Jordan fears will cost him the scoring title. Pippen, who grew up in poverty, is so fed up with being underpaid that he considers looking for a trade. And though many fans and sportswriters agree that Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever, most think he will never win a championship.

The Last Dance, season 1, episode 4, 2020. Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan. Netflix.
The Last Dance, season 1, episode 4, 2020. Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan. Netflix.

Midway through, the book turns triumphant, presumably because Smith writes the later chapters after the season’s end. Even in the moments of dramatic tension, when Jordan’s untouchable scoring prowess seems like it may not be enough to lift the team to victory, the prose seems lighter. And at the book’s climax, the reason is clear: the Bulls do, in fact, win the 1991 NBA championship. The victory redeems Jordan’s years of scoring dominance and acrobatic play.

A book like The Jordan Rules could never be written again. Journalists no longer have such complete access to the team. (Many players—Russell Westbrook among them—wish they had even less.) And while lots of articles underestimate players, journalists’ lack of access to players means they miss the fury that the course of the season will temper with irony. Smith conveys the drama of the locker room—and the silliness of it. Pippen weighs his monetary woes against the prospect of a better salary elsewhere. Jordan desperately needs to best his teammates at gambling so that he can feel like a winner. They will earn their rings, though they don’t know it yet, and some will go on to win five more.

What carries the book is the cool of Michael Jordan. The 2020 Jordan docuseries The Last Dance gives us an episode devoted to its subject’s brutality; Smith dedicates his entire narrative to it. Jordan bullies his teammates physically, verbally, and financially. He skips team meetings to defecate. He golfs long hours on game days. He stays up late smoking cigars during the season. And he famously refuses to endorse a Black Democratic Senatorial hopeful because, as he says, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” This behavior only adds to his mystique. Smith never apologizes for the hoop-earringed shooter; he insists that the same demons that make him a menace off the court help him score on it. Jordan’s is a terrible talent, awe-inspiring because of his bad behavior.

Smith’s Jordan is not the protagonist of Space Jam. He’s not a friendly, bubblegum pop player. He’s the villain you root for. He is Al Pacino’s Scarface. The Jordan Rules is a reminder of all those ’90s roles—Wesley Snipes as Nino Brown, Larenz Tate as O-Dog—that refused caricature and instead offered Black antagonists whose complexity captivated their audiences. And cheering for a villain whom no amount of championships can redeem still thrills. Far from curing my insomnia, it kept me up late into the night.

Elias Rodriques’s first novel is All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running (Norton, 2021).