The Last Dance documentary series on the Jordan era Chicago Bulls was the undoubted sports hit of Covid Lockdown 1.0. I think every sports fan I know watched and loved it. The fact that it doubled up as a PR exercise Jordan might have diminished its objectivity but had little impact on how entertaining it was (and it holds up well for a repeat viewing).
The series helped lead to a revival of interest in the NBA’s arguable Golden Era, as Jordan helped the league transform the rising tide of the Magic/Bird era into a level of global attention more akin to today’s English Premier League than the current NBA. A (probable) knock-on effect has been the publication of a number of autobiographies from other players of that era. Three recent or upcoming of these books are The Last Enforcer by Charles Oakley, Unguarded by Scottie Pippen and Muggsy by Muggsy Bogues. Three very different books from three very different players and personalities.
Pippen is likely the best known of the three from his co-starring role in 6 NBA title wins alongside Jordan for the Chicago Bulls. Unguarded (written with Michael Arkush) is a direct consequence of the popularity of The Last Dance as Pippen uses the book to tell ‘his side’ of events in the documentary that painted him in a negative light. The overwhelming takeaway of the book is Pippen’s residual negative feelings towards.. well, plenty of people (none more so than the late Bulls GM Jerry Krause). The book could easily have been titled “I Still Hold A Grudge”. Pippen does praise plenty of people too, but the criticism is inherently more interesting. The retelling of his own career is interesting if not particularly revealing.
Primarily, Pippen is trying to set the record straight and puncture the narrative that Jordan won titles single-handedly. He seeks to define himself as Jordan’s opposite in so many ways – a better teammate and an underappreciated contributor. Overall, a reader is left with the sense of a man less satisfied than he should with a remarkable career due to lingering feelings of never being valued enough given just how remarkable he preformed.
The Last Enforcer by Charles Oakley (written with Frank Isola) gives the perspective of someone with a very different relationship with Jordan. Oakley played with the Bulls just before (and again after) they won 6 Championships and formed a life long bond with Jordan. He then spent 10 years as a New York Knick during the period wonderfully told in Chris Herring’s book Blood in the Garden.
Like Pippen, Oakley sets out to air his many grievances with players, coaches and many other people from his life and career. Unlike Pippen, Oakley never comes across as bitter (except when taking about Knick’s owner James Dolan) but more mildly irritated and dismissive of those he dislikes or simply just holds in lower esteem than you might suspect (Charles Barkley he dislikes, Patrick Ewing he is pretty dismissive of).
Oakley is also very fulsome in his praise of those he likes and, more importantly, respects. The acknowledgements section of the book is remarkable for how many people Oakley thanks and how genuine his thanks appears to be. For all his dismissive comments about others in the book, Oakley seems much more at peace with himself, his legacy and his place in world than Pippen.
For many readers, his relationship with Jordan will be of most interest. The friendship comes across as genuine and Oakley isn’t afraid to highlight that some of Jordan’s legacy is the result of his own mythmaking.
Overall, Oakley’s book is entertaining even if it struggles to fully live up to the subtitle promising ‘Outrageous Stories’. Any 90s NBA fan will enjoy the trip down memory lane.
Of the three books, Muggsy by Muggsy Bogues (written with Jacob Utitti) is a much more positive and joyful retelling of a career in the NBA. Bogues, famously the smallest player to ever play in the league, forgoes score-settling and instead celebrates his remarkable achievement of making to the league and sticking around for more than 10 years.
Bogues recounts his childhood in Baltimore in detail (which included getting shot!) but he refuses to dwell on the negatives or challenges he had to overcome. He gives more time to his remarkable high school basketball career at Dunbar which has separately been told in the book Dunbar Boys and a 30 for 30 documentary.
In discussing his life, Bogues focusses heavily on the endless skepticism about his ability from his own coaches, his opponents and their fans, some of whom would laugh when he ran onto the court. The retelling of his career is enjoyable, especially as it focusses on teams whose seasons may be less memorable than those of the Bulls or Knicks.
Interestingly, Bogues had previously published an autobiography in 1994 which I read many many years ago. Post career second autobiographies usually focus on spilling the dirt but Bogues focuses instead on more positive and interesting ancedotes. You don’t feel like he is holding things back, rather that Bogues is genuinely someone who is proud of his accomplishments and secure in his achievements.
Reading the three books what strikes me is how the amount of success a player had is no guarantee of how satisfied they will be post-career. Pippen, with 6 titles, looks back at how he was underappreciated. Oakley, who appeared in NBA finals, looks back with some regret but with pride for always being himself. Bogues, who never made it past the Conference semi-finals, looks back with the contentment of beating the odds and achieving far more than anyone thought he could.