'The Last Dance': Michael Jordan Gets Emotional Talking About How His Father's Tragic Death Changed Him

MIchael Jordan Documentary
ESPN Films/Netflix/Mandalay Sports Media/NBA Entertainment

The NBA icon opened up for the ESPN doc about the impact his father's murder had on his life and outlook.

In 1993, Michael Jordan suffered an unimaginable loss with the tragic and senseless death of his father, James R. Jordan, and it changed the NBA icon immensely.

Sunday's new episode of the ESPN documentary series The Last Dance -- which has largely examined Michael's final season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-'98 -- went back several years to examine a formative aspect of his life, and the celebrated athlete got emotional while reflecting in his relationship with his late father.

"He was my rock. You know, we were very close. He constantly gave me advice," Michael recalled for the documentary cameras. "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.' And that's all I needed to hear."

"From that point on, it was like tunnel vision," Michael said, "and I never got in trouble from that point on."

Michael said that his father was "the voice of reason that always drove and challenged me," and his death changed Michael's life and his outlook forever.

James was brutally murdered on July 23, 1993, when he pulled off a highway to take a nap on the side of the road. James was shot to death while sleeping, and the two attackers then hid his body in the woods and stole his car. His body wasn't discovered until the following month.

"You know, my mother was so strong," Michael recalled of his mom's advice at his father's funeral service. "The first thing she says, 'You know, you got to be thankful.' You know, and I started looking at the positive."

"One of the things that he always taught me is that you have to take a negative and turn it into a positive," he added. "So I started looking to the other side of it, and that helped me get through it."

However, the story took an even stranger turn when reporters started speculating and spinning conspiracy theories regarding his father's murder. At the time, Michael had been embroiled in some gambling-related scandals, and was accused of having a gambling addiction. Some commentators postulated that his behavior may have somehow led to his dad's death.

"It did hurt, you know, but you had people that were throwing darts who wanted to hurt me anyway," Michael said of the speculation at the time. "It wasn't from the people that I loved or the people that knew me and people that cared. It was the people that, you know, got tired of me being on top."

With his dad's death weighing heavily on his shoulders, Michael came to the decision that he wanted to retire. He'd already accomplished so much in such a short time, and he felt he no longer had any motivation.

"This was, you know, a young man that had gone through some heart-rending things," former Bulls coach Phil Jackson said thinking back about his conversation with Michael at the time. "You're denying a gift to society, but I understand. You know, I understand."

Michael announced his retirement on Oct. 6, 1993. He subsequently decided to pursue a career in baseball and signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox. According to Michael, it was his father who encouraged him to play baseball.

When asked if he remembers the last conversation he had with his dad, Michael said, "We were debating, me and him. We were debating about me playing baseball."

"Dad, I want to go play baseball. I'm thinking about retiring, I want to go play baseball," Michael recalled telling his dad, who was very supportive. "He was saying, 'Do it, do it.' 'Cause he got me started in baseball."

However, his brief stint in minor league baseball came to an end in March 1995, when Michael decided to return to the NBA and made a stellar comeback.

However, his return led to more wild speculation with rumors that his retirement was in fact a "secret suspension" issued by Commissioner David Stern related to his gambling scandals.

Despite the fact that Stern and nearly everyone else close to the situation staunchly and unwaveringly rejected the idea, the rumors have persisted. Although, at this point, Michael seems to just laugh it off.

"I didn't retire because he kicked me out or they suspended me for a year and a half. That is not true. There is no truth to that," Michael shared. "I needed a break. You know, my father just passed, and I retired. You know and I retired with the notion that I wasn't going to come back." 

However, come back Michael did, and in a big way. The Bulls went on to clinch the NBA championship -- Michael's fourth in total -- on Father's Day in 1996, and he could hardly contain his emotions as he dedicated the win to his father.

Michael broke down sobbing, having won his first championship without his father there to see, in the locker room, in a moment of pure heartbreak.

The Last Dance airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ESPN.