In the midst of the 1993 NBA playoffs, chasing a third straight title for his Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan decided to boycott the media. His gambling had come under intense public scrutiny after it had been reported that he owed more than $1.2 million from lost golf matches—but instead of speaking out, the most famous athlete on the planet avoided the press. Then, before the first game of the NBA Finals, he suddenly decided to address the rumors, unexpectedly agreeing to break his silence and talk. But only to one person: NBC’s Ahmad Rashad.
Rashad (born Robert “Bobby” Moore, he changed his name after converting to Islam) was a former Pro Bowl wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings and a television broadcaster for NBC, but he’s better described as one of the most well-networked dudes in sports. By the 1993 Finals, he’d become friends with Jordan—and, since he’d be in Phoenix covering game one, Jordan asked him to do the interview. This became Rashad’s calling card: as a sideline reporter and host of NBA Inside Stuff, he made his name by getting the type of access no one else could.
Given his friendship with Jordan (and with then-Bulls coach Phil Jackson), and his job in television, he was lashed to the 1990’s Chicago Bulls like a sidecar. ESPN’s documentary The Last Dance, chronicling Jordan’s final season in Chicago, is revelatory because of its deep reservoir of never-before-seen footage from a time of closed-off locker rooms and before social media. But what we see for a couple of hours on Sunday is only a small fraction of what Ahmad lived in the nineties.
Even though he’s featured as a talking head, and his notorious 1993 interview played a central role in one of last Sunday’s episodes, Rashad’s insight into that team and those years goes beyond what made it into the doc. His friendship with Michael continues today. And since The Last Dance has replaced live games as the country’s lone appointment-viewing sports content, we figured we’d asked Rashad to help us explore the myth of Michael. Here, he talks about playing Jordan one-on-one in the backyard, fielding MJ-related inquiries from a young Kobe Bryant, and seeing the G.O.A.T. tell a room of Dream Teamers and future Hall-of-Famers to prepare for an ass-kicking.
Have you been watching along on Sunday nights?
I watch every week. It’s reminiscent of a time more than anything else—a time that I was there, that period where the Bulls just really ran over everybody. Every Sunday [on NBC], we had the game of the week—it wasn’t like now where they’ve got games all week—and most of the time, it was Chicago. My job as a sideline reporter was to get insights and interview the star of the game after the game, who just happened to be Michael, who just happened to be one of my best friends.
He set the bar so high and lived up to that bar every single time. That’s the fascinating part. No one has ever been that great for that long and dominated the league in that way. There was a time when, if you were at the top of your business, you were the “Michael Jordan of banking,” or the “Michael Jordan of insurance salesmen.” If you were the greatest, you were the Michael Jordan of whatever business you were in.
Nowadays, when LeBron’s going off in a playoff game, you can hop on Twitter and see athletes commenting. You didn’t have that back then. As someone who knew athletes and Jordan’s peers or contemporaries—as much as he had them—I’m curious what the conversation around him was like.
One of the things that he used to always say was that he played so hard every single night because there was a chance that somebody in that audience had never seen him play before—and he was not going to disappoint him. He played hard every single night. He never took nights off. There was no resting him for the Finals, or cutting his time down. He was a guy that was on tour and having a sold-out show no matter where he went. It’s a once in a lifetime thing to go to one of the Bulls’ games. I don’t think anybody was ever disappointed.
As someone who’s been along for the entire ride, what are the things about MJ that we take for granted now?
People don’t really realize how hard it was for him—not only as a player but also as a team—to get past the Celtics, or to get past the Pistons, or to get past the Lakers.
There was an interesting thing that happened that I was privy to—this was during the Dream Team [at the 1992 Olympics]. A bunch of guys were sitting on a pool table, and Michael and Magic got into a conversation about who was the best and playing one-on-one and all that stuff, arguing back and forth. Charles Barkley was in the room and he tried to speak up, and Larry Bird wouldn’t let him talk because he had never won a championship. Patrick Ewing was in the room too and he tried to talk. [Bird] wouldn’t let Patrick talk either.
So the argument came down to Michael telling each one of those guys that it’s a new day: I’m here now and if you don’t quit when I show up at your building next time, I’m kicking ass. So you can quit now or you can take this ass-kicking that I’m giving you when I come around. [laughs]
Finally, at the end of it—I was sitting next to Larry Bird—he just sits back and goes, «Magic, I guess we got to be quiet. We were then and he’s now.»
It was respect all the way around.
You saw that respect in last Sunday night’s episode between Michael and Kobe at the 1998 All-Star game. It was just so cool to see that exchange.
It really was. Kobe would ask me a bunch of things about Michael every time I saw him. He’d call me and ask, «What does Michael do about this? How’s he do that? How about his training? How about this?» He was just one of those kinds of guys. And Michael put him under his wing like a little brother. There was that kind of respect there.
Would you divulge stuff to Kobe?
Yeah. And then I’d tell Michael, «Hey, Kobe asked me this and that the other.» He goes, «Yeah, yeah. Well, no problem.» It was just a normal, friendly thing. There was one time when Michael had retired, and we were out in L.A. going to a Laker game. After the game, we went back to a room and it was just Michael, Phil Jackson, Kobe and myself. And Kobe challenged him to a one-on-one game.
Phil Jackson was talking to Michael about coming out and helping the Lakers at practice or something like that. And then it was like, «You guys can play one-on-one.» Kobe was not backing down. He wanted to play. [laughs] And they got a little back and forth, and then when we were leaving the building, we’re leaving the arena, and Michael goes, «You know, I really respect that kid. Really respect that kid.»
What does it take to earn Michael’s respect?
It was being dedicated to going out and doing the best you can to win every night—not once a week, or two times a month. Bring it every single night. That’s the kind of thing that really impressed him.
Last week’s episodes really explored the media scrutiny Michael faced. I know you faced your own backlash in your NFL career, especially in St. Louis after you’d changed your named to “Ahmad Rashad”—
[laughs] When I got booed all the way out of the tunnel onto the field?
Yeah. So I’m curious if you and Michael ever had any conversations or shared any wisdom about what it’s like to face that public scrutiny?
You realize that you have to use it as inspiration. It’s either that or it kills you—one or the other. It’s either going to break you, or it’s going to give you something to make you soar. It’s about getting better, being better, using things like that to make you go, “I got to go to practice tomorrow. I’m going to do an extra 15, 20 minutes.” Some people get knocked down and they have a hard time getting back up. But when your mind is right and you have a goal and you’re trying to achieve that goal, nothing can deter you from that. All I can do is show you. If you think I can’t do it, I’ll show you I can do it. Just remaining confident. Because if you don’t, it’s going to chip away at you and it’ll take everything away from you.
I felt like, in these last episodes, you could see the weight of the scrutiny on Michael. Someone was talking about how, though he didn’t break any rules with his gambling, he violated people’s expectations.
The gambling rumor was just that. It had nothing to do with playing basketball. And I think as it got out of control, when people started coming up with rumors of him gambling, that was just something that was…over there. It wasn’t real. He likes to gamble. But that’s not against any rule. His gambling would never have made him take his focus off of winning games and playing as hard as he could play.
That happens to everybody who rises up in stature: They build you up and then they start trying to tear you down. At that point, you didn’t really know much about him as a person. You just knew him as a great basketball player. And when it came to a head, that’s when he said, «Look, man, go get a camera. Can you go get a camera? I want to do this interview right now. Let’s get this thing straight right this minute.» And it didn’t deter him. He did the interview and he just moved on. There was no more conversation about it.
Did you tell him to take his sunglasses off?
Yeah. [laughs] I said, «Man, might help if you take them sunglasses off.» He’s like, «No man, go ahead.» So we just went ahead. It wasn’t just me and him in the room. The true story about this whole thing is when he called me and asked for a camera, I called Dick Ebersol. I said, «Dick, this is a pretty big deal, but I want to make sure we do it right. Here’s what I would like for you to do so it doesn’t look like, ‘Ahmad’s giving his best friend softball questions.’ I want you to write the questions.”
And at the end of the interview I went, «Wait. Michael, don’t leave.» I turned around and said, «Is there anything else that we need to ask him?» Because I’m thinking about the fallout the next day. And it was like, «Nope, we got everything you need. It’s all good.» And then the next day, I had probably every sports guy in the world being like—I guess there was a lot of jealousy, first of all—»Ah, he was too easy on him. He shouldn’t have done the interview with him. He should have done it with me.» [laughs]
How heavily did all that weigh on him, though? Once it was over, did he really let it go?
Yeah. You know why? Because he wasn’t guilty. He wasn’t bullshitting. He wasn’t lying. What else can you say? It did not deter him from trying to win more championships. That was the most important thing. All those commercials and all that other stuff, that was secondary. First? Winning championships.
There’s a recent GQ interview with Tim Grover, Michael’s trainer, and, in the photo, you’re in the background. What was it like to be around him as he was training?
He would amaze you with how strong he was. He could do the iron rings—you know, with your hands out straight and you’re holding those rings? He could do that shit! [laughs] That’s crazy strong. Never did he ever skimp. You talk about a guy who was dedicated—tremendously dedicated.
But then, as you talk, he says, «All that stuff created my confidence.” If you ever saw him practice, he practiced as hard as he played in a game. So if you thought some of the things that you saw in a game that was just so fantastic, you should see what he was doing in practice. It was like the same guy: “I’m going a hundred miles an hour all the time.” And that is what gave him the confidence. Because he worked so hard at it.
People think, “Well, he just showed up and he’s just naturally talented.” He’s naturally talented. [But] on top of that, he works harder than anybody I’ve ever seen, any athlete I’ve ever met. He had a goal, and he was hell-bent on achieving it.
Tim Grover also talks about how golf was part of Michael’s training regimen. How would you describe what golf did for him?
Golf is just about you. It’s not about the other guy you’re playing, it’s about you. So it was a chance to get away from people, from the game, from all the hype around being Michael Jordan. It was a place to get away, but he was also trying to challenge the game of golf.
He would play before games. I remember one time we went and played golf somewhere [before a game], and I was doing sideline reporting [that night]. I was so tired that I went to sleep on the sideline. I kept thinking, “How the hell can he be up there playing, when he just finished 18 holes?” He was just a different kind of human being.
Have you talked to him about the documentary?
Yeah, we talk about it. And more so than anything else, we remember. Last night, we watched it, and, at some point, something came on and I was like, «Hey, do you remember we had dinner the night before that?” It’s more like two friends looking back.
For instance, I remember when they played Phoenix. Charles [Barkley] and Phoenix won this particular night, and I had to interview Charles at the end of the game. He was saying, «I talked to the Lord and the Lord told me that we’re going to win this game.» That was kind of a joke.
So then, after, we went somewhere to have dinner, and Charles walked into the room. It was a private room in a restaurant. And Michael didn’t speak to him. Nothing. They’re friends, but they weren’t friends during this. This was a whole different thing. Charles came in, he was trying to joke around, nobody really said anything so he just went right back out.
And when you talk about somebody like Charles, and Charles says, “He’s the greatest player I’ve ever seen,” you have to take that into account. In championships, there was another star that was supposed to be in Michael’s stratosphere. So at the end of that series, he wanted to put it down that nobody’s in my stratosphere. Whoever it was, it was like, «Nah, let’s see what happens at the end of this.» And he loved it. Absolutely loved the competition.
One time we were in his yard and we were just messing around, so I was trying to play. It was just the two of us. I was like, «Hey, let’s play one on one.» He was like, «Shit, I ain’t playing you one on one.» I’m like, «Come on, man.” He’s like, «I ain’t playing you.» So he took the ball first and shot and made it. It was my turn to take the ball and every time I dribbled it, he took it.
He wouldn’t even let me dribble. He was guarding me so tight. I was like, «Shit, man, it ain’t that serious, is it?» [laughs] “Yep, it is. I’m not going to let you make one basket. Matter of fact, I ain’t going to let you even dribble.» It only lasted about three or four minutes. I was like, «Okay, I quit. Let’s play football.»
Has that competitive fire waned at all with time?
No, he’s still one of the most competitive people you’re ever going to meet. When we play golf, he’s still just as competitive. And that’s just him. That’s Michael. He’s ain’t ever going to ease up. You’re always going to get his best. And that’s cool.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Originally Appeared on GQ