When Michael Jordan first genuflected to Dennis Rodman at the alter of Phil Jackson, America still had a glimmer of innocence. To continue on his glorious path of professional basketball dominance, the Great One needed a masochistic Freak to flog the Opponent on a nightly basis. Little was known about what materially motivated Dennis the Menace, AKA the Worm, to do MJ’s Dirty Work besides a fat paycheck, and we still don’t. What kind of a Free Thinking, seemingly hedonistic Superhero would care to help a Black Nazi like Jordan win another three in-a-row? In his words, “I didn’t care”, but Phil Jackson surely did.
“Just how are you going to play for us Dennis?” Jackson hissed. “With pleasure,” was the answer of course. But the real fun came after a two-week West Coast road trip or a back-to-back in Chicago when the coach gave his blessing for the Worm to wiggle his way in and out of every hotel and casino on the Vegas strip for three nights straight after marching up-and-down the court for almost as long, carrying out the orders of SS General Jordan.
The unlikely duo weren’t on speaking terms, but they understood each other on a certain competitive/tribal level, although neither would admit it at the time. Only now, more than 20 years later, do the dichotomous pair confess to communicating almost telepathically on the defensive end of the basketball court as if they couldn’t stand the sound of each other’s voice.
After the ambidextrous Scottie Pippen returned to the team in January 1998, The Worm was able to return to his “beneath the surface” on-court role following a 48-hour Vegas binge. Jordan could only shake his head at Jackson’s acquiescence to Rodman’s request, but after starting 24-11 in Pippen’s absence, His Airness reluctantly learned to accept Dennis’ mental and emotional needs as long as it helped Chicago win their sixth NBA championship of the decade — the last “decent” 10-year period in American history.
Ahhh, and what about Joe Exotic? While America watched the machinations one of the late, great dynasties in sports history every Sunday night on ESPN in early spring 2020, an even uglier tale unveiled itself in a similar format in front of a decidedly younger and more imaginative audience, featuring hustlers, con-men, hedonists and drug addicts.
The exotic animal trade maybe America’s last underground industry where it’s players live as free and die as hard as the Robber Barron’s of the Old West. The last unabashedly public Outlaws, as it were. In this case, Joe, a gay, tattooed pseudo-cowboy who happened to be the owner of a roadside zoo in Oklahoma, was finally in need of a financial partner after nearly two decades of lonely toil and hustle which couldn’t pay the bills as legal and moral entanglements threatened the viability and future prospects of his business.
So, along comes Jeff Lowe, a fellow tiger-breeder/exotic animal pimp from uncertain origins to rescue Joe Exotic and his troubled zoo from financial ruin caused by none other than vanity and vindictive stupidity. Three years later, the local Oklahoma legend known as the Tiger King came to an end with Exotic’s arrest in the Florida Panhandle after going on the run for the entire summer of 2018, kicked out of the animal park he founded 20 years earlier by none other than the man who was supposed to shield him from the liabilities of chronic animal exploitation.
So what was the main difference in determining the fate of these two legends of their respective fields, both driven by revenge and an iron-clad will that would stop at nothing short of death and humiliation to fulfill their manifest destinies? Where one seemed to grow stronger and more invincible as his career progressed like a mythical Greek warrior, the other languished in increasingly pathetic desperation, succumbing to the gross excesses which distracted from the inescapable daily responsibility of being the overseer and main source of entertainment on 16 acres full of wild beasts in the Middle of Nowhere, USA.
Fate, as it were, combined with conviction and character, seems to be the overall answer. The star-crossed paths of Exotic and his nemesis Carole Baskin ultimately left the zoo-owner/entertainer destitute, whereas both Jordan’s on and off-court rivals seemed to feed his chronic need to one-up his opponents. Not only NBA legends like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, but more and less important figures and events seemed to propel MJ to increasingly greater heights throughout the 1990s.
The murder of Jordan’s father in July 1993 after three consecutive Chicago Bulls’ championships was undoubtedly the most personally significant event in the Wilmington, N.C., native’s life. Surrounded by controversy and hearsay, arguably the greatest player in basketball in history, even at the time, needed a break from the limelight to mourn the loss of his original mentor and reassess his Total Dedication to the game which made him truly World Famous only one year prior, as he led the original Dream Team to an Olympic gold medal sweep in Barcelona with unprecedented fanfare.
The rest, as they say, is history for Jordan, as his nearly two-year NBA absence in the middle of the decade is now seen as a mere blip in an illustrious career capped off by a second three-peat and Total Domination of a league he nearly single-handedly catapulted to global popularity. Joe Exotic’s personal tragedy, in contrast, would lead to an almost inverse trajectory following the accidental death of his brother, Garold, on a Texas highway in the waning months of 1997.
After careful examination and tireless thought, the true main difference between Joe Exotic and Michael Jordan’s star-crossed paths is that of Original Sin. Where one began an innocent rise to fame after failing to make the high school varsity team as a sophomore by working tirelessly to become stronger and more skilled, the other used settlement money from a family tragedy to buy cheap land in southern Oklahoma, essentially expanding on a business he and his brother had started a decade earlier in Fort Worth.
Just as one was beginning to exit the world stage in his mid-30s, the other, half a month his junior, was just beginning to build his own “kingdom” and navigate its painfully slow descension into the depths of Hell. So is the difference between the 20th and 21st centuries in America: The best basketball player in the history of the world during the 1990s lives in infinite luxury while never having to be seen by an unscrupulous eye again, while the country’s most entertaining master of big exotic animals in the 2000s spends the rest of his life broke and in federal prison, begging for the sympathy of a kindred-spirit executioner who knows not the name Joe Schreibvogel or Joe Maldanado-Passage.
Perhaps the apocalyptic events of 2020 will cap a trifecta of American tragedies to start the 21st century, spaced approximately 10 years apart and lift the curse of those of Joe Exotic’s ilk. New York radio personality/con artist Craig Carton, was recently released from low-security federal prison years before his projected release date after all. Will Donald Trump win reelection and doom the country’s soul for the next 50 years, or will our better angels prevail this time around and Keep America Civil for the next generation?
[Texas Monthly] [Intelligencer] [Newsweek] [Photo courtesy The Heckler]