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Monday, May 11, 2020

Fort Thomas resident, former Louisville standout, featured in Michael Jordan, "The Last Dance" documentary

Mark Collier and LaBradford Smith at the Luke Muller Golf Outing last year. 

ESPN has unleashed a fury of Michael Jordan content with a ten-part documentary, called The Last Dance, detailing Michael Jordan's last season of the 1997-1998 season and behind-the-scenes footage that has been the talk of the entertainment world.

The series was originally slated for release in June, but with sports content lacking, ESPN moved up the series debut to April. Two one-hour long episodes air each Sunday night starting at 9:00 p.m.

Episode 8, which ran last night at 10:00 p.m. on ESPN, featured a little known footnote in Jordan's career, which has a Fort Thomas connection.

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A Washington Bullet, formerly of the  University of Louisville and now Fort Thomas resident, LaBradford Smith, was heavily featured as shown as an example of how Jordan uses loss as motivation for his success.

While a standout for the University of Louisville from 1987-1991, Smith only played three seasons in the NBA with the aforementioned Bullets and Sacramento Kings. His best year as a pro came during the 1992–93 season as a member of the Bullets, when he appeared in 69 games and averaged 9.3 points per game.

Undoubtedly Smith is best known for scoring 37 points on Michael Jordan in a game in March of 1993. He shot 15-20 from the field and didn't miss in seven free throw tries.

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The documentary goes on to say that Jordan used that game the very next game, when the Bulls played the Bullets back-to-back. Jordan was unrelentingly going at Smith, scoring 36 points in the first half alone.

Smith was quoted about his involvement in the documentary in a Los Angeles Times article and reacted with some amazement at how much his career game against Jordan was featured. From the article, written by Dan Woike:

"...And for one sort-of-meaningless game in late March 27 years ago, it was LaBradford Smith, a story that perfectly illustrates Jordan’s ability to motivate himself.

Smith has been recording “The Last Dance” episodes as they air at his Cincinnati-area home. He likes to skip through the commercials. Through three weeks, his story with Jordan hadn’t come up. But then his nephew got ahold of the eighth episode.

“He was like, ‘Unc, you know you’re in “The Last Dance?”’ And I was like, holy [expletive],” Smith said. “I thought I was gonna just ease by, they were just gonna talk about the championship stuff and all that.

“And now I’m in Episode 8.”

The legend goes that after Smith scored 37 against the Bulls he told Jordan, “Mike, good game.” And this incensed Jordan.

Smith says the reality is he didn’t seek Jordan out after the game. He ran off the court and tried to get into the showers at the Chicago Stadium as quickly as he could. He was briefly stopped by reporters.

“The shots were just falling for me. … It happens like that sometimes,” Smith told the Washington Post. “Hopefully, it’ll happen like that more often. I don’t say nothing to [Jordan]. Leave him alone. In the first couple of quarters he was helping out a lot and I was getting a more wide-open shot.”

It wasn’t like Smith was doing his scoring on Jordan, necessarily.

“You know, still to this day, one thing I can do is shoot the ball, you know, especially if I’m getting wide-open shots,” he said. “I’m not gonna miss all of them.”

There wasn’t time to celebrate the game, and by opening tip the next night, Smith already knew that Jordan was fuming. Before the game, Jordan’s teammates B.J. Armstrong and Rodney McCray found Smith stretching and relayed the same news that had (Bullets forward Don) MacLean cursing on his way into the building.

“You know, Mike’s been here since about 4 p.m. shooting around,” they told him. “And he told us to take the day off, so I hope you got to rest last night.”

Jordan made his first eight shots, attacking Smith and whoever else had the misfortune of trying to get in his way. He finished with 47 points through three quarters.

“I remember his body language seemed different right from the start. And maybe I was looking for that because I knew he had been there for hours,” MacLean said.

MacLean would see that look a couple of summers later when Jordan was hosting the best pickup games on the Warner Bros. lot after he finished filming “Space Jam” for the day. After a few weeks, MacLean decided to check out the games; he got hot, and his team somehow knocked Jordan off the court.

When MacLean returned a few weeks later to play, Jordan instantly said he would be defending MacLean.

“It wasn’t like he wouldn’t let me score. He wouldn’t even let me touch the ball,” MacLean said with a laugh. “This sums up the maniacal brain of Jordan.”

There are tons of stories like this that paint Jordan somewhere between the ultimate competitor and the ultimate psychopath.

“I don’t think any of these guys asked for this. Most of these challenges were created by Michael,” Perdue said. “… It’s part of the reason why people sometimes think these guys are [expletive]. Because winning was the most important thing, period.”

Smith, like so many others, is a part of Jordan’s story, a challenge — real or imagined — that Jordan needed to conquer. His family, along with millions of others, will be reminded of it Sunday.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools, Smith would try to walk his daughters to the door, where, like any self-respecting child, they were mortified by their father’s presence. But one day that changed, as they ran into Smith’s arms after learning about his NBA life. Someone must have Googled him.

“Everyone at school is saying you’re famous ... Why didn’t you tell us? You played against Michael Jordan?” Smith remembered them asking. “I said ‘You’d never asked.’

“I’m just your dad. It’s just something Daddy used to do a long time ago.”

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