As ESPN continues to roll out The Last Dance, GQ staffers will make their cases for the ultra-cool doc's most stylish moments.
The first episode of The Last Dance opens in Paris, where the Bulls have just touched down to play in the 1997 McDonald’s Championship, a meaningless preseason tournament against a field of inferior international competition. Or mostly meaningless, anyway, because Michael Jordan did bring home a pretty spectacular souvenir. “Michael was like the pied piper walking down the Champs-Élysées,” the late NBA commissioner David Stern recalls in the episode. “I think he was wearing a beret, because he’s Michael.”
C’est vrai, commissaire! His Airness was indeed in un très bon béret. And watching the footage of Jordan swaggering through the French capital, mobbed by screaming fans, you see immediately what Stern means. For virtually any other visiting American, sporting a beret in the streets of Paris would mark you as an oblivious tourist—like drinking a Frozen Hurricane in New Orleans, or calling San Francisco “Frisco”. But on Jordan, because he’s Michael, the beret doesn’t feel cringey, or misguided, or like a cheap ploy to pander to locals. Au contraire: paired with his swishy Bulls tracksuit as he navigates a swarm of flashing cameras, it looks righteous. Nobody—not Picasso, not Twiggy, not even Notting Hill-era Julia Roberts—has ever looked as naturally, effortlessly, unstoppably cool in a black felt beret. It’s the crown atop the head of a conquering king, gazing out upon a strange new land and declaring in no uncertain terms, “All of this belongs to me now, too.”
When MJ dons the beret again later that same trip, in the locker room just prior to trouncing Greece’s Olympiacos for the trophy, it’s a totally different vibe—topping off a slouchy gray nehru suit and a smooth black mock turtleneck—but the hat is still the cornerstone of the ensemble, maximizing the artful sophistication of everything beneath it. By that point, it seems, Mike had fully grasped the raw power of his beret and had resolved to keep the magnifique vibes rolling for the rest of his final run in Chicago. It drops in for a couple of cameos throughout the ensuing episodes, including a jaw-droppingly perfect airport fit as he boards the team plane in January ‘98: a flowing, ankle-length cashmere coat draped over a forest green hoodie and black Nike mock neck, fresh white Js on his feet, beret cocked back as the cherry on top. To take his devotion one step further, Jordan also did what any self-respecting person does when they find a piece of clothing that really works for them: he bought another one in a different color. At the top of episode three, in November ‘97, he rolls into practice in a glorious camel polo coat and an even more glorious camel beret.
You might look at Mike’s instant mastery of the beret and think, Well, of course he figured out how to pull it off quickly. He’s Michael Effing Jordan, he looked good in everything back then. And sure, that’s definitely part of it. But, as it turns out, his Parisian chapeau wasn’t his first fling with the silhouette. In fact, later in the first episode, when a 21-year-old Jordan saunters into Chicago Stadium for his first-ever NBA preseason game in 1984, he does so in a shiny black leather peacoat with a matching leather beret. It’s a mean, fearless look—especially for a skinny rookie heading into a locker room full of seasoned vets. Maybe, just maybe, a 34-year-old MJ saw his new berets as a way to tap back into that youthful bravado—the same way he laced up a too-small, too-old pair of Air Jordan 1s to torch the Knicks in his final game at MSG.
Or, more likely, the man simply understood that he looked damn good in hats. All hats. Despite owning the most iconic bald head in the world, young Jordan almost never looked better than he did while covering it up: with ballcaps, buckets, twill beanies, and the beret’s closest American analogue—the backwards newsboy, a.k.a. the Sam Jackson Special. (He pulled the latter off so well, in fact, that it prompted yours truly to cop one on eBay.) Before he settled into his retirement uniform of widescreen jeans, dowdy V-neck tees, and Eminem-style army caps, MJ’s greatest asset—both on the court and in his wardrobe—was his willingness to evolve. Like the fadeaway jumper he developed late in his career, Mike’s berets were an elegant and unexpected signature move, and he used them to reassert his style dominance over a league that was about to swerve wildly in his absence.
People generally associate berets with artistic geniuses, of course—your Rembrandts and Monets—and Michael Jordan, the ultimate craftsman, certainly qualifies. But it somehow seems even more fitting that a lot of folks also associate berets with mimes: for a guy who loved talking trash, Jordan spent his last season as a Bull letting his game speak for itself, and he finished it off in a way that needs no words to appreciate.
Originally Appeared on GQ