Michael Jordan was years ahead of his game. The Last Dance showed that he still is

The docuseries that enthralled millions isn’t just about sport, but the pursuit of perfection. And at its heart is a superstar who still retains his mystery

The Last Dance, the wildly popular documentary series co-produced by ESPN and Netflix about Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty, concluded last week with the same delirious public reception it came in on – a reminder that Jordan’s towering presence endures nearly two decades on from his playing days.

The anticipation surrounding the ambitious 10-part docuseries, which was initially set to air in June on the off nights of this year’s NBA finals, had been growing since the release of a glossy extended trailer at Christmas showing never-before-seen footage and a star-studded roster of interviewees replete with A-list celebrities, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and a who’s who of basketball luminaries.

Yet it arrived at a moment as singular as the sportsman it profiles: with the sports world at an unprecedented standstill amid the global coronavirus pandemic and millions of people desperate for the shared experience that the NBA playoffs would otherwise be offering right now. The episodes, which aired in prime time on ESPN before their next-day release internationally on Netflix, became weekly appointment television throughout the past month and a half, averaging 5.648 million viewers (and reportedly unseating Tiger King as the world’s most in-demand documentary).

Then NBA commissioner David Stern presents Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls the championship trophy after the Bulls defeated the Phoenix Suns in game six of the 1993 NBA finals.
Then NBA commissioner David Stern presents Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls the championship trophy after the Bulls defeated the Phoenix Suns in game six of the 1993 NBA finals. Photograph: Andrew D Bernstein/NBAE

The Last Dance ostensibly tells the story of Jordan’s titular, tumultuous final season with the Bulls and his monomaniacal pursuit of excellence on the hardwood, but the panoramic canvas allows for lengthy detours and richly drawn sidebars that never feel extraneous. Jordan’s own trajectory from baby-faced amateur to larger-than-life symbol to latter-day myth is exhaustively retold through a stylish blend of archival footage, present-day interviews and spare-no-expense soundtrack.

Lengthy segments are, however, devoted to the other principals in Jordan’s orbit: Scottie Pippen, the famed wingman and lone constant aside from Jordan on all six of Chicago’s title teams; Dennis Rodman, the free-spirited, hard-partying rebounding machine; Phil Jackson, the hippie-mystic head coach whose triangle offense helped unlock the team’s potential.

But the star of the piece is Jordan, who after all these years remains both overexposed and mysterious: at once the most prominent cultural reference point the United States has ever produced and something of a recluse who has spoken only sparingly about the Bulls’ imperious reign and still-mystifying break-up at the height of their powers.

“It’s maddening because I felt like we could have won seven, I really believe that,” Jordan says. “We may not have, but man, just not to be able to try, that’s something that I just can’t accept.”

Before what proved to be the team’s last season together – a sixth and final championship run – Jordan allowed the NBA’s in-house entertainment division to film what became more than 500 hours of behind-the-scenes footage of them with the condition that it could only be used with his explicit consent.

President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Michael Jordan at the White House in 2016.
President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Michael Jordan at the White House in 2016. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

It does bear mentioning that Jordan’s own production company is among the co-producers behind the project and he retained final cut and editorial control. Even while introducing the less pleasant elements of Jordan’s legacy – his bullying and tyrannical proclivities with teammates and well-documented gambling problem (or, as he puts it, a competition problem) – the warts are exposed in order to be smoothed over. We are left with the unshakeable sensation that we are seeing Jordan as he wants to be seen.

But if history is written by the winners, then Jordan’s participation in his own hagiography is fair play, especially if the alternative meant the unseen footage that comprises the narrative spine of The Last Dance would have remained locked away in the league’s New Jersey vault. No one won more or gave more of himself doing it – and not without the cost of personal relationships that is hinted at but is never far off.

The very fact that Jordan, whose famously meticulous control of his likeness was years ahead of its time, finally consented to a long-form documentary seems improbable until you learn he gave the go-ahead only days after LeBron James’s epochal comeback win over the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA finals, which reignited the pan-cultural Jordan v LeBron debate in earnest.

Indeed, Jordan’s sheer charisma and force of personality, as he dismissively lays waste to would-be rivals like Gary Payton, Clyde Drexler and Isiah Thomas (whose brand may never recover), are enough to bury even the peskiest advertorial aftertaste. Watching this 57-year-old man grapple with his legacy out loud, whiskey in hand, and weigh in on decades-old scores makes for compelling theatre – to say nothing of the countless memes it has spawned.

Michael Jordan smiles at a press conference in Chicago to announce his retirement in 1999.
Michael Jordan smiles at a press conference in Chicago to announce his retirement in 1999. Photograph: Sue Ogrocki/Reuters

Jordan’s peerless on-court performance is matched only by his business acumen, which The Last Dance unpacks by way of his influence on urban culture and effective launch of what has become sneaker culture. He earned a relatively modest $90m (£74m) in salary over the course of his 15-year NBA career – with about $63m coming in his final two seasons with the Bulls – yet became the world’s first billionaire athlete by selectively aligning himself with brands like Nike, Gatorade, Hanes, McDonald’s and Upper Deck. He was ever conscious of the idea that his image became diluted the more it was used. In a time when the titans of sports and entertainment routinely bypass traditional channels to control the narrative through their own production companies or friendly platforms, Jordan was years ahead of the game.

The film does make gestures toward placing Jordan’s legacy in a broader context, relying on no less than a former president and fellow Chicago icon for authority. “There are great players who don’t have an impact beyond their sport,” Obama says. “And then there are certain sports figures who become a larger cultural force. Michael Jordan helped to create a different way in which people thought about the African-American athlete. A different way in which people saw athletics as part of the entertainment business. He became an extraordinary ambassador, not just for basketball, but for the United States overseas as part of the American culture sweeping the globe. Michael Jordan and the Bulls changed the culture.”

But The Last Dance deftly resists the temptation to overreach and remains centred on Jordan’s first and only concern: the pursuit of perfection and wholesale domination of his rivals. At a time when the games that bring us together have been put on indefinite hold, it’s no surprise people flocked to the next best thing – even if they know how the story ends.

Contributor

Bryan Armen Graham

The GuardianTramp

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