The Last Dance is spectacular but leaves the real Michael Jordan up in the air | Barney Ronay

Though closer to hagiography than documentary, Jordan’s Netflix series offers a lavish and beautiful courtside seat

That thing you like? It’s actually rubbish. Here’s why. No wait, come back! This isn’t that. Although, as it happens, there has been a background drip of this kind of thing around The Last Dance, the blockbusting Netflix series documenting the incredible untold story of Michael Jordan winning at basketball while people tell him he’s great and he pretends to be nice.

Come back again! Just a joke! But this has been a real-world subplot to the success of The Last Dance, a public response that has veered between unconditional reverence, to a kind of culture-wars inventory of the personal politics of the film’s star. As the final episodes aired this week there was a minor chorus of Chicago Bulls teammates dismayed at their own portrayal as extras, plot devices in the Jordan Supremacy.

As a long-distance fan it has been fascinating to watch this play out. Partly this is wrapped up in the simple pleasure of observing a certain type of high-grade, tearfully earnest American sports journalist address their subject, the kind of American journalist who talks about sport as though it’s a cross between the moon landings and a childhood trauma on a fishing trip.

Add to this reverent tone the fact that Jordan is also a cultural icon, that to offer even tempered praise is to take a stance against a certain kind of orthodoxy. That thing you like: it’s complicated.

Two main questions have cropped up. The first is the issue raised this week by former teammate Horace Grant, and indeed, sotto voce, by the film itself. Is Michael Jordan actually a hypercompetitive sociopath? Is the greatest athlete in modern American sport some kind of superstar bully?

And secondly, is this actually a documentary film at all, given Jordan’s editorial control, or just a hugely enjoyable advert for shoes?

First up, it is worth stating the obvious. The Last Dance is a sensationally good sports film whatever the answers to these questions. The storytelling is thrillingly detailed, and performative too. The beauty of basketball lies in its interlocking details, the way players, skills, tactics and backstories elide in a snapshot, creating that dizzyingly rich athletic ballet. This is what the series gives you: a lavish, beautifully constructed courtside seat. It is, whatever else, a love letter to its sport.

It is easy to get carried away by this richness. As it progressed I found myself consumed with affection for assorted New Favourite Guys among the relentlessly charismatic array of former players. First up there’s Scottie Pippen, the heart of the film, who has something irresistibly stern and upright about him; and who is said to be disappointed, no doubt in that weary frontier-preacher kind of way, by his own portrayal.

Then there’s mild, steely Steve Kerr, who looks like a small-town orthodontist but appears also to be one of the nicest hypercompetitive athletes to have walked the earth. And obviously there’s Dennis Rodman just for the sheer luminous glory, the perfect blend of hard-headed elite dedication and going to the wrestling and pretending to hit someone with a chair.

In fact I wanted to be friends with all of them. All except Michael. I wanted Michael to distrust me, to hate me; but finally, and through gritted teeth, to admit that he grudgingly respects me.

Admittedly, this probably won’t end up happening. But it does lead us back to that first question. Is Jordan, the man-turned-logo, the inspiration to millions, actually a bit of a dick? The answer is obvious. Yes he is! But it doesn’t matter. In fact this is in many ways the best part of the film.

And let’s be clear, Jordan is a wonderful dick. He’s fantastic at it. At one point Reggie Miller recalls, with awed amusement, playing Jordan in his rookie year. Miller gets turned over in the final quarter. As they walk off Jordan tells him: “Don’t ever talk trash to black Jesus.”

Later Jordan punches small, kindly Steve (“I hit him right in the fucking eye”), wants to apologise, doesn’t actually have his teammate’s number, but finally convinces Steve that he, Michael, is actually cool with it all so basically STFU. “From that point on our relationship dramatically improved,” Steve confirms.

There are moments where some merely-very-good pro basketball player talks about a defining moment in his life, the one game where he made some small mark on greatness. Mike is shown watching on a tablet, hooting and laughing. Towards the end someone poisons him with a doctored pizza and you think, yeah, well, OK.

But again, this is fine. This is what being relentlessly great at sport sometimes looks like. It may sit poorly with the urge to lionise and fan-worship, but plenty of elite sportspeople have something wild about them: the sharp, obsessive edge that drives you to become this astonishingly good at something so reductively simple.

It just happens Jordan has the once-in-a-lifetime talent and drive to live this personality to its fullest expression. There are no restraints, no boundaries as long as you keep winning. How are we expecting him to come across at the end of this?

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The interesting point here is how this feeds into question two. This isn’t really a documentary, or a work of journalism. It’s a hagiography. It was always meant to be. Jordan is sport’s most valuable brand. His company made the film. That thing you like: it’s also an advert.

But even this works. The bits where Jordan tells us things in spite of himself are also the best parts. The hero of this film is a sporting genius, but he’s also an unreliable narrator, a narrator who gives away more than you expect.

These glimpses of how it might feel to be caught in the glow of all that excess brilliance are what makes The Last Dance not just spectacular, but a version of some other truth that still seems to be playing itself out now.

Contributor

Barney Ronay

The GuardianTramp

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