In 2013, around the time of Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday, ESPN’s Wright Thompson published a fascinating, lengthy profile of the man whom many consider the greatest NBA player of all time. Thompson didn’t dispute that part of his legacy in the piece, entitled “Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building.” It was everything else that was up for grabs. The Jordan he encountered was the frustrated, restless, mournful owner of the then-Charlotte Bobcats, still missing the father who had been murdered 20 years earlier, and still famously nursing the grudges and recalling the slights that, when he was a player, served as his fuel. But that glory as a player hadn’t translated into the same success afterward, and it ate away at him. “He can be a breathtaking asshole,” Thompson wrote, “self-centered, bullying and cruel.”
Michael Jordan might have been the greatest NBA player of all time, but you probably wouldn’t want to be around the guy.
This Sunday, and for the following four Sundays, ESPN will be unveiling The Last Dance, an immensely entertaining documentary about Jordan and his final championship season with the Chicago Bulls. It’s hard to make any definitive statement about this 10-part, 10-hour series — critics were only give the first eight episodes, so exactly how this epic resolves itself is still unclear — but for anyone with more than a passing interest in Jordan, this exhaustive portrait of his drive and athletic artistry will be mandatory viewing. Like the man himself, The Last Dance is relentlessly absorbing — but also a little exhausting. How much magnificence can you stand?
Directed by Jason Hehir, who’s responsible for several of the network’s 30 for 30 documentaries, including The Fab Five, the series is ambitiously structured. Each episode tells the story of that 1997-1998 season, which began with Bulls general manager Jerry Krause’s decision that it would be vaunted head coach Phil Jackson’s last for the team, prompting Jordan to announce that he wouldn’t return if Jackson didn’t. As a result, Jackson and his players treated that campaign as one final championship run — a chance for Jordan and Jackson (and teammate Scottie Pippin) to win a sixth ring together before management blew up the whole thing and rebuilt. Jackson, taken to coming up with themes for each season, dubbed the 1997-1998 campaign “the last dance.”
The Last Dance benefits from the fact that the Bulls allowed a film crew to follow them around that season, granting what’s been advertised as unprecedented access to the players. (Remember, this was long before Hard Knocks.) Not only does Hehir make excellent use of that behind-the-scenes footage, he conducted tons of interviews with everyone from teammates to opponents to agents to reporters to key Bulls to create a compelling oral history of not just that season but Jordan’s NBA career in general. (And, of course, Jordan is at the center of The Last Dance, sitting down for three separate, extensive interviews with Hehir.)
As each episode picks up the narrative thread for 1997-1998, it also does the heavy lifting of offering a grippingly constructed series of flashbacks that trace Jordan’s early years in the league as well as the previous championship runs. While we follow the ups and down of 1997-1998, we’re constantly learning everything that led to that tumultuous, ultimately victorious season.
At their weakest, the 30 for 30 series was merely slick, nostalgia-driven edutainment — Hey, remember how great/crazy this player/team was? — but quite often, individual films were far better than that, offering the necessary cultural and political context for the amazing sports moments being commemorated. The Fab Five, for instance, wasn’t simply about the early 1990s Michigan Wolverines basketball teams but, also, a shrewd investigation of class and race in college athletics. These films are about sports, but because sports encapsulates myriad elements of modern life — economics, politics, race, class, mental health, addiction, family, masculinity — the documentaries are often about so much more than just Xs and Os.
Despite its massive length, nobody was expecting The Last Dance to have the thematic heft of O.J.: Made in America, 30 for 30’s Oscar-winning high-water mark, which earned its lofty subtitle by delivering a shattering vision of Orenthal James Simpson as a bittersweet embodiment of American culture over a span of decades. (For one thing, Jordan’s story isn’t nearly as dark or sordid as Simpson’s, thank god.) And, technically speaking, The Last Dance isn’t even an official 30 for 30 production — although its feel, pacing and snazzy-oral-history scope sure make it seem like the latest installment in that series.
Nonetheless, as The Last Dance gracefully rolled along from episode to episode — one iconic moment after another dissected with intelligence and insight — I was struck by a dispiriting observation about Jordan. As incredible an athlete as he was — the most electrifying I’ve seen in my lifetime — there’s a nagging dullness to his charismatic persona that The Last Dance can’t quite shake. It’s not that the man doesn’t have demons. (Lord knows he does.) But, at least over its first eight chapters, the series is handcuffed by the fact that it wants to venerate Jordan’s brilliance, while occasionally trying to hint at his darker side.
As opposed to the finest 30 for 30 installments, it doesn’t necessarily go for that extra gear, providing a wider perspective on these events so that we can understand the Bulls’ 1990s dominance from a greater cultural perspective. The Last Dance isn’t so interested in having you consider Jordan in his totality — it just wants you to bow down.
It’s not news that great athletes and coaches aren’t necessarily the nicest people. And I’m not even talking about their off-the-field behavior — Alabama’s Nick Saban could win a thousand national titles, and yet his joyless brand of unyielding perfectionism would still make success look like a slog. The win-at-all-costs mentality is preached from grade school to the pros, and while the sentiment makes sense — nobody loves losing — there’s an intensity to the way that some people follow that edict that resembles a sickness, making it hard to root for them. It starts to feel like enabling.
What always leavened Jordan’s ferocious competitiveness, at least during his playing days, was the utter beauty of his game. You’ve seen millions of Air Jordan highlights, but you will happily see them all over again — and marvel at new ones — in The Last Dance, which persuasively makes the case that watching him dominate on a basketball court was one of the great privileges of our lifetime. Sure, the guy tormented his teammates, constantly goading and browbeating them into meeting his impossible standard for excellence. But his total commitment to elevating his own talent resulted in so many stunning moments that it’s hard to argue with his unceasing tenacity. We forgive a lot in the presence of genius.
To his credit, Hehir doesn’t shy away from the less-savory aspects of Jordan’s personality. His gambling issues; his belittling of teammates; his cravenly mercenary resistance to being publicly political because “Republicans buy shoes, too” — the director asks Jordan about all these and more during their interviews. (By the way, in The Last Dance Jordan no longer denies he made that “Republicans” comment, which had previously been his stance.) We hear from Jordan quite a lot in the film, and we see him get emotional when he talks about the criticism that he was too hard on his fellow Bulls. But even with tears in his eyes, he steadfastly insists it was the right thing to do: As far as he’s concerned, he never asked any of his teammates to do something that he himself didn’t do in terms of training and preparation. He wanted to be the best, and he didn’t want to be around people who didn’t want the same for themselves.
But the present-day Jordan of The Last Dance, although forthright, is candid in a somewhat self-serving, protective way. Now 57, he’s got the smooth polish of a professional politician — he reveals himself without fully revealing himself. He lets you know what players he hated and explains the loss he felt when his father died, a devastating blow that led him to retire from the NBA and try baseball for a while. As always, Jordan is a funny, engaging presence — charismatic and also a bit intimidating. But he never veers off message. With no more championships to acquire, Jordan seems determined to win this portrait of himself. He wants you to know that he’s still the best.
He also wants you to know about all his grudges. One of The Last Dance’s running themes — initially funny but ultimately somewhat tragic — is Jordan explaining how this or that perceived slight inspired him to work even harder. In some ways, it’s his origin story — how getting cut from his high school team drove him to become a superstar. In the pros, if a player didn’t show him the proper respect or if a coach didn’t say hello at a restaurant, the grievance would stoke Jordan’s engines. He would make you pay. Opponents weren’t just afraid of Jordan — they feared what would happen if he took umbrage with them over some perceived infraction of his unwritten code of conduct. The punishment meant he would be sure to beat your ass the next time you met on the court — in the nonviolent way, I mean. At first, Jordan’s competitiveness — and his unmatched ability to seemingly destroy his rivals at will — is fun, but eventually it becomes tiring. Jordan couldn’t let anything go — he’d even invent slights just to give him an edge. No wonder teammates admit in The Last Dance that he drove them crazy.
Wright Thompson’s piece was hardly the first time that Jordan’s sullenness came out. Chicago Tribune reporter Sam Smith’s 1992 book The Jordan Rules, which exposed players’ resentment of Jordan’s taskmaster personality, had made that clear years earlier. (The Jordan Rules and Smith are both featured prominently in The Last Dance.) But Thompson’s article captured the less-glamorous aspect of a Jordan type now past his prime and unable to manufacture a satisfying second act for himself. (The profile’s sub-headline: “As he turns 50, MJ is wondering whether there are any more asses to kick.”) It was a melancholy, sympathetic look at a man with no more worlds to conquer — or, rather, none more that he could conquer. Jordan had everything, but something was still missing.
Jordan’s story is a very American story — something we’ve seen from Citizen Kane to There Will Be Blood — in which a driven son-of-a-bitch stops at nothing to get what he wants, achieves that goal, and then realizes it doesn’t fill some deep void inside him. It’s the story that every ambitious person emulates but also fears: Maybe, just maybe, if I get that brass ring, then I’ll finally be happy.
But as much as I hungrily devoured The Last Dance — which also dives a little into the formative years of Jordan’s supporting cast, including Pippen and Dennis Rodman — and enjoyed recalling the sustained greatness of this team and this player, the series (at least through eight episodes) can’t help but feel a little one-dimensional. Hehir doesn’t spend much time pondering Jordan’s societal impact beyond his ubiquitous Nike sneakers and how his blackness complicated his relationship with white America. Those small bits of shading are incredibly welcome and suggest how much more profound this captivating nostalgia trip could have been. Instead, The Last Dance, which concludes its eighth chapter with the Bulls about to take on the Indiana Pacers in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, re-creates the excitement of that era but doesn’t really wonder what it all meant.
It wasn’t simply that Michael Jordan was the greatest — he represented something for fans, for the league, for his corporate sponsors, for Black Americans, for white Americans, for anyone who wants to believe that if you work hard enough you can achieve your dreams. He was as much symbol as he was athlete, and his towering celebrity gave a lot of us the illusion that we knew him, even though we didn’t. Like O.J. or Muhammad Ali or Michael Jackson, Jordan was a transcendent figure whose importance is worthy of an epic, rigorously considered documentary.
I really dug The Last Dance and will absolutely be watching the final two episodes when they air in mid-May, curious to see how Hehir concludes this opus. But so far, that crucial bit of curiosity about what Jordan meant beyond points and trophies eludes the filmmaker. Like Jordan, The Last Dance is so focused on its goal that any larger sense of perspective is deemed unimportant.
I guess, though, that’s appropriate to its subject. For Michael Jordan, winning wasn’t everything — it was the only thing, and it’s the only thing the movie has to say about him.