Some scattered thoughts on The Last Dance

Like basically every other basketball fan in America, I’ve spent the last five Sundays watching ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary on Michael Jordan’s career and, specifically, the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. I think it’s a fairly good piece of work, and I’m certainly glad I watched it. In the sports wilderness created by COVID-19, it’s been nice to see so many people band together to watch a sports documentary about one of the greatest athletes in human history. Regardless of how you feel about Jordan’s status as the Greatest of All Time, it’s a useful artifact to show those younger than, say, 23 just how great MJ was.

That said, the documentary is far from perfect. As Spencer Hall noted on Twitter, MJ getting to sign off on basically every part of this documentary was inevitably going to create positives and negatives. Getting unfettered access to MJ as a source is inarguably a great thing, as Jordan is essentially given the role of a director’s commentary. You get his insight on everything – games in the mid-1980s, the Detroit Pistons, Dennis Rodman, etc. – and it provides great value. That said, giving Jordan such power to sign off on the documentary means we hit dead ends on certain subjects very quickly – the Jordan Rules book, controversy surrounding his retirement, his family today, etc. The director fails to inform you MJ even has a wife until the sixth episode, and you hear from his kids for about two minutes in the final episode. Along with that, the promised behind-the-scenes coverage, aside from a very important scene after winning the title, really falls flat. Very little that’s new is revealed, and to be honest, a lot of the most interesting reveals don’t even involve Michael Jordan.

In short, it’s a good documentary, not a great one. The best thing ESPN has done, and will likely ever do, is still O.J.: Made in America. Whether The Last Dance would have been better without Michael’s involvement is not really worth discussing, as it likely just wouldn’t have existed. (Plus, you don’t get the memes of Michael laughing at others’ interviews.) However, there’s some thoughts I had about the show that I felt like expanding on the day after.

  • The Jordan vs. LeBron debate will inevitably splinter into the documentary world. I fear it isn’t enough to take a look at the two best to ever do it and simply say “they were equally great in different eras.” We’ll have to drive this debate to its absolute extremes, and I am near-certain Skip Bayless will make a regrettable appearance in the LeBron documentary in 2025.
  • Will the LeBron doc have the same level of positive coverage towards him? The clear goal of The Last Dance, beyond giving you a bit of the promised access to the greatest dynasty in the last 40+ years of basketball, is to cement Michael Jordan as the Greatest to Ever Do It in the viewer’s eyes. No corners are cut in this process. Even in the episode where teammates are finally allowed to speak negatively about how he treated them, they immediately pivot to “it was worth it for team success.” Obviously, it worked out pretty well, but I found it odd that not even one guy still felt negatively towards Michael. (It’s probably worth reading about how thoroughly Jordan’s Wizards teammates from 2001-2003 hated him, as reported by Michael Leahy’s book When Nothing Else Matters.) Most hilariously, the 1993 series against the Knicks, in which the Bulls initially trailed 2-0, is presented as this major turnaround from Jordan after two “poor” outings in New York (63 points across two games!). In Game 3, Jordan is shown to have returned to his normal status and have carried the Bulls back into the series. In the actual Game 3, Jordan shot 3-for-18 (though he got 16 points at the free throw line alone) and it was Pippen’s 29 points on 12 shots that helped the Bulls demolish New York by 20 points.
  • To follow that up: this is indeed hagiography, but it’s entertaining hagiographyBy showing Michael Jordan to have nearly zero faults, the documentary crafts him as a Basketball God figure that only adds to his legend and makes it more shocking for younger viewers when he doesn’t hit every game-winning shot. As Jordan himself says, he missed 26 game-winning shots in his career. Obviously, you didn’t come to watch the misses; you came to watch the highlights we all know and a few you may not have.
  • The dichotomy of the 1992-93 Bulls and the 1993-94 Bulls was maybe the most interesting part of the series as a basketball nerd. When I interviewed several college coaches last year for the Building a Better Basketball Offense series, I got to talk to a few coaches whose teams had one dominant scorer and secondary/role players surrounding them. A question I’ve always wondered about teams like this was if it became easier or harder to design the offense around one player. Nearly every coach said “both,” and a couple outlined how it’s typically a little easier for players to buy in to an offense where they know they’ll be able to shoot a decent amount of shots. The 1992-93 Bulls were the second-best offense in the league, and Jordan was spectacular as usual, scoring nearly 33 per game in his first last dance. Once Jordan left, the 1993-94 Bulls fell to the 14th-best offense, though their assist rate did jump a bit. (While this is real basketball nerd stuff that no one cares about, the doc spent zero time exploring how the Bulls were an all-time elite Shot Volume offense, turning it over on just 12% of possessions in 1992-93 and rebounding 38% of their own misses. It’s one of the greatest feats in offensive basketball history.) In the documentary, these two teams are presented as nearly equal, even though the post-Jordan Bulls were clearly worse and got to 55 wins on the back of some lucky bounces in close games. That said: it seems like most coaches would probably deem the 1993-94 Bulls easier to coach, no?
  • I wish we’d gotten at least some coverage of the post-Jordan Bulls, and, heck, the Jordan Wizards. Maybe that would’ve been episodes 11 and 12 of this already-very-long miniseries, but if you’re spending an entire episode covering Dennis Rodman, I would imagine you could talk more about what happened after the Last Dance. The coda of this series gives you brief, one-line updates on the stars: Jordan retired. Scottie Pippen was traded. Steve Kerr was traded. Dennis Rodman was released. You’re telling me that with all of the time afforded to you, you couldn’t go more in-depth on Life After the Bulls for any of those final three players? Even MJ gets shorted in this regard. There’s nothing about how he became an NBA owner, an international ambassador for basketball, a constant national figure, etc. It’s simply that he rode off into the sunset and then came back for a couple years down the road. Maybe that’ll be in After the Last Dance in 2022: multiple episodes on just how entertainingly bad the Bulls were from 1999 to 2004. I get that they dunked on Jerry Krause enough already, but someone has gotta explore Tim Floyd going 49-190 as the Bulls’ head coach.
  • As anyone could and should admit, this had several great parts that made the entire experience worth it. I’d love to hear everyone else’s. For me, it’s getting to see Tex Winter drawing up the triangle offense, Jordan’s wails post-title in 1996, Jordan watching others’ interviews, his mom playing a large part in the first episode, and a bit of the baseball discussion.

Again: good, not great. I wouldn’t have it any other way, because we desperately needed something to attach ourselves to in the midst of the sports wilderness.

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