Directed by Jason Hehir
Starring Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman
Even someone as disinterested as I am in televised athletics couldn’t escape Michael Jordan in his mid-‘90s heyday. Nike did such a bang-up job hitching their fortunes to one of the most revered athletes of the decade that you couldn’t look up at a billboard or down to the ground without seeing Michael Jordan’s impressive wingspan or his high-flying silhouette on someone’s high tops. And if you happened to be living in a basketball-crazy country like the Philippines? Evading the pop cultural imprint of the Chicago Bulls’ shooting guard would mean living in a sensory deprivation tank.
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And so The Last Dance, the 10-episode documentary whose broadcast ESPN moved up from June due to the lack of original programming in these coronavirus-ravaged times (Netflix snapped up streaming rights for the world outside of the U.S.), arrives at a very charged moment. Not only does it come at a time when political division on everything from climate change to police oversight has made us nostalgic for a seemingly simpler era, it drops into our Netflix playlist at a moment when we yearn for things as basic as open spaces and communal experiences, when all we cared about was being a witness to greatness.
But if The Last Dance is a testimony to anything, it is that nothing is ever as simple as it seems. The docuseries focuses on the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 season, when the team—sports fans would call them a dynasty at this point—was in pursuit of their third consecutive NBA championship and sixth overall. But matters were in flux backstage: Reviled team manager Jerry Krause recognized that the Bulls’ bench of stars were aging out of their peak playing years, and was set on rebuilding the squad. To that end, he had notified beloved coach Phil Jackson—whom he had a contentious relationship with to start—that this season was going to be his last as coach. Jordan then publicly declared that if Jackson was not coaching, he would not be playing.
The stage is effectively set for behind-the-scenes drama, one that sports documentarian Jason Hehir is uniquely qualified to capture. His crew was given unprecedented access to the team as they pursued their goal of one last championship with this particular dream roster. (The title of the series is taken from the cover of Jackson’s playbook, an overarching theme that the players say the revered coach went searching for every season.) To supplement his footage, Hehir also went rooting for archival clips and interviewed relevant personalities in the present day, resulting in eight hours of interview footage.
The result is a wide-ranging story that, in the first two episodes, covers an expansive array of topics to make for gripping exposition. The documentary jumps backward and forward in time to underline its narrative beats, encompassing everything from Jordan’s rise as a hungry college star in the University of North Carolina; Scottie Pippen’s journey from dirt-poor wannabe in Arkansas to frustrated, undervalued sidekick; the Bulls’ sorry profile as a team in the ‘80s leading up to the fateful draft pick that would bring them Jordan; and internecine jousts between management and players. Interviewees include everyone from the players’ family members to prominent names such as former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (hilariously billed as “former Chicago resident”).
But the star undoubtedly remains Jordan, whose intense, complicated personality comes as a bit of a shock only because the sports god was so famously guarded about his personal life during his time in the spotlight. In these two inaugural episodes, we see Jordan as a contrarian whose quest for his father’s approval drove him to prove anyone who said that he couldn’t do something wrong. And while team management and business partners such as Nike worked tirelessly to cultivate and polish Jordan’s immaculate brand, it is refreshing to see the retired great candidly admit that he could be a bit of a tyrant on the court. As footage of Jordan chewing out teammates not pulling their weight unfurls, fellow Bulls player Will Perdue intones: “Let’s not get it wrong. He was an asshole. He was a jerk.” And then he pauses, only to say: “As time goes on and you think back on what he was trying to accomplish, he was a hell of a teammate.”
It makes for a compelling portrait, not just as an inverted narrative where a powerhouse team is shown being an underdog due to factors external to the game, but also as a testament—at turns inspiring and sobering—of what it takes to be the Greatest Of All Time. Basketball fans then and now may marvel at Jordan’s graceful, gravity-defying flights to the hoop; The Last Dance exposes the bumpy road to takeoff.
The Last Dance’s first two episodes premiered on Netflix on April 20, Monday. Installments of two episodes each will premiere every Monday thereafter until May 18.
Photographs from Netflix