An Intimate Portrait of the Real Michael Jordan: Gambler, Winner, Tyrant
The 10-part ESPN docuseries “The Last Dance,” premiering April 19, chronicles Jordan’s final ’97-’98 season with the Chicago Bulls—and his legendary career, on and off the court.
Michael Jordan is the best basketball player that’s ever lived, period. For those foolish enough to debate that incontrovertible fact, ESPN’s The Last Dance puts any lingering doubts to rest. A 10-part documentary about Jordan’s final 1997-1998 season with the Chicago Bulls, which also functions as a biopic of the legendary guard and his tenure with the franchise, it’s a definitive portrait of greatness, recounted by Jordan and the many, many people who crossed his path along his journey from North Carolina phenom to NBA superstar and pop-culture icon.
To borrow Bob Costas’ comment before the Bulls’ 1996 Finals appearance (after a then-record 72-10 regular season), director Jason Hehir’s non-fiction opus is less an argument in some who’s-the-GOAT competition than it is a rightful coronation.
Jordan’s career with the Chicago Bulls resulted in two championship threepeats, first from 1991-1993 and then from 1996-1998, along with five MVP awards, six Finals MVP trophies, three All-Star Game MVPs, and countless other accolades. Premiering on Sunday, April 19 (with its initial two episodes), The Last Dance covers almost all of those honors, while using the team’s 1997-1998 season—Jordan’s last with the Bulls, ending with his sixth title—as its narrative spine. To tell that swan-song saga, Hehir uses footage shot by a film crew that was granted unprecedented access to the Bulls during that crusade—an absolute treasure-trove of material that draws one inside the squad’s climactic pursuit of the Larry O’Brien trophy. Also bolstered by every archival game clip and behind-the-scenes snippet imaginable, as well as talking-head participation from Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and dozens of teammates, friends, family members, journalists and opponents (including the late Kobe Bryant), the resultant 10-hour work is, without question, as comprehensive as they come.
The Bulls ’97-’98 campaign is a suitable framework for a de facto Jordan-Bulls hagiography, given that it was mired in heated tensions and controversy, most of it stemming from GM Jerry Krause’s pre-season announcement that it would be coach Phil Jackson’s final go-round with the team—a decision that meant it was also Jordan’s last year in Chicago, since he adamantly held to his stance that he wouldn’t play for another coach. That friction was the backdrop for an arduous run that began with Scottie Pippen injured and threatening to sit out the entire season due to a contract dispute with Krause (who was floating trade rumors left and right), and also included wild-man Rodman needing a mid-season weekend Vegas “vacation” from the team. Amidst such turmoil, as well as inescapable aging issues and inevitable struggles against complacency, a title was far from guaranteed.
Except, of course, that anyone who lived through this era remembers that, regardless of those problems, a sixth Bulls’ championship did feel more or less preordained. That was because Jordan was as close to a basketball God as anyone had ever seen. The Last Dance boasts a two-timeline structure in which the story of the ’97-’98 season is paralleled with Jordan’s own career-long tale, the latter of which provides context for the struggles and triumphs of the former. It’s thus an all-inclusive retrospective, with virtually every highlight from Jordan’s illustrious NCAA and NBA reigns. His college title-clinching shot at UNC against Georgetown. His Rookie of the Year-winning debut pro season. His 63-point playoff outburst against the (eventual champion) 1986 Boston Celtics. “The Shot” over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the 1989 playoffs. “The Shrug” against the Portland Trailblazers in the 1992 Finals. His losing battles with the Detroit Pistons, and eventual victory over them. His primary role on the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team.” His groundbreaking Nike deal and ensuing endorsements (“Be Like Mike”). His gambling controversies. His disinterest in engaging in politics. His father’s untimely murder. His retirement to play baseball. And his return to the court, and subsequent titles, capped off by his championship-clinching shot over the Utah Jazz’s Bryon Russell in 1998.
Even that summation only scratches the surface of what The Last Dance has to offer. Die-hards will be happy to hear that incidents like Jordan’s famous beef with Isiah Thomas over the Pistons’ disrespectful refusal to shake hands after the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals (Jordan: “There’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an asshole”), the rumor that his baseball sabbatical was actually a secret suspension over his gambling issues, and Pippen’s decision to quit on the Bulls in the closing seconds of the 1994 playoff semis against the New York Knicks, are all fully addressed by Jordan and company on-camera. On top of that, there are tons of fantastic anecdotes sprinkled throughout, be it about Jackson’s unique coaching methods (and means of developing chemistry), Jordan’s March 20, 1993, humiliation of Washington Bullets rookie LaBradford Smith because of perceived disrespect, or Jordan’s use of training scrimmages while filming Space Jam to get himself into shape, and to scout opponents, before the 1995-1996 season.
If there’s a disappointing aspect to this recap, it’s that despite the candor of everyone involved, many highly anticipated comments wind up being somewhat anticlimactic. Simply put, there’s nothing extremely juicy here, save for Jordan badmouthing Thomas and laughing raucously at Gary Payton’s suggestion that he had figured out how to contain Jordan during the 1996 Finals. Couple that with the fact that a lot of what’s delivered is familiar and straightforward, and the documentary can sometimes feel a bit by-the-books. Still, even taken merely as a historical record, The Last Dance is a wildly entertaining trip down memory lane. And better yet, it’s a stirring testament not only to Jordan’s peerless on-court ability, but also to the qualities that made him one of the 20th century’s unrivaled sports and cultural titans.
Much attention is paid to Jordan’s insane dedication to winning, and the tyrannically demanding way he drove teammates to reach their full potential through profane badgering, bullying and smack-talking. Whether fighting with teammate Steve Kerr in a routine practice, incessantly picking on fellow Bull Scott Burrell, or crushing Toni Kukoc in their maiden 1992 Olympics showdown—and then, in their second match-up, learning to respect the Euro player’s (and future teammate’s) toughness—he was possessed with almost mind-boggling tenaciousness. Consequently, the genuine portrait of Jordan that emerges here is that of a charming and affable man, rightly beloved by millions for his astronomical talent and engaging personality, who was also the fiercest competitor the world of sports has ever seen, such that he’d seek out (or manufacture) slights just so he had additional motivation to crush opponents in front of thousands of spectators.
That, ultimately, is The Last Dance’s true subject: Jordan’s indefatigable iron will to tower over everyone else, which in a team-sports context, meant also learning to be a leader who, through instilling fear and setting a tireless example of hard work, inspired others to become their ultimate selves. To doubt Michael Jordan, or to momentarily show him up on the court or in his private life, was to poke the proverbial bear, unleashing a whirlwind of retaliatory basketball brilliance the likes of which no one had, or has, ever seen. Considering that, even without such stimulus, he was an unstoppable goliath, it’s that inner fire—that raging killer mentality—that resounds most forcefully over the course of Hehir’s documentary, which just by telling Jordan’s tale, conclusively affirms his top-dog status.
All hail His Airness.