Notes on ESPN’s “The Last Dance”

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The Last Dance, ESPN’s 10-part docuseries on the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990’s ended last night. In the end, as Chicago play-by-play announcer Jim Durham once famously declared: “the Bulls win, they win!

Directed by Jason Hehir, The Last Dance is a tremendous work, a triumph of non-fiction storytelling and all that goes into it. Juggling numerous personalities and myriad competing interests, the task here was as tall as it gets: how do you tell a story that takes place over the span of almost two decades, features one of the most beloved athletes/personalities of all time, and gives what the Bulls achieved — six championships in eight seasons (one and a half of which Michael Jordan was in retirement for) — the proper gravitas?

For the most part, the documentary succeeds. By weaving together archival footage, new interviews and what at times feels like an extended highlight reel, we get 10 episodes that are, in the end, a real joy to watch. Built around flashbacks, you relive the dynasty as if you were right there. In this, we bear witness to a great march, taking place over many years, leading up to the big dance. It’s the last dance, as Phil Jackson calls it. And that’s maybe where the documentary hits its only snag.

Much was made about how long the behind-the-scenes footage of the 1998 Bulls season sat in storage. There was said to be 500 hours of this stuff, a treasure trove that would only be seen if Michael Jordan agreed to it. The promise of The Last Dance was that, by viewing the footage now, something we had not already known about that famous ‘98 Bulls team would be revealed.

But much of the footage, beautiful though it may be, offers little. The 1998 version of Jordan makes almost no comments, nor do Phil Jackson or Scottie Pippen. Instead, we get Jordan taking the piss out of teammate Scott Burrell, some footage of the locker room and team plane or bus. The best or most interesting moment is Rodman being snuck out of the arena so as to not answer questions from the media about missing a practice during the NBA Finals so he can wrestle. Runner up is the trash talk between Larry Bird and Jordan after the Bulls ousted Bird’s Pacers from the playoffs.

The rest of it, sadly, doesn’t measure up. I don’t believe this was intentional; as stated, the footage is still beautiful. Seeing the grace and tenacity with which Jordan and his Bulls played, you at times watch The Last Dance and believe you are looking at a ballet. In effect, the story is not behind-the-scenes, the story is on the court. And on the court, seeing the players move is like listening to a fine piece of music, the ebbs and flows to a sweet melody, moving as it does to an eventual climax.

But, that’s the game of basketball itself. We know that already. Because we watch basketball. So then there’s all the extra stuff, the behind-the-scenes footage, which you hope can shed some new light into what the Bulls were going through. But in an era where behind-the-scenes footage is almost commonplace, expected even, the level of access promised in The Last Dance doesn’t deliver. It’s possible the footage sat in storage for all those years because, taken together, it didn’t have anything to say.

And there is no doubt that whoever shot the footage tried their best, they got good stuff for what it is, but if there is no additional commentary from the time period — if there is no riff from Michael Jordan about Rodman missing that practice, something like that — the footage is akin to having a bucket of paints but no picture.

Maybe that was the reason Michael Jordan resisted giving his permission to use the footage, too. Because here was an artist who painted his greatest pictures on the court, and it was on the court, in the heat of competition, which told the story. There was nothing behind the scenes or in between the cracks that could get closer to what actually happened, then what actually happened. The games were proof. What else was there to say?

This was the challenge in using the ’98 season as the lens to tell the Bulls story. In 1998, the Bulls beat the Jazz in six games during the 1998 NBA Finals, and while it was competitive, it never felt that there was anything at stake. Not once, watching The Last Dance, do you see the Bulls sweat. The games are close but not that close — even the Game 7 win against The Pacers, only the second Game 7 the Bulls had played since 1992, seemed destined to be. The Bulls won because that’s what they did then — they won.

This dominance was a thing to marvel at, to celebrate. I mean, you might never see a team and a player that good again. But it was also weird, celebrating it. As a fan, you often find yourself rooting for the underdog, because that’s what you are, and that’s likely all you ever will be. In the NBA, Michael Jordan and the Bulls were Goliath. Everyone else was David. But here we were, watching The Last Dance, watching the Bulls in 1998, rooting for Goliath.

And then there is the deeper question, the one the documentary never really plumbs, which is — let’s say that Bulls team is the best team to have ever competed in professional sports; and let’s say that, ahead of Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Bill Russell, heck ahead of even Muhammad Ali or Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan is the greatest athlete in the history of sports, period — what did it all mean?

The Last Dance does a wonderful job showcasing Michael Jordan’s hyper-competitiveness, his desire to win at all costs. His commitment is psychopathic, sociopathic, all-consuming. But The Last Dance takes place in 1998. That’s twenty-two years Jordan had to sit back and reflect on the way he played the game. And yet, there is so little of that.

The elephant in the room is: if Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time, what was the engine driving that, the motivation, the spark? Why did winning matter so much? Numerous times in the doc he mentions grudges he held, moments that occurred between him and other players, coaches, organizations, that made it “personal.” Why did it need to be that way? I get the who, the what, the when and the how. But in The Last Dance, said to be a definitive doc on Jordan and the Bulls, you don’t get the why.

And maybe that's alright. A storyteller is at the mercy of their story. You submit to the facts, let them tell the story for you. And maybe, in the end, it wasn’t that deep. Jordan played the game. He wanted to be the best at it. Nothing more, nothing less.

But, it’s more likely that the “why?” is yet to come. That Michael Jordan, owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, and still one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, is not done yet. And all we can do until then is wait.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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