‘The Last Dance” was going to be a hit no matter what. But in a world without sports, Jason Hehir’s long-in-the-making documentary series about the Chicago Bulls’ 1990s NBA dynasty is a sensation, the most unifying cultural product since “Tiger King,” with a central figure every bit as egomaniacal as Joe Exotic, if less delusional.
That, of course, is Michael Jordan, the childhood sports god of anyone who grew up in that era. Jordan’s years of dominion are the focus of the 10-episode saga, which unfolded across the last several weeks on ESPN (where it was by far the most-watched documentary production the channel has ever aired) and is now available on Hulu.
Following the team’s final title run in 1998 and delivering a truckload of previously unseen footage, the appeal of “Last Dance” to any basketball fan of a certain age is obvious. But since Jordan’s involvement in “The Last Dance” was conditioned on his approval of its content, it suffers storytelling shortcomings that will be obvious to anyone with even a faint memory of the events depicted.
Accuracy being somewhat distantly beside the point, the series achieves a different sort of grandeur than Jordan probably imagined when he agreed to a project that would further extend his brand and cement his legacy as arguably the greatest athlete ever to play a team sport.
That’s because he has aged into a figure of Shakespearean complexity, more like a character out of literature than a hero from the sports pages. Jordan is older, sure, and puffier, but not alarmingly so. He’s petty and vindictive, both bitter and salty, eager to revive grudges and re-bury long-vanquished rivals.
He’s also undeniably entertaining company. The memes are plentiful: Jordan laughing at an iPad. Jordan puffing a cigar. Jordan in poorly tailored suits. Jordan profanely talking trash. Jordan tearing up. Jordan rolling his eyes when a decades-old decision is questioned. Jordan seeming half-buzzed on the fluctuating contents of the liquor tumbler sitting next to him.
What he doesn’t seem, though, is remotely satisfied — not with the untold millions of endorsement dollars, not with the NBA championship rings and scoring titles and MVP titles, not with the iconic personal branding, not with the buzzer-beating jump shots captured forever in film and newsprint and memory, not with the name synonymous with greatness, not with the cheers and adoration echoing through the ages.
How does that happen? How does a person so talented achieve so much while appearing to gain so little? Jordan is happy to answer the first half of that question. He spends much of “The Last Dance” defending himself for being, basically, a terrible coworker and a jerk. Ex-teammates line up to describe being abused and berated — backed up by ample video evidence — before conceding, unconvincingly, that it was an acceptable product of Jordan’s relentless competitive drive, his need to win at all costs.
Jordan sure did win. But at what point was “at all costs” no longer worth it? “The Last Dance” doesn’t say exactly, but it clearly was a long time before it stopped happening.
I’ve spent more time thinking about Michael Jordan in the past week than during an entire childhood during which his name and image were inescapable, along with the suggestion that every kid should “be like Mike.” Because why does Mike look so unhappy now?
And why is he so emotionally distant? Why does everyone have a story about earning his respect, but never his love or affection? Why does he only hang out with his bodyguards? Why does he seem to have more trophies than friends?
One of the most powerful and telling sequences in “The Last Dance” aired in the second-to-last episode, in which Steve Kerr sinks a championship-winning shot in the 1997 finals after Jordan passed him the ball. The interviewer asks Kerr about a sad coincidence that connects him to Jordan — the tragic fact that both of their fathers were murdered — and whether that made the two men closer as teammates.
Kerr shakes his head. “We never discussed that.”