“Winning comes at a cost. Leadership comes at a cost.”
So said NBA legend Michael Jordan during the ESPN documentary series “The Last Dance.” The series is an in-depth look at Jordan’s tenure with the Chicago Bulls, focusing on the 1998 season, which was their sixth and last championship under Jordan’s leadership.
As a preface: this review may be considered invalid by some since I was born in October of 1998, and never saw Jordan play except in highlight reels. That being said, feel free to take my thoughts on “The Last Dance” with a grain of salt.
“The Last Dance” is without a doubt a fascinating story of the 1998 Chicago Bulls and what they were able to accomplish despite both their on-court and off-court issues. But, it’s not a completely objective retelling of the story because Jordan is controlling this narrative.
Throughout the docu-series, we are constantly reminded of how Jordan was a fierce competitor, to the point where it was almost concerning. In one instance, Jordan was offended when someone compared him in 1992 to Clyde Drexler, one of the NBA’s greatest guards. Another time, Seattle Sonics head coach George Karl didn’t greet Jordan when they were eating at the same restaurant. Jordan never forgot the slight. The list is lengthy. There’s an argument that these instances of pettiness disguised as motivation are just the way Jordan is wired. He’s so competitive that he will try to find anything in order to motivate him to perform at his best. Allow me to ask this, if Jordan is such a competitive man, why does he need that extra motivation? Shouldn’t simply stepping on to the court and wanting to win be enough drive for him already?
Jordan’s relentless drive to compete bleeds over into the narrative of “The Last Dance.” With Jordan at the helm, director Jason Hehir orchestrates the documentary series to ensure that the audience focuses on all of Jordan’s proudest moments while quickly glossing over any negative ones. Jordan’s gambling problem? Dismissed just as quickly as it was introduced. His tyrannical behavior towards his teammates? Oh that’s just tough love (they somehow even turned the incident of Jordan punching Steve Kerr in the face during practice as a good “relationship building” moment).
Let’s not forget why this docu-series was made in the first place. The exclusive access footage of the Bulls’ 1998 season was documented by an ESPN film crew, who told Jordan that they were planning on eventually making a documentary style project with the footage, but wouldn’t act on it until Jordan gave them the green light. Jordan sat on this footage for 18 years, until one fateful day in 2016. LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the 73-9 Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, giving Cleveland it’s first pro sports championship in over 50 years. When the parade was underway and the talk of LeBron being the greatest player of all time was at fever pitch, Jordan picked up the phone and gave ESPN the green light. It’s interesting–provocative, even–that Jordan sat on the footage almost two decades and then picked that particular time to make a call.
This, to me, reveals the underlying purpose of why “The Last Dance” was made. It wasn’t to dive into the struggles of the 1998 Bulls in their pursuit of a final title under head coach Phil Jackson, but rather a result of Jordan’s over-competitiveness. He couldn’t stand the fact that there was even a remote possibility that another NBA player could ever be compared to him, so he had to remind everyone who the “greatest” truly was. Didn’t you find it peculiar that Kobe Bryant, arguably the defining NBA player of the 2000’s, was featured in “The Last Dance” but no other current/recently retired players were? Bryant’s only contribution to the docu-series was to put away the debate that he could beat Jordan one-on-one, saying that all of his best qualities as a player he got directly from Jordan. That is exactly the response Jordan wanted.
A documentary should be objective. It should tell all sides of the story–good and bad–and let the audience decide on the take-away. It should not be structured by first having a desired takeaway, and then molding the story in order to fit that narrative. At that point it’s not a documentary anymore. If Jason Hehir really wanted to create a well constructed documentary around Jordan and the ‘98 Bulls, he would have followed this blueprint. If this means that he wouldn’t be able to use the ESPN footage or Jordan’s participation in the project, so be it. Until then, “The Last Dance” is all we will get.