The Last Dance: A Review
Like everyone tuning into ESPN on Monday evening, I watched the final two episodes of The Last Dance and was captivated not only but what occurred in those two episodes but by how far the mini-series had come in just 10 episodes. As I sit here and write today, I simply need to let my opinions loose on this topic. Things that I enjoyed about the show and aspects that I did not personally enjoy as much. In any case, before we go any further, these body paragraphs below are strictly my opinion and should not be taken any other way than that.
If you are not a big sports fan, than you simply need to stop reading this article immediately and find something that you consider more entertaining. If you are interested in sports and basketball is one of your favorites or most favorite sport than keep reading. The Last Dance, for those who have not seen or heard about it is a 10-part documentary series by Director Jason Hehir. Prior to this project, Hehir has done several other projects for ESPN including The Fab Five (2011), The 85’ Bears (2016), and Bernie and Ernie (2013) each of which have earned him accolades not just from sports fans but from Hollywood. Nevertheless, Hehir takes his viewers on a journey that spans from Michael Jordan being born all the way to the rise of Air Jordan and his Chicago Bulls winning 6 NBA titles. The documentary though does not exclusively focus on Jordan, certain portions of episodes focus on the characters that played alongside Jordan including Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr, John Paxson and Dennis Rodman. Delving even further, the series also interviews Michael’s enemies on the court such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, John Stockton, and more. Instead of being simply about the last ride that the 1997-1998 Bulls had the series takes a more overwhelming and personal perspective of the 1990s Bulls.
Playing alongside Michael Jordan was hell. If you learned nothing else from watching all of these episodes, know that. Michael for as great of a player and captain could also be destructive and downright cruel to his teammates. He produced results with these players but in other cases there was not so much as a flicker of success. Prior to watching The Last Dance, it was clear that Michael Jordan was the best player for the Chicago Bulls ever and maybe the greatest NBA player ever but that is for another debate. Jordan was a master of all the major skills a great player should have but even more so he was a master of mindfulness. He knew how to disrupt the greatest players in the game in exhibition games and practices. That being said, for all of his greatness, The Last Dance did not make Jordan a likeable person. A loveable winner who had a wit about him that fooled no one in the locker room but everyone outside of it. Guys like B.J. Armstrong who played alongside Jordan during his first-three peat said Jordan just outworked everybody but he was great at building a team for the playoffs and winning championships. On the other hand, not speaking ill of Jordan but Horace Grant said he was just not a friendly guy when it came to being on the court. He was both business and personal at the same time when he played basketball. Jordan’s persona though, he credits to his father and mother whose work ethic prompted him to play as hard as he did. Jordan was just focused on winning more so than anyone in the NBA, that is all he wanted to do.
Interviewing those that played around him gave the Bulls the respect they deserved with the exception of the interview that took place with Isiah Thomas, the longtime point guard for the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons. Thomas, like Jordan, was driven to win at all costs and did so by repeating as NBA champions in 1989 and 1990. However, like the reputation that preceded them in their own documentary the Pistons walking off the court prior to losing to the Bulls in the 1991 playoffs was absolutely uncalled for. Jordan took his losses like a man and did not blame anyone for what occurred, he just went out and did what he had to do. Jordan was a true sportsman on game day, he made you hate him, but still respect him at the same time. The Detroit Pistons were not a team that was respected by the NBA or its fans, they just did as they wanted and in some ways their method worked, but in the long-run Isiah complained in not so many words that he was left off the 1992 Olympic Team in Barcelona and everyone on that team stated that they did not disagree with Isiah being on said team but on the other hand did not vouch for him to play on it either. Jordan denies vouching for Thomas and even stating that he hated the Pistons more than any other team he played against. Thomas though was not his only foe to get past for eventual glory. Indiana Pacers Shooting Guard Reggie Miller faced Jordan a number of times and even gave Jordan hell on several occasions due to Miller’s rough trash talking abilities. This did not stop Jordan from beating him either but Miller placed Jordan as his toughest opponent but that he was “not afraid” of Jordan either. This is a part of the documentary that I enjoyed the most actually, not so much hearing from people that played alongside him, but people that played against him and told stories of how they defended him and did everything to stop him and none of it worked. Off the court, on the golf course, Jordan was friendly and competitive but nowhere near how competitive he was on the court. Scenes of him annihilating opponents mentally and physically struck a core for me because he wasn’t just good on the court but that he was a mental player as well.
Despite this, The Last Dance actually ruined the way I viewed a lot of NBA greats such as Scottie Pippen. Scottie was a selfless player it seemed when Jordan ran the team, but as soon as the team disbanded with Jordan leaving to play baseball, Scottie was not its best leader it seemed. Pippen is given credit for being Jordan’s sidekick in Jordan’s career and even Jordan stated that he couldn’t have won without Scottie’s tremendous play. Scottie though had selfish moments as well which was not okay as we viewed from the outside that Scottie was entirely selfless but this documentary showed a different Scottie one that although willing to be a leader needed more guidance than simply Phil Jackson. By far the darkest of issues within the Bulls second three-peat was their center and all-time NBA great Dennis Rodman. Rodman was admired for his personality and playboy attitude off the court. On the court he appeared unbeatable as “The Worm” cherished his role with the Bulls. Not many guys would get a 48-hour vacation to Las Vegas and a chance to go wrestle with Hulk Hogan during the NBA Finals. Rodman did both and still managed to live up to his end of the bargain as he outrebounded and played better defense than anyone during that period. Rodman was a controversy that the Bulls in my opinion did not necessarily need though as he was an off-court nightmare with his lifestyle. Rodman’s bright spot was that like he had in Detroit during the “Bad Boy” era with Coach Chuck Daly at the helm, Rodman had a father figure in Phil Jackson who was able to harness and understand Rodman’s talents. This documentary illuminated Phil Jackson as well giving him a larger role than in other documentaries about Jordan. Instead of simply seeing Jordan as the end all be all of the team, Jason Hehir directed more attention towards Jackson being a great motivator for Jordan. Great minds think alike is what came to mind when Jackson and Jordan came together. Not to mention that almost immediately following his tenure with the Bulls, Jackson coached the Los Angeles Lakers to 5 titles. Jackson’s style of coaching is something that I have never seen before in any sport as he took an almost Zen approach to the game. Initially, I was not a Phil Jackson fan prior and thought of him as more of a close-minded coach that only sought to be like John Wooden. However, The Last Dance showed a completely different side of Jackson than I had expected. Learning personalities was a key for this show and brought the viewer into the mindset that the team was more than simply Jordan that each player had an essential role in the team’s success.
With regards to how good the documentary was there was some difficulty in following the consistent flashbacks within it. I understood that Jason Hehir was making connections between Jordan’s past and the 1997-1998 season but at times it was difficult to follow as a story from 1998 would be told and then without completion it would suddenly bring back an earlier event in history. Some events did not even tie into things that happened in the 1997-1998 season but were simply questions that related to the players and coaches around the Bulls. This caused me to have to rewind and back up some parts in order to understand how the documentary went from one place to another. The documentary covered some areas that have already been covered in other ESPN titles such as Jordan Rides the Bus (2010) and Rodman: For Better or Worse (2019). It was not simply a tale about Jordan and the Bulls of the 1997-1998 championship team but rather of the story of how everything got to that point which was something that I initially did not understand.
Lastly, in revealing all to personally some of the stories of the Bulls during that period I did not approve of ESPN making a mockery of Jordan’s gambling habits. It seemed to be common knowledge from any basketball fan that Jordan himself was a gambler but no where near where the documentary stated. I was even confronted with the question of whether Michael Jordan bet on himself and his team in games. I did not think this appropriate to share with the rest of the crowd during questioning. Jordan’s personal life was enough but to be a poster child for degenerate gambling did not appear appropriate when talking about Jordan. However, Hehir felt it appropriate to venture into the uncharted avenue of Jordan’s off court life more than most documentaries about Jordan. However, there was little to no explanation about Jordan’s family life with his children and wives during this period. I was actually hoping to hear more about their perspectives since the documentary covered everything else. Granted this could have been a route taken by Hehir that we are unaware of but did not pan out for the final cut.
I approve of this documentary and gave it a strong rating for an ESPN film. Granted ESPN has done some films that have promoted it as one of the top documentary channels on television today. I went into this documentary seeking something about the Bulls 1997-1998 team and instead learned more about Jordan, the player, the person, and the basketball god that he was along with his revolution into sports culture permanently. Yet, it did not seem as though the documentary fulfilled its purpose after all. Yes, we can go on the internet and find out what happened to those players after the season but I feel that in true documentary form it did not appear to have a satisfying ending. I was underwhelmed but the ending because I felt that it warranted a strong conclusion given the roller-coaster that we the viewers were being taken upon however that did not warrant for there to be a straight cut into darkness once the Bulls careers ended. As soon as the documentary ended I found myself googling what happened to Scottie Pippen. It did not seem that he retired from the NBA. Jordan, we knew had retired and then returned briefly to play for the Washington Wizards. Steve Kerr went on to win a fourth championship in a row with the talented San Antonio Spurs. It did not feel as though Hehir directed the documentary as though he knew his viewers knew nothing. He instead took key moments and rolled with them for a 10-hour series. I am sure that there was more footage that could have been added but not enough to last only 10 episodes. Despite this, I was greatly informed by the documentary and learned a little bit more about basketball in the process.