“But there is in win”

Courtesy ESPN

Wouldn’t it be something if Michael Jordan said what he meant? Not “nice,” almost certainly, but something more than the expected, eyeroll-inducing megalomania his brand and public face have come to represent over the past forty years. He did it all because he wanted it the most; his competitiveness is lost on nearly everyone surrounding him, both teammates and opposition; the extent of his sense of humor exclusively including the very idea that he is Michael Jordan, which makes it impossible for anyone else in history to be Michael Jordan. That’s funny, to him.

If The Last Dance was supposed to prove anything, it was that Jordan’s legacy is as close to unimpeachable as that of any sports figure so far, regardless of his Machiavellian worldview. What it managed to do instead was maybe, possibly make him look worse than anyone else prominently featured. We know he doesn’t care, nor, I guess, should he.

What the sprawling ten hours of footage promised – an unfiltered look at how Mike Jordan came to be Michael Jordan and a contextualization of the 1998 Chicago Bulls, his final championship team – ended up being a large-scale montage of Jordan’s flexed ego and tribute to his outrageous pettiness. The memes the doc wrought are reflective of this; if it isn’t Jordan looking excitedly skeptical at a tablet, it’s likely about how some perceived slight thirty years ago became his motivation for success.

Along with the hurried timeline the bored, sports-deprived public hoisted upon ESPN due to the coronavirus pandemic, that Jordan himself had to sign off on the doc[1] signaled it wouldn’t be completely objective, although it’s hard to imagine anyone, director Jason Hehir or otherwise, capable of objectivity given the subject matter.

Jordan’s own fears of coming off looking bad seemed performative, a way of getting potential viewers to say, “Oh, well if he knows he’s not perfect—” After ten hours of The Last Dance, it is safe to say that the public perception of Jordan hasn’t really changed, at least to those with a prior working knowledge of Michael Jordan as brand and man.

Rather, the enduring legacy of this immense exercise in commercialism may very well be how pretty much every other person in Jordan’s orbit, teammate and foe, gained from the doc’s production and release. Picture Scott Burrell, previously a footnote for his only season with the Bulls as Jordan’s backup and, now, a breakout star of the documentary for enduring all of Jordan’s constant ribbing.

The segments on his teammates within the documentary were, apart from the impeccably-restored live basketball footage, the most compelling reasons for tuning in. There’s Toni Kukoc, fighting for the respect of teammates he might never actually play with at the 1992 Olympics while experiencing the receiving end of the Dream Team. Steve Kerr, who endured as painful a journey to the NBA as any player of his time, eventually earns Jordan’s respect and trust.

Scottie Pippen, of course, receives his due in multiple episodes, and it still might not be enough. Dennis Rodman, previously the subject of his own 30 for 30 documentary, gets good shine as the greatest exemplar of work-life balance any of us have ever seen[2].

Nay, it is Jordan himself whose image – well, it doesn’t so much suffer, because he still won six championships, but he didn’t really gain anything, either. It doesn’t help that this was meant to be a monument to his achievements and representation of his legacy, as is evident in the sometimes awkwardly-shoved in flashback sequences, while conveniently leaving out the times during which Jordan has stumbled post-1998 – namely, his continued erasure of time spent with the Washington Wizards both as player and executive as well as, of course, his current governorship of the Charlotte Hornets[3].

There is also the question of Jordan’s leadership style, which has received much scrutiny over the past six weeks. His hyper-competitiveness directly led to an entire generation of players, most notably Kobe Bryant, believing that chastising everyone around them was the only path to success, individually or as a team. That, in turn, helped stoke the ages-old tradition of former players criticizing current players for not being as tough as they once were.

While being an unrepentant asshole is certainly a lifestyle choice, it is not the only way to lead. Nor, by the way, is spitting on a pizza to ensure that you are the only one who can eat any of it an especially charming tactic, though it is effective. Jordan did both anyway, all while seemingly inventing perceived slights out of thin air for motivation against any number of random ’90s NBA characters.

The Last Dance didn’t need to exist; I guess I’m glad it does, at the very least as a distraction. Now that it’s over – again – I’m not sure it does much of anything for Michael Jordan. I can’t find it now, but I saw a tweet in the aftermath to the effect of, “Somewhere in that 1998 footage there is a good documentary. It might even be ten hours long. The Last Dance is not that documentary.”

For a time, though, it was what we had on Sunday nights. For five weeks in quarantine, we could all go back to twenty-two years and watch the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls dominate, reminding us of what made Jordan great in the first place. Maybe that was the point all along; in 2020, Jordan wasn’t capable of doing that by himself anymore.

*     *     *

[1] An approval that, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, arrived on June 22, 2016 – the day of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship parade

[2] Not to mention Phil Jackson, who apparently earned Jordan’s trust as a coach by taking the ball out of his hands every now and then, as well as Bulls governor Jerry Reinsdorf and the would-be villain of the entire series, the late ex-Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. One of the central questions of the series surrounds the blame for breaking up the Bulls after 1998; conflicting stories from everyone involved aside, the 1999 NBA lockout seems to have been the ultimate culprit, with Reinsdorf and Krause at least equally responsible for the Bulls’ situation specifically.

[3] Some other governor ought to tell Jordan that he, specifically, is incapable of leading the Hornets to a championship from the back office; if The Last Dance is to be believed, this alone would be enough to turn around one of the NBA’s most moribund franchises.

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