The Last Dance is right in step with basketball's golden era

The Last Dance is right in step with basketball's golden era

 Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls celebrates  winning game six of the NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, UT back in 1998. Picture: AFP PHOTO/Robert Sullivan

THE Last Dance is a real oasis in the sporting desert of the lockdown. The ESPN documentary on Netflix is an extraordinary piece of work that only the makers of30 for 30could achieve.

Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls had just secured their fifth NBA title in six years, the year is 1997. The Bulls and Jordan are recognised as the best team with the best player in basketball, maybe of all time. Everything appeared to be in perfection. But in the shadows loomed backroom ranker, player disharmony, and talk of Jordan leaving the Bulls. In this uneasy climate, the fans and the media wonder if the team and more importantly Jordan have the hunger and ability to claim one more golden globe before the magic was lost forever.

In the blink of an eye, we are back 50 years ago in North Carolina looking at a diminutive Jordan struggling to make a name for himself against more successful, taller, stronger, siblings and a father demanding excellence. We return to 1987 and a taller, more confident Jordan joins the Bulls as a third-round draft choice and the world witness lightning in a bottle, the miracle that was Jordan and the Bulls of the 1990s was born.

The amazing access the cameras were given to the team over that final year in Chicago, along with a treasure of archival footage makes this a great piece of work, even if you are not a fan of basketball the storytelling, editing, and soundtrack make this a masterpiece of the genre. How ESPN held on to this footage for 22 years while waiting for Jordan's imprimatur is inconceivable. The network and producers must have wanted to explode knowing that this was just sitting there idle in their vaults, filled with the knowledge that no one knew what a masterpiece they had, it must have driven them mad.

But like Jordan himself, the timing was everything. What better time to release one of the best basketball exposés of all time than when there is no longer basketball. No NBA, no March-Madness there isn’t even another sport to compete. The Last Dance has the whole court to itself. If you didn’t know any better, you’d nearly say Michael Jordan planned it that way. After watching this documentary, this isn’t as outrageous a statement as it first seems, such was the driven and single-minded determination the man showed towards controlling every aspect of his career and business life.

Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan holds the NBA Championship trophy after the Bulls beat the Seattle SuperSonics 87-75 Sunday, June 16, 1996, in Chicago to win their fourth NBA Championship.	 Picture: AP Photo/Beth A. Keise
Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan holds the NBA Championship trophy after the Bulls beat the Seattle SuperSonics 87-75 Sunday, June 16, 1996, in Chicago to win their fourth NBA Championship. Picture: AP Photo/Beth A. Keise

This is about Jordan and the conviction by everyone who played with him or worked with him that he was the best they had ever seen. Saying that, even Jordan needed a team to make it happen. For that reason, the Bulls secured the services of the best players of the decade, especially the number two and number three players in the NBA in the shape of Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, to complete the perfect triangle attacking formation.

What’s telling about all this is that despite this high-octane mix of egos, talent, and attitude, the power of Jordan’s will, his talent, and determination, it was always enough to persuade these stars in their own right to put their individual agendas and ambitions aside and row in behind Jordan’s desire for perfection, to win as many titles as possible. No mean feat when you consider that the Bulls as a franchise were on their knees when Jordan signed for them.

The show captures the point when the NBA stepped into the big time as a sports leader in the States and around the world. Started by Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird, advanced across the planet by the US Olympic ‘Dream Team’ in Barcelona in 92, but it found its true global majesty through Jordan’s special physique, athleticism, and clean-cut character, achieved with the special rapport with Pippen, initially, and Rodman latterly.

But it's always Michael... Michael's desire to win, Michael's shoe deal with Nike, Michael's conviction to usurp the Detroit Pistons, Michael's carefully cultivated persona. So Jordan was internationally loved, his clean-cut, good guy role was real in most part but he never let any human frailty show to the outside world. His brand demanded that he be perfect, theSpace Jam Jordan is how we saw him.

Michael Jordan and Daffy Duck in 'Space Jam'.
Michael Jordan and Daffy Duck in 'Space Jam'.

Apparently, Jordan feared thatThe Last Dance would ruin his reputation with the public. And to be fair you can see why. We see a much darker side to Jordan, far from the loveable Jordan.

His dislike of Isaiah Thomas runs deep and is held to this day, the discord and treatment of the team's general manager, Jerry Krause, by the team, Jordan and especially Pippen was particularly bilious. Even his shutting down of future team-mate Toni Kukoc, when playing against Croatia for the US, was cold-hearted and ruthless.

Jordan was tough if you had to play against him and even worse if you had to play with him.

He demanded of his team-mates the same measure of devotion to success as he had. Which wasn't easy. But when they saw that he was willing to put in the hard hours himself as a team leader how could they deny him.

And that's it, even though we see the tough son of a bitch side of Jordan in this, you still can't help but admire him even more for it. So Jordan, even him being an ass makes you like him more.

The show is an exploration of human character and behaviour under intense expectations and media spotlight and shows that even stories you think you know all about always have another angle, another dimension. Even running it at an episode at a time in the traditional style rather than the now familiar 'all in one trench', heightens your expectations even when you know what's coming.

In those expectations, ESPN and Netflix have somehow managed to capture Jordan's lightning in the bottle once again.

The Last Dance is on Netflix with new episodes dropping on Monday evenings.

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