The title sequence of Netflix’s The Last Dance features 12 shots of Michael Jordan, compared to only two each of Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen, one of Steve Kerr, and five of coach Phil Jackson, which without saying anything, says a lot.
Nominally the story of the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 NBA Championship campaign, the Repeat Three-peat season, Netflix’s The Last Dance would have been better titled “The Life and Career of Michael Jordan, Superstar”. While the archive footage of His Airness in his prime is every bit as spectacular and life-affirming as you could hope, and makes a convincing case for Jordan as the greatest sports figure of all time, judged as a documentary The Last Dance isn’t quite what it could have been.
We’re not callow; we know how these things work. The price of Jordan’s participation and and those behind-the-scenes tapes was surely that the series be centred on the great man himself and that it paint an unambiguously positive picture of him. To the extent that he could, director Jason Hehir asks Jordan about his gambling and includes clips that show him to have been a domineering and imperious teammate, and Pippen, Rodman, Kerr, Jackson, owner Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Jerry Krause got their brief moments in the spotlight. Hehir’s chosen structure – roughly half of each episode dedicated to the 1997-1998 campaign and the rest flashing back to either key moments in Jordan’s career or one of the five previous victorious Bulls seasons – is an elegant solution to the problem of making it about the team while keeping it primarily about Jordan. The issue is more that for a documentary that does bill itself as the story of the Bulls and is named after Phil Jackson’s name for that final, valedictory campaign, its focus on its star player means there are stories within the main story that are not fully told.
Still, the research and clearance work by Hehir’s team results in a pretty glorious assemblage of archive footage. I was a young basketball fan in the early 1990s in the UK, with no way to see games live; those I did see were recorded by a friend of mine who had satellite TV, and lent to me to watch a few days after the fact. So while I did see Jordan play in his pomp, I didn’t get to see as much as I’d have liked, and I’d forgotten so much about how dominant he was. What I find striking now is the physicality of his game – how tough he had to be and much he bulked up to compensate for the roughhousing tactics of the Pistons, the Knicks et al – and his ability to guide the ball into the basket when all routes seemed blocked, often drawing fouls when doing so. With the shoes and the hangtime and all, its easy to forget that Jordan’s hands were where the points really came from. The behind-the-scenes stuff is likewise fascinating, and Jordan – usually the most guarded and wary of interviewees – is a little more voluble than you might expect.
The Last Dance is, then, best enjoyed as a series-length highlight reel of a player of almost boundless creativity and energy, but which also has some interesting sidebars on his most noteworthy teammates and the dynamic between them.