Hereos, Villains & Arseholes: Why Michael Jordan's 'The Last Dance' Doco Has Us All Hooked

1 May 2020 | 1:17 pm | Anthony Carew

"Sports shouldn’t work as a subject for a documentary. Its lure, and so much of its lore, comes from the simple fact that, at the start of any contest, the outcome is up in the air. Here, the history is already written."

At the beginning of The Last Dance, the wildly successful ESPN/Netflix docu-series on the 1998 Chicago Bulls, it feels as if this thing has been cast like a Disney movie. Here’s Michael Jordan, chosen-one hero on a final quest, the handsome exemplar of competitive greatness. The antagonist thwarting his plans isn’t an opponent, but an enemy within: Bulls executive Jerry Krause, petty and manipulative and seeking his ill-gotten share of the glory; a villain rendered, as they so often are, as grotesque in looks as well as ways.

Were it a short documentary, or even a movie, perhaps that personification would hold. But, spanning 10 episodes and — in its freewheeling history lessons and contemporary talking heads hindsight — half a century of narrative, things inevitably get more complex. As colourful characters, rivals, and feuds come and go, Jordan is revealed as no simple hero, but a complicated figure. His teammates call him an arsehole, talk of hating him, being afraid of him. Jordan is equal parts master artist and petty tyrant, bullying teammates and belittling management. As the season marches on, and the lion in winter claws towards one last crown, we cast back into the past and see Jordan go from the All-American icon to a more troubled figure; someone beset by rumours of a gambling problem, made mortal by the tragic murder of his father.

It’s that broad canvas, that rising chorus of competing voices and contradictory views, that has made The Last Dance a phenomenon. With the sporting calendar emptied, and basketball fans — used to April meaning NBA playoffs — jonesing for a fix, the series was always going to be a (um, sorry about this) slam dunk. But it’s the great narratives, bizarre details, and benders with Carmen Electra in Las Vegas that’ve drawn in casual watchers; the kind of people who usually would have no interest in watching a sports story. (Sadly, local viewers hoping to see Australian great Luc Longley featured in depth won’t get their wish; he was never interviewed for the production.)

In many ways, sports shouldn’t work as a subject for a documentary. Its lure, and so much of its lore, comes from the simple fact that, at the start of any contest, the outcome is up in the air. Here, the history is already written. The Bulls will end the 1998 season victorious, Jordan will hit the final shot of the final game, and then this great sporting dynasty will almost instantly vanish; lost to an NBA lockout, front office arrogance, the ‘disease of more’, the cruelty of aging.

But, along the way, viewers are being treated to a fantastical history lesson, a ’90s time capsule (men in large pants and Kangol hats, set to Beastie Boys and Batman Prince), and a host of never-before-seen, impossibly candid footage. Here’s Jordan tossing coins against a wall with stadium security staff, wagering all the while. Here’s Jordan grinningly detailing his much-abused teammate Scott Burrell’s nightlife exploits. Here’s Jordan cuttingly critiquing the 19-year-old Kobe Bryant, issuing the kind of old heads take on the young man’s game that Jordan received in his own salad days. And here’s Jordan, in the locker room before a game, communing with the only man as famous as he was in 1998: Jerry Seinfeld.

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Jordan’s much-vaunted competitiveness is on show in both past and present, in the way he — as decades later talking head— is still out to settle old scores. He remembers every perceived slight: from the press writers who picked against him, the opposition coaches who didn’t say hello at dinner, the players who dared talk shit back to him.

He’s not the only one. Players like Ron Harper and Gary Payton are still pissed off at coaches that didn’t give them the chance to guard Jordan in key moments. Doug Collins, the Bulls coach from 1986-89, is evidently still angry at getting fired as the team was on the rise. And Isiah Thomas, the Detroit Pistons great who Jordan evidently stills hates (the arsehole calls him an arsehole), clearly still resents being left off the 1992 US Olympic Team, long rumoured to have been a decision made to mollify Michael.

For hoops heads, the footage of that ‘Dream Team’ scrimmaging against each other is as golden as the medal they cruised to. As is the rarely seen, not-broadcast-quality footage of Phil Jackson, Dennis Rodman, and Scottie Pippen playing at their obscure colleges; young men of impossibly long limbs terrorising backwater boys who seem half their size, if not of a different species. It’s interesting seeing the famously-ornery coach Bob Knight (the clubhouse leader for basketball’s all time biggest asshole), way back at the 1984 Olympics, already calling Jordan the best player he’s ever seen. Interesting because it’s off-set against a press conference, but a month prior, where Jordan is introduced as Chicago’s new top draft pick, only the team’s GM, Rod Thorn, spends the whole time apologising that they didn’t get to draft a centre.

That’s a reminder that Jordan’s ascension to the top of his sport — from the #3 pick in 1984 to the #1 player of all time; reaching a pinnacle of sporting success, corporate largesse, and bigger than Jesus fame — was not, in its day, fait accompli. Along the way came a lot of setbacks, a lot of stories, and a lot of swearing.

Chronicling it all, The Last Dance heeds the lessons of what makes a great documentary: peering beneath a seemingly simple story to find its complexity, pulling away from hero’s narrative to take in a far greater picture.

The Last Dance is streaming on Netflix now.