ESPN’s The Last Dance Reveals Both the Greatness and Emptiness of the Michael Jordan Myth

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ESPN’s The Last Dance Reveals Both the Greatness and Emptiness of the Michael Jordan Myth

Playing For Keeps, the excellent Michael Jordan book by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David Halberstam, examines the life of the greatest basketball player ever to live through the lens of the 1997-98 NBA season. That was Jordan’s last year with the Chicago Bulls—a tense, uncertain journey that nonetheless culminated in the team’s sixth championship in eight years, and cemented Jordan’s legacy as an American superhero. That fraught season is the thread running through Halberstam’s narrative, but he goes backward in time to examine the lives of Jordan, his teammates, his coaches, and the Bulls front office to paint as complete a picture as possible of an iconic man at the height of his powers.

As it happens, the ten-part ESPN documentary The Last Dance, the first two installments of which aired Sunday night, follows the exact same formula. Halberstam’s name is nowhere to be found, at least not yet, which is a shame—I would bet anything that the people who conceived of and made the show were directly inspired and guided by that work. But I mention Playing For Keeps not just for the similarities in construction, but because of what the two works say about Michael Jordan. Halberstam, who was possibly the most respected journalist in America at the time, could not get an interview with Jordan when he wrote his book. He had to do it the hard way—talking to his teammates, family members, former coaches, and anyone else who could help him write the daunting story. He did more than 200 interviews in all, and would say later that the process made the book better, forcing him to become more creative. Through that painstaking work, he was able to tell a riveting story and also form the best picture anyone had ever gotten of Jordan as a man. The Last Dance, on the other hand, comes with the ESPN imprimatur, and they got Jordan’s participation. Despite that, the first two episodes were surface-deep, and a little bit reductive.

And yet … they were also utterly compelling. If that sounds paradoxical, it’s because Michael Jordan himself is so fascinating that even the most basic story of his life can’t fail to compel. What defines the Jordan legend, more than his greatness at basketball and more than his championships, is his pathological competitiveness. It’s impossible to overstate the relentless, furious internal engine that drove him, and the viciousness of his all-consuming drive to be the best. He could be cruel to his teammates and opponents, but it was always in the service of winning, of dominating. The key to understanding Jordan, and the miracles he pulled off on the basketball court, is to understand why he became like this, and the best part of The Last Dance’s first two episodes came in the examination of his childhood sparring with his older brother Larry as they fought to be the best and to earn the approval of their father. Larry was a very good athlete as well, but unlike his brother Michael, he was short. That meant Michael would inevitably surpass him at basketball, but because the fire burned hot in Larry too, to beat him meant to fight him. The most wrenching moment on Sunday night came when Jordan was moved almost to tears describing the emotion of having to physically fight someone you love. Adding to the tension was the fact that Larry was mechanically competent like his father, while, as the late James Jordan Sr. said in an earlier interview, Michael didn’t know a wrench from a Phillips head screwdriver. By his own admission, the elder Jordan would often berate Michael for his ignorance, in very harsh terms, and in these dynamics of love and pain you can begin to see why he was so compulsively driven to prove himself.

But that’s one of the few brief forays into explaining the Jordan origin story, and it’s left incomplete. It says a little, but not enough—relationships of that kind exist everywhere, and people react in different ways. Some become tentative, some become angry, some become depressed. Only one became Michael Jordan, and the question of why is as yet unsolved. Part of the problem is that the medium of television is perhaps unsuited to covering a topic of this breadth. In a mere ten hours of TV, how could we even scratch the surface of such a larger-than-life figure? If we’re comparing to past attempts, how could it begin to approach the work of one of the best journalists America has ever produced? And what was the scope of ambition for ESPN, really? (Jordan had to approve the use of the footage from his last Bulls season—permission he’d withheld for decades—but it’s not clear if he had creative control beyond that initial approval.) Wouldn’t it be enough to re-construct the skeleton of the incredible Jordan story, pack it with choice quotes and highlights, and then hype it to the moon at a time when there are no other sports on TV and the audience is starved for content? The answer is, yes, of course.

The reason to watch The Last Dance, then, is not to learn something new about Michael Jordan, especially not if you’re of an age in which you have been steeped in the man’s legend for a lifetime. The reason to watch is to relive his most famous moments, and for something that no book could deliver—a visual reminder of his physical gifts. Jordan is a beautiful human being at rest, but in motion, he’s a revelation. To see the younger version of him soar through the air for a shattering dunk is to see pure grace and pure power co-exist. Even among the best basketball players in the world, he is on a different plane, and to see it all again leaves you jaw-agape. We all become Larry Bird, interviewed after Jordan scored 63 against his Celtics in an early playoff game, who can’t find the words to describe what he’s just seen, and is left with empty platitudes about how he’s “never seen anything like it.” And we’re grateful not to be Rick Carlisle, the Celtics defender subjected to repeat abuse at Jordan’s hands, who can only stare imploringly at the sky, hoping for divine intervention, each time Jordan effortlessly twists around him for another bucket.

There can be endless debates about whether Jordan is better than LeBron James, the hero of the current age, but what The Last Dance reminds is that he was more fun to watch, and his dominance is of a rarer, more spectacular variety. Even as he aged, and lost some of the initial explosiveness, the physical nature of his game was no less beautiful, no less free-flowing, despite the fact that the unworldly athleticism now appeared only in select moments, and the scoring came in silky turnaround jumpers rather than gravity-defying flights into the lane. LeBron’s talent and strength and intelligence is evident in every move he makes, but his is a bludgeoning greatness. With Jordan there’s a different, more indescribable element—some ineffable combination of beauty and genius and will—unique to him.

On these terms, The Last Dance succeeds marvelously, and you can bet I will be watching all 10 episodes. There is a degree to which, in 2020, Michael Jordan is a comfort food for Americans of a certain age who were awe-struck children when he was at the height of his powers. It’s why, two months ago, before I even knew about this documentary, I re-read Playing For Keeps. He is a force of nature, but he projects certainty—anyone who ever challenged him was humiliated, anyone who ever doubted him had to slink off with their tails between their legs. If his sporadic cruelty in this quest for domination wasn’t always admirable, it was at least understandable within the framework of the Jordan persona—someone who wanted, above all else, to be the best, and who had the tools and the work ethic and the monomaniacal energy to get there. As life grows more uncertain, there’s a part of us—of me—that would forgive everything in the face of that certainty. Jordan is a safe way to indulge in the nostalgic fantasy of permanence, of inevitable victory.

Yet there’s another side to the Jordan story. In some ways, he was the first modern athlete, his image crafted to an incredible degree of polish by David Falk, his agent, his team at Nike, and a small army of brand managers. They knew what they had in Jordan—someone likeable, handsome, and gracious, who amassed fame for what he did on the court and who only needed to flash that bright smile to make people fall in love. For the money people, it’s imperative to broadcast a simple message about the superstar, and Jordan was not just willing to go along—unlike Kobe Bryant, he was adept at perpetuating this facade without looking like a phony. This is a man who, when asked why he never took a political stance, responded that “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Off the court, his entire persona was heavily curated, and that process is constantly at war with efforts to learn the “true” man. ESPN, still in its early days, was a major purveyor of the Jordan myth, and it’s worth wondering even years later if a documentary team working for the monolith of sports TV has the ability, or the desire, to puncture the corporate bubble.

On Sunday night, I watched him overcome being cut from his varsity team as a sophomore, I watched him rise through the ranks at Carolina, I watched him prove that he was the NBA’s brightest young star despite being drafted third. In future installments, I will watch him overcome the Celtics, the thuggish Detroit Pistons, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, the brief retirement, his father’s death, the gambling issues, his baseball failure, and more, all of it leading to the steal from Karl Malone, and the famous shot against poor Bryon Russell—with Jazz fans in the stands resigning themselves to the inevitable even before the ball had reached its apex—that capped off his sixth and final championship. And I will love it.

But the first two episodes also make clear that I’ll be left wondering about what lies beneath. About whatever conflagration of anger and hunger and even bitterness drove him to such extremes, to the point that even when he made his Hall of Fame speech more than a decade after that last dance, this great man was still consumed by the memories of anyone who had slighted him, or doubted him, throughout the years. There can only be one Michael Jordan, and ESPN’s documentary will deal almost exclusively with the story we already know—the one about the consummate winner who overcame every obstacle on the court. I’ll enjoy that quite a lot for what it is, because the Jordan story is unmissable in any version, and the images are stunning. And yet, there’s no escaping the conclusion that this is all a re-tread, slickly made as it may be. The soul of this man is still locked away, and these filmmakers, perhaps bound by the limits of what ESPN and Jordan himself will abide, are not the ones to use, or even find, the key.

The Last Dance airs Sunday nights on ESPN.

Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter here.

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