I don’t really think that our Zub Alert blog is a particularly sports-friendly space. Everyone knows sports, and sports podcasts (along with murder podcasts) are consistently toward the top of ratings with most listeners. I myself am a sports fan, but a bit of an outlier here in the Upstate of South Carolina. In my area, Clemson University college football is king. Full stop. I will now watch Clemson and the University Of South Carolina college football, but it’s not a way of life for me. I love NFL Football, and am a long-suffering fan of The Atlanta Falcons. I also love hockey, and am a big Boston Bruins fan. As far as basketball, though….not so much. Alumna Adrienne is a diehard University Of North Carolina college basketball fan. I like to watch March Madness, but as far as pro basketball goes, it’s just not my thing.
This brings me to ESPN’s The Last Dance, a ten-part series on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls and their second attempt for a three-peat NBA championship, having won three championships from 1991-1993 and won two in 1996 and 1997. The Bulls allowed a film crew exclusive access for the 1998 season, and the documentary makes great use of it. We all know that the Bulls are going to win ‘the last dance,’ as their coach Phil Jackson put it, but it’s how the story gets there that is the interesting thing.
First, ESPN was able to get this documentary done in time to show early during the pandemic, a time of no live sports of any kind. I think this gave The Last Dance an audience that was probably much greater than it might have been. There are a few issues to be dealt with in this series, which is really all about Michael Jordan. The number one issue to me was that Jump 23, Jordan’s production company, is a partner in the creation of the series. There can be no doubt they are trying to make Michael look good.
That being said, the main takeaway is that Michael Jordan, as a basketball player, wasn’t a nice guy. He was a fearsome presence in practice and workouts and was rough on his teammates. This is made clear in the series, at one point he gets into a fight with teammate Steve Kerr and is thrown out of practice. He is also portrayed as a very, very, very competitive guy. An alpha on the court. As the series follows his career from wonderkid at UNC to being drafted by the Bulls, I learned a lot about Michael.
I lived through his glory years, and there was a time where Michael Jordan was one of the most famous figures, not just among athletes, but worldwide. Of course he famously made a stunning last minute shot that won the National Championship for this college team and left college ball early for the pro draft. On getting signed, he wanted a shoe deal with Adidias, but they turned him down flat. This led to his manager working a small deal with a running shoe company from Oregon, called Nike. They were hoping to sell a few hundred thousand dollars worth of shoes, but even in his first year, Jordan sold $1.3 million of his shoes. Nike would never be the same again. The show mentioned that the NBA is in 128 countries now, but before Jordan joined the Olympic dream team in Barcelona in 1993, the NBA was only in twelve countries. Jordan almost single-handedly put the NBA on the map.
I remember Spike Lee and his ‘Mars Blackmon' commercials (“It must be the shoes”) which look as hip and cool as ever, and the McDonalds ads, and the Gatorade ‘I wanna be like Mike’ phenomenon. Of course, there was the Space Jam movie, which was a huge hit. There can be no doubt that Michael was ubiquitous in those days, a cultural phenomenon.
The series makes no bones about Michael. I suppose he was the greatest player of our time (Is that true, LeBron? Kobe?) (Adrienne: I think that “our” is too limiting!) and they show him in that light. Even when the Bulls get literally beat up by the Detroit Pistons and lose in the playoffs, Jordan vows to work out harder in the offseason, bulk up, and come back and beat them. There is a good bit of footage dealing with his teammates, Scottie Pippen seen as a bit of a baby, and Dennis Rodman? They deal with Dennis’ acting out, but don’t give any explanation of his true issues. Drugs, alcohol, mental issues? Anyway, it’s obvious these players, along with Horace Grant and Steve Kerr, realize they need to hitch their wagons to Jordan.
There is a truly touching sequence with Steve Kerr, whose father was a Middle East expert at UCLA. His father takes over American University in Beirut and is killed by terrorists. Kerr dedicates himself to basketball, a sport his dad loved, and becomes a clutch three-point shooter.
It seems like Michael Jordan was a player who could both make all his other teammates better and practically win games single handedly. There are many interviews with opposing players, and most agree he was unstoppable. There are a lot of present day interviews with Jordan, and he hasn’t mellowed a bit, he seems like he still wants to play, arguing that he had this player’s number or how he knew how to beat that player. He’s still a fierce competitor at heart.
The series goes into his gambling issues, and here things get a bit murky. Playing golf for $10,000 a hole, and such. They even speculate about his retirement between the three-peats as maybe being a suspension from the NBA for gambling abuses. Of course, then NBA commissioner David Stern is trotted out, saying it didn’t happen. What else would he say? The gambling issue is also used to paint a more sinister tale of Michael’s father’s death, killed by two punks who wanted to steal his Lexus while he slept at a rest area in North Carolina. This doesn’t appear to have any truth behind it. They do show, however, Michael’s ill-fated attempt to be a baseball player with the Birmingham Barons. He quit when the baseball lockout started.
They do talk about Michael and the senate race in North Carolina, African-American Harvey Gantt, the popular mayor of Charlotte running against famous racist Jesse Helms. Michael’s mother asked him to record a PSA for Gantt, but he refused, saying “republicans buy shoes too.” This was not his finest moment. (Note: it was just reported that the Michael Jordan agency will donate 100 million dollars to racial equality organizations in the US, so maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on him).
After the Bulls (spoiler alert) win the second three-peat, Jordan retires as the Bulls are broken up. Jerry Krause, the General Manager, and the Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf are never shown in a good light, if there are villains in this story, they are the ones. Jordan retires and the series is over. There’s no mention of Jordan’s ill-fated comeback with Washington or the poor job he is doing in the front office of the Charlotte Hornets.
This is a ten-hour series. There is a lot to take in, and I found it to be very entertaining, the relentless drive and perfectionism of Michael Jordan, warts and all. Not enough is said about his teammates, and especially about coach Phil Jackson (who went on to win five NBA championships in Los Angeles). As in my review of the Grant series, I have questions about revisionist history and who is telling your story. Michael made sure we got to see what he wanted.