Dennis Rodman's eccentricities steal the scene as 'The Last Dance' tries to show it's not all about Michael Jordan
After taking us through Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen's journeys The Last Dance chronicles the life of the Bulls' most eccentric star, Dennis Rodman, and ends up doing a pretty good job of it
"You hear a lot of negative things about Dennis Rodman. Well, people don’t actually know Dennis Rodman," says the former Chicago Bulls star, in seemingly indulgent third-person narrative. "They just see what they see on the court and read in the papers, and they say, 'God, he’s a bad person.'"
After taking us through Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen's journeys, ESPN's The Last Dance attempts to chronicle the life of the Bulls' most eccentric star, Dennis Rodman, and ends up doing a pretty good job of it. Unlike many of the stories in this non-linear documentary, Rodman's begins at its beginning. The controversial athlete opens by speaking about family issues, namely being kicked out of his own home at the age of 18, several close brushes with drugs and his time at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. This aspect of the story is dealt with briefly, and it leaves you yearning for a more comprehensive look into the origin story of NBA's most enigmatic product, but this is the Michael Jordan show, so you make do with what you get.
After finishing college, Rodman is signed to the Detroit Pistons in the 1986 draft, and his time in Michigan is truly the meat and potatoes of the third episode. His stint at the franchise gives the documentary an opportunity to establish the rivalry between Detroit and Chicago, through the lens of Rodman, who would go on to play for both teams. Early on in Rodman's career, his physical, intimidating Pistons side dominates Jordan's Bulls over the course of 1989 and 1990, beating them twice in a row in the Playoffs. The Pistons are unforgiving and give no quarter, and their brutal intensity eventually galvanises the Bulls into winning their first championship.
Detroit's years of success are followed by a swift downward spiral, and in these trying years, Rodman is overcome by depression. After going missing one night in February 1993, Rodman is found asleep in his car with a loaded rifle. Speaking on the incident, Rodman admits to contemplating suicide and states that the event inspired him to be true to himself. After demanding a trade and being transferred to the San Antonio Spurs, Rodman embraces his eccentricities and becomes the 'Dennis Rodman' we would all eventually come to know.
With ever-changing hair, piercings and tattoos, Rodman is the perfect target for the speculations of the mid-90s sports media. His high-profile paramours, party-going lifestyle and general disregard for the rules ensure that he was never far from the spotlight. The two new episodes attempt to grant audiences a peek into the intense media pressure that comes along with the glitz and glamour — which is contrasted with the stark discipline that defined Michael Jordan — but there's also another, very important message director Jason Hehir makes sure to put across. Despite being made out to be vain and disinterested, Rodman was really good at basketball.
His abilities as a masterful defensive player bring him to the attention of the Bulls, where he links up with Jordan and Pippen under coach Phil Jackson. After a few years spent as supporting act to the Jordan-Pippen duo, Rodman gets his chance to shine during Pippen's absence in the 1997-98 season, where he becomes Jordan's right-hand man, showcasing a level of discipline and reliability he was heretofore severely lacking in. Rodman also develops a strong relationship with coach Jackson, who manages to get the best out of him by giving him a certain degree of freedom that wasn't afforded to other players.
The fourth episode focuses on this relationship, whilst also establishing Jackson's background as a player and coach, including his 11-year stint as a power forward at the New York Knicks, where his left-leaning 'hippie' ideals made him stick out like a sore thumb. We also get an introduction to the first few years of his coaching career, including what seems like a fascinating stint in Puerto Rico. By his own account, it was an intense league, and we hear amazing stories of coaches who slaughtered chickens and smeared their blood on their opponent's benches. These tales are fascinating, but like this documentary constantly likes to remind us, this is the Michael Jordan show, so Jackson's pre-Bulls exploits are rushed through quickly.
A much greater degree of focus is lavished on his years as an assistant coach in the Bulls set-up. As an assistant, he develops a method of triangle offence with the aid of another assistant Tex Winter, a team-oriented style of play that aims to take the burden of scoring off of Jordan's shoulders. The Bulls general manager Jerry Krause is sold on the idea, and he fires then-head coach, Doug Collins, promoting Jackson to the role in 1989. Under Jackson, the Bulls become a better team, despite the drop in Jordan's numbers. After a disappointing first year with Jackson, the Bulls dominate the league in 1990/91, before going on to beat long-time rivals Detroit Pistons in the Conference finals. They then face Magic Johnson and the LA Lakers in the NBA Finals, who they ease past 4-1 to lift their first NBA Championship.
The two episodes released on Sunday further prove that this documentary really isn't in the same vein as the OJ Simpson story that captivated audiences a few years ago. Instead of deeper discussions about the role of race and media in sports, it is content to shower viewers with a never-ending series of Jordan montages, embracing its identity as a fan-pleaser. You can expect the coming episodes to be much of the same, with everything being linked in some way or the other to Michael Jordan, because lest we forget, this is the Michael Jordan show.
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