'The Last Dance' serves up much-needed sporting drama with enthralling deep-dive into Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls
At the heart of it, ESPN's The Last Dance is — an exhaustively deep dive into what made Michael Jordan 'Michael Jordan,' featuring a large supporting cast that doesn't really matter
In a world starved of sporting action, ESPN and Netflix have come in clutch, with the first two episodes of their highly-anticipated documentary The Last Dance airing on Monday. ESPN's decision to expedite the release date is a stroke of genius, seeing as most sporting channels are currently caught in an endless cycle of reruns and highlights, and the new take on an old drama is a much-appreciated breath of fresh air.
Well, I say old drama, but for many viewers, myself included, this is the first they're hearing about it. I was two years old when Michael Jordan danced The Last Dance™. When I was growing up, Kobe (Bryant) and Shaq (Shaquille O'Neal) were the face of basketball. Every other kid in my school had a canary-yellow knockoff of the Lakers' famous gold-and-purple livery. Of course, I did know of Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Everyone knew of Jordan. Yet somehow, he always seemed more myth than man, a juggernaut who had erased himself from the public eye, but still constantly managed to work his way into pop culture.
It was inescapable, really. From Nike slapping his name on every product they made, to rap lyrics, to Lil Bow Wow's magnum opus Like Mike, Jordan was everywhere. However, I don't think I ever really had any idea what it was that made the man so ubiquitous, so omnipresent. Two episodes into ESPN's The Last Dance, I'm finally beginning to understand. Because at the heart of it, that's what this documentary is — an exhaustively deep dive into what made Michael Jordan 'Michael Jordan,' featuring a large supporting cast that doesn't really matter.
The story is well-told and fast-paced, relentlessly marching on with little regard for continuity, jumping between Jordan's youth, his professional career and modern-day with reckless abandon. There are numerous plotlines, all of which are explored thoroughly through their relationship to Jordan, with each separate arc unerringly finding its way back to him.
Director Jason Hehir takes advantage of a treasure trove of video footage to make this a very entertaining watch. The famously reclusive Jordan is an ever-present fixture on screen, whether it's his piece to camera interviews, shots of him in action or even some grainy footage of him from his college days. What little gaps there are in coverage are filled out by a number of interviews, featuring past and present titans of the game, coaches, doctors, officials and family members. There are even a couple of slightly left-field interviews, like former US Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, who are identified as a 'former Chicago resident' and the 'former Arkansas governor' respectively.
The first episode focuses on establishing conflict in the Chicago Bulls' set-up, foisting the role of villain onto the shoulders of general manager Jerry Krause. This appears to be through no real fault of Krause, however, and is mostly done because a villain is what Jordan, Scottie Pippen and several of the players already considered him to be at the time. The tension largely centres around Krause's desire to dismantle the ageing team and begin anew, without the services of coach Phil Jackson, an idea that is met with some resistance.
His decision to ice Jackson out of the team sets him on a warpath with the key figures in the locker room, leading to several overtly hostile conversations with Jordan and Pippen, who constantly make fun of his height and weight. Unfortunately for Krause, Jordan is the hero of this story, so every crude remark is made to look warranted, and viewers are given a freshly-painted target for their contempt and hatred.
The second episode then delves into the life of Pippen, including a brief look into his early life and his frustrations during the Bulls' era of success, namely the fact that he was paid next to nothing despite being one of the best players in the league. The episode also attempts to highlight the importance of the role played by Pippen in the team, but ultimately does a pretty poor job of it, with the final message seemingly being that Jordan always had an inner sixth gear he could tap into in the absence of Pippen.
In what seems like an effort to remind audiences who the show is really about, Pippen's story is followed by a sudden switch in the storyline, with the focus shifting abruptly to Jordan's childhood. It's a strange segue, and it seems to come out of nowhere, but this is the Michael Jordan story after all, so you end up just going along with it.
In fact, that's pretty much the best attitude to take into this. You're here for the ride, so go along with it. Even if it feels a little forced, even if the hero doesn't seem like one, even if the stories of the supporting cast are just fodder for Jordan's narrative. It's an engaging perspective on the life of one of the greatest athletes in human history, and for whatever flaws it may have, it'll leave you wanting more.
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