Photo: ESPN

If You Don’t Follow Sports, ‘The Last Dance’ Is the Best Place to Start

by Elisabeth Sherman May 19, 2020

When I started watching The Last Dance, the majority of my basketball knowledge revolved around seeing Space Jam in theaters when I was six. I’d see Larry Bird or Patrick Ewing pop on screen and turn to my partner and incredulously ask, “Wasn’t that guy in Space Jam?”

Sure, I had watched the Warriors and Cavaliers face off a few times — enjoyed it even — and I had followed the controversy around LeBron James’ departure from Cleveland with fascination. But the 1998 Chicago Bulls? Never heard of ‘em. The Last Dance was my first deep dive into one of the most explosive and defining moments of the ‘90s, which I had simply missed out on. But by the end of the series, I was a different person. I emerged from the fiery crucible of ‘90s basketball as a sports fan.

But this is not a story about me, oh god no. This is a story about Michael Jordan, and don’t you forget it. This is about the man who, as the documentary points out, is single-handedly responsible for making the NBA the all-powerful arbiter of popular culture — each game a celebrity-spotting extravaganza and a political stage in addition to a cash cow. The Last Dance will explain this all, make you rethink what you think you know about sports, and teach you a surprising thing or two about the people who seem to never lose.

The documentary follows two timelines: The Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 season, during which the team was vying for its sixth NBA championship title. Most Americans with an inkling of sports history know how that story ends, but if you’re one of the few who isn’t clued in, might I suggest powering down your mobile devices to avoid spoilers or any surreptitious Wikipedia searches and watching under a cloak of suspense? Going into the documentary clueless turns The Last Dance into a thriller.

The rest of the series follows the most dramatic and legendary moments in the preceding years, most of which revolve around the man himself: Jordan’s many, and ongoing, rivalries. His predilection for gambling and golfing. His retirement from basketball in 1993, during which he briefly enjoyed a short stint as a professional baseball player (this, too, I knew about because of Space Jam), and his just as abrupt return to the Bulls in 1995.

The documentary throws a bone to a couple of other key figures: His second in command Scottie Pippin, we learn, has a petty streak. Noted eccentric Dennis Rodman liked to abscond to Las Vegas to blow off steam in the middle of the season. These snapshots are part of what makes the documentary so enjoyable.

Imagine meeting Dennis Rodman — of the dyed hair and married-himself-on-Fifth Avenue-in-a-horse-drawn-carriage fame — for the first time. It is an electric shock to find out that being really, really good at sports is just one facet of these, as it turns out, extremely loveable superstars. And turning the spotlight on Jordan’s teammates is made all the more necessary by the fact that Jordan himself is a problematic hero, to put it lightly.

If you’re expecting a benevolent god to appear on screen, an advocate for good sportsman-like ideals like humility and camaraderie, you must not know Michael. Jordan is more like a wrathful, vengeful god of the Old Testament, laughing at one-time rivals like Isiah Thomas and Gary Payton from behind an iPad the producers occasionally give Jordan to watch other retired players’ segments — guys who dared to challenge him and ended up losing to the Bulls in the end.

As Alissa Wilkinson points out in Vox, Jordan recounts “frequent stories about slights and perceived slights by various players that became ‘personal’ for him,” which include a stray comment after a game or a supposed snub at a restaurant that Jordan claims he used as fuel to win on the court. But it just makes him look like an egomaniacal bully. He hardly tries to deny it: Jordan admits, and his former teammates corroborate, that during practice he trash-talked and harassed the Bulls to motivate them to play better. Jordan is, undoubtedly, the villain of his own documentary.

Okay, so this is not making Jordan look good, and it’s reasonable to ask, why, if you don’t already love basketball, you’d watch someone bully his coworkers into submission for 10 hours straight. For people who don’t want sports, The Last Dance might be a thriller — but it’s one without a clear protagonist. Yet I would argue that it’s worth watching because it will challenge every notion that you have about sports.

Here is a person who scarred some of his colleagues for life because he wanted to win. That’s it. It’s that simple. Jordan’s life philosophy is that he wanted to win and he would do anything — destroy and humiliate anyone — to do it. He has no regrets. Because he did win.

“When people see this, they’re going to say ‘Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy, he may have been a tyrant,’” Jordan says at the end of episode seven. “Well that’s you, because you never won anything.”

It’s easy to dislike Jordan for being so insensitive, but is he wrong? He arguably knows better than anyone what it takes to win, and that’s how, in the end, he will earn your love, or least your admiration.

For people who don’t follow sports or never played them for anything other than fun, this is a story that will make you uncomfortable. It will make you question your own values and what you stand for. You will look back on the sports movies you loved as a kid (like Space Jam!), which all seemed to value camaraderie and friendship and fair play, and feel a chill go down your spine because maybe all those movies were wrong. You might find your beliefs challenged by Michael Jordan’s philosophy on winning. You might say to yourself, “Winning isn’t everything.” And you might hear Jordan’s voice echoing back to you, “That’s because you’ve never won anything.”

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