The Last Dance
As a general rule, people who care about basketball do not agree on much. There are people with extremely lucrative television and radio jobs whose entire work life consists of blinking a lot and seeming personally offended by something that another person said about, like, Kyrie Irving. In subreddits and group chats and barbershops and bars and a crowded corner of Twitter where implied airhorns blare all day and all night, people who might otherwise pass as normal in their work and home lives absolutely lose their shit about basketball stuff so trivial and mundane and context-specific that it effectively has no valid comparisons elsewhere in the culture.
There has never been an argument between two or more humans about whether Chester Cheetah, the laid-back sunglasses-wearing cartoon feline in Cheetos advertisements, is overrated, underrated, or properly rated. People do not raise their voices in response to the very suggestion that the Mazda Miata was not one of the elite foreign coupes of its era. Swap in Sam Cassell for Chester and replace that Miata with let’s say Mehmet Okur, though, and you’ve got something that can keep otherwise normal people—high-functioning adults with happy families and healthy diets—in a state of perfect irrationality and thermonuclear pettiness for hours. This is at least something like the point of caring in the first place.
The rest of the day and the rest of the world have to be approached on their own terms and from our respective positions on the broader continuum, but the abstraction of sports flattens and opens things up. No person on earth can truly know what it feels like to play basketball as Michael Jordan did at his peak, but the blessed and idiotic alchemy of fandom means that just about anyone can be as petty and obsessive and unforgiving as he was, and about the same otherwise insignificant things. Consider, for instance, the fact that Fox Sports Detroit, the regional sports network that airs Detroit Pistons games, will be counterprogramming Sunday’s episodes of The Last Dance by re-airing the fourth and final game of the 1989 NBA Finals—which the Pistons reached after defeating Jordan’s Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals.
As is generally the case with The Last Dance, this episode features a great deal of zooming around in time. It goes as far back as Phil Jackson’s Montana childhood, as far down as Dennis Rodman leading the pack of lumpy fame-remoras that attached themselves to him during his team-authorized Las Vegas party sojourn in a sad little song about kamikaze shots before doing a round of kamikaze shots, and as far afield as author Charley Rosen, Jackson’s longtime buddy and literary collaborator, describing the popularity of ritual animal sacrifice in the Puerto Rican National Superior Basketball League. As is also generally the case with the series, this has roughly the same narrative effect as setting a car radio on “scan,” with the little blips and blurts of identifiable stuff seeming doubly strange and disconnected because of how quickly they come and go. Some of this is more fun than other parts. Carmen Electra, Rodman’s girlfriend during the ‘97-98 season, offers a nicely wry counterpoint to Michael Jordan’s unrelenting perma-seethe and an appealingly human perspective on Rodman’s gaudy ‘90s party life. Phil Jackson claiming with obvious self-delight that he and Rodman “have this Native American bond between us,” on the other hand, is pharmaceutical-grade cringe.
The difference between this installment and the ones that came before, though, is that all this hyperactive hopping around actually comes together in a way that makes for compelling viewing, instead of serving as lushly upholstered padding between delirious and thrilling highlight montages. The long middle section about the Bulls’ struggles to get past the ultra-physical Pistons first under head coach Doug Collins and then under Jackson blessedly incorporates perspectives other than Jordan’s—he’s still there to dourly cast everything as a zero-sum matter of will versus weakness, of course, but various members of the team’s early-’90s rotation are also on hand to provide more humanesque perspectives.
This helps not just because The Last Dance has been stunted in earlier episodes by its reliance on Jordan, a peevish and ungenerous storyteller whose perspective on life is that of a vengeful godhead, although that does help. It also lets the rest of the team, who were both the victims of Jordan’s bullying and his collaborators in this most collaborative of team sports, into the story in a way that they previously hadn’t been. The gradual inclusion of these other players and their perspectives in The Last Dance mirrors the way that Jackson’s approach—he adapted his Triangle Offense from lead assistant Tex Winter and copped his motivational techniques from every element of corporate boomer pop-mysticism—both opened and deepened the Bulls’ on-court approach.
Jordan is frank and bluntly funny in recounting his resistance to go from Collins’s system, which orbited around and depended upon Jordan’s brilliance on both ends, to Jackson’s more team-oriented one. “I didn’t want Bill Cartwright to touch the ball with five seconds left,” he says, “that’s not equal opportunity offense, that’s fucking bullshit. So many times Tex would yell at me, ‘Move the ball, move the ball, there’s no I in team.’ Well there’s an ‘I’ in ‘win.’” Director Jason Hehir lets the supporting cast explain why and how Jackson’s system worked—by letting Scottie Pippen’s unique suite of talents flourish in new roles on both ends, by forcing teams to devote more defensive attention to players other than Jordan—and trusts some artfully handled game footage to demonstrate just how well things all came together.
Jordan’s singular presence is still at the heart of it all, most notably in setting the tone for the team’s fanatical preparation to get past the Pistons during its first title season in ‘90-91, but the presence of other voices invariably makes everything both lighter and more meaningful. It’s no surprise that Jordan would still be angry about the Pistons leaving the court without shaking hands at the end of the ‘90-91 Eastern Conference Finals; it’s a reflection of his warped righteousness that he’d explain this by saying, “Two years in a row, we shook their hands when they beat us. There’s a certain respect for the game.” But it’s nice, as a counterpoint and as a break from Jordan’s exhausting and exhaustive grievance, to have Horace Grant around to add, “Straight up bitches, that’s what they walked off like.”
Once again, not much of this qualifies as new—the new footage of Phil Jackson leading his barefoot teams in a pre-practice Sun Salutation is fun, but it won’t change the way you think about Phil Jackson, his coaching methods, the Bulls, or yoga. But by settling down and telling a familiar story straight, and incorporating more of the voices of the people involved, Hehir manages to add some depth and even emotion to what is by now some extremely familiar stuff. By sticking with the team’s struggles with the Pistons through the ensuing transformation and all the way to their eventual triumph, the episode makes it all feel meaningful. When Hehir skips ahead to the team’s slog back to the top in ‘97-98, the weight of that early struggle and triumph comes with it in a way that finally makes the events in question—the team’s exhaustion and pride, Jordan’s insistence on playing only for Jackson, and Jackson’s insistence on not staying in an organization that he didn’t believe valued him appropriately—feel as meaningful as The Last Dance’s editing and score and general tenor have been insisting they were from the jump.
The image of Michael Jordan crying and embracing the Larry O’Brien Trophy after the Bulls beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals is deservedly iconic, but on its own is just one of many Iconic Jordan Images. In the context of what came before, it takes on an added resonance. “Sometimes we’d question whether he was human, whether he had feelings,” says Will Perdue, who was one of the frequent victims of Jordan’s bullying and now looks like a very tall version of I Think You Should Leave’s Tim Robinson. “Just a guy who was focused on one thing and one thing only. The only emotions we’d ever seen out of him were anger and frustration.” In tears, in triumph, surrounded by jubilant teammates and as alone as ever, more of Michael Jordan is visible—more than Jordan himself is prepared to show, even these decades later, but also more than any rote Hero’s Journey storyline would reveal. Sports do strange things to a fan’s brain, but how it all works is really quite simple: give people that care about this stuff something to care too much about and a sufficient reason to care about it, put things in a legible order, and we will follow. It doesn’t need to be much more complicated than that.
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