The Last Dance
It feels wrong to type these words this deep into basketball withdrawal, but the NBA regular season is too long. It’s too long for the players, who invariably wear down under the strain of 82 games packed tight between early October and the middle of April; some years ago, teams began prophylactically giving veteran players days off during the long winter doldrums to keep them healthy for the playoffs. That in turn made the season too long for the league office, which has lately sought to punish teams for resting players during nationally televised games. The season is too long even for fans, who wind up exhausted by spring despite having to do nothing more strenuous in the preceding months than mute the TV when Mark Jackson is doing color commentary. (It should be noted here that NBA owners appear to think the season is the perfect length, but also owners think all kinds of stupid and wrong things and their opinions should rightly be disregarded.)
Everyone involved has to pace themselves such that their Caring Too Much reserves are not crucially depleted by the early rounds of the playoffs, which would in a less afflicted moment be happening right now. Maintaining interest over the course of that long season isn’t easy for anyone involved, and while players at least get paid lavishly for all those second-night-of-a-back-to-back games in Charlotte, everyone else is pretty much left to figure it out on their own. All of which is to say that if you somehow found yourself tasked with making a sprawling ten-episode series about one season in the life of one legendary team, you would likely have started feeling the strain right around the fifth episode.
You would have done and covered a lot by that point, certainly, but there would still just be so much to do, and you would also find yourself in the least scenic part of that journey, well out of sight of either home or the far shore. The bummer gravity of that moment is why cruise ships hire magicians and croupiers and limbo contest facilitators and phalanxes of bartenders, and why they earn their money. In “Episode V,” The Last Dance hits the midpoint of both the ‘97-98 Chicago Bulls’ season and its own running time, and the cruise is starting to lag a bit. The title “six weeks to the NBA Playoffs,” which appears onscreen after a bit commemorating Michael Jordan’s final visit to Madison Square Garden in ‘97-98—he wears a pair of Jordan 1s that leave his socks soaked with blood, scores a bunch of points, and wins—is enough to make any NBA fan sigh. Six weeks from the playoffs is the least wonderful time of the year, but if you’re making a 10-part documentary about one season, you’ve already chosen not to skip much. So here we are.
“Episode V” is restless even by the high twitchiness standards that director Jason Hehir set over the first four installments, but the overall vibe here is still unmistakably All-Star Break, both in terms of an abiding inconsequentiality and some heavy product-placement obligations. Just as Blake Griffin once had to leap over a Kia Optima to win the Slam Dunk Contest, The Last Dance has to pay homage to The Jordan Brand—both the specific billion-dollar brand that Jordan built with Nike and the general concept of Michael Jordan as a brand—before it can return to basketball. The Kia product placement was one of the most monumentally corny moments in the dunk contest’s high-fructose history, but it was much more gracefully executed than this episode’s attempt at both explaining and advancing Jordan’s singular personal brand.
The ‘97-98 All-Star Break is, appropriately and not a little damningly, where episode begins, although it characteristically doesn’t stay there long. The next 50 minutes cover Jordan’s aforementioned MSG farewell; his All-Star Game duel with a 19-year-old Kobe Bryant; Jordan’s first Nike contract in 1984 and the rise of the Jordan Brand; Jordan’s Olympic experience with the Dream Team and the vengeful humiliation he and Scottie Pippen visited upon Croatian phenom and future Bulls star Toni at the Barcelona Games; the Bulls’ second consecutive NBA title in ‘91-92; Jordan’s decision not to endorse or support the pioneering black candidate Harvey Gantt in his 1992 North Carolina Senate campaign against gnarled racist goblin Jesse Helms; and every side of the story re: Isiah Thomas’s exclusion from the Dream Team. If that looks like an awful lot—if it looks so much like Too Much that it would be impossible for any of it to be covered enough—it is because it is in point of fact really an awful lot.
“Episode V” spends a lot of time in 1992, which various onscreen talking heads peg as the year Michael Jordan went from being one of the NBA’s biggest stars to a colossal global brand. There are probably some interesting things to say about all that, although Hehir can’t quite settle down long enough to say them. Some of what remains is illuminating, and the highlight montage from the 1992 NBA Finals set to Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours” is so electrifying that it survives even the intrusive commentary of resident vibe-killer Michael Wilbon, but the question of how a person becomes a brand is a thornier one than either Hehir or Jordan himself is quite willing to engage. The episode that results once again feels both rushed and distended.
For instance, Jordan is cagey about whether he worked to keep Isiah Thomas, whom he has never forgiven for not exchanging congratulations after the ‘90-91 Eastern Conference Finals, off the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. Various other parties weigh in on the decision as well. But while that controversy is real enough, it’s much more interesting in terms of what it says about Jordan—the grudges he carried, the power he wielded, and how the former informed the latter—than in its obscure particulars. It’s certainly much less compelling than what the Dream Team actually did. Letting Jordan explain at length why he was actually right and other people were wrong is the least interesting choice, but it’s one Hehir can’t help but make.
That’s all the more maddening because when Hehir shows the Dream Team in action, either in footage of their legendarily competitive practices or game clips of Jordan and Pippen taking out their hatred of Bulls GM Jerry Krause on Kukoc (because Krause had snagged Kukoc as a second-round pick years earlier, and both the underpaid Pippen and the perpetually grudge-hunting Jordan saw Kukoc as being favored over the players then actually suiting up for the team), the effect is awe-inspiring. Jordan and the NBA’s best did their utmost to annihilate each other in those practices, and then effortlessly smashed the rest of the world in the games that counted. In both the public and private aspects of that process, as in the NBA Finals that preceded it all by a week and change, Jordan decisively asserted himself as the greatest basketball player on earth. More than that, he was growing from a famous athlete into something bigger and more powerful—becoming more fully his ruthless and dominant self with every victory tallied and competitor destroyed, but also becoming more the avatar of supreme will that his brand made him out to be.
As he becomes bigger and bigger over the course of “Episode V,” Jordan remains more or less the same. He is ferociously competitive with others and fiercely dedicated to claiming as much success for himself wherever possible, be that in the NBA Finals or in practice or in endless late-night card games with Magic Johnson. Hehir tells the story of Jordan’s brand coming into being fairly straight—he didn’t want to be one of the stable of stars under contract with Converse, Adidas couldn’t make a deal work, Nike offered him a lot more money—and as another story of Jordan defying convention to become great. His drive is undeniably what made Jordan, but it doesn’t necessarily make him interesting, and the fact that he only really tells one story—someone says Jordan can’t or shouldn’t do something, and then he does it anyway because fuck you—is only really a problem because Hehir keeps letting him tell it over and over and over again.
1992 was a notably momentous year for Jordan not just because of all the success he stuffed into it, but because Jordan’s elevation of his own world-historic want into his personal identity first drew any concentrated criticism. Hehir doesn’t elide any of this, to his credit, although there’s nothing especially illuminating or new in it. We see Jordan draping an American flag over the Reebok logo on his Olympic warmups while receiving his gold medal in a polarizing bit of brand loyalty, and hear him being criticized for it. Jordan tries to justify both his decision not to endorse Harvey Gantt and his infamously flip “Republicans buy sneakers, too” explanation. Much of the work in this bit is outsourced to various well-credentialed commentators: Spike Lee, who helped craft Jordan’s brand in a series of iconic Air Jordan ads, is notable in his absence, but Barack Obama returns. “I was playing my sport and focused on my craft,” Jordan says of the decision not to endorse Gantt. “Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy, that’s where my energy was.” This is honest, but when held up against Helms’s vileness—Hehir shows us Helms gloating “there is no joy in Mudville” at his victory party—Jordan’s single-minded focus on himself looks at best myopic. Hehir deserves credit for including different perspectives here, but his overstuffed storytelling itinerary and deference to Jordan, who is just by nature not a big insight guy, keeps things on the surface.
The deference is the bigger issue. The tension between Jordan’s brand and the roiling, hard-edged, and often ruthless man himself has been one of the defining stories of his life, but it’s also one that Jordan is uniquely ill-equipped to tell. His single-mindedness is absolutely central to why he became Michael Jordan, both as a player and the personification of his steely brand truths, but the attributes that might have given him more perspective on his life went into the furnace to fuel his ascent long ago. Jordan has spent his life both consumed and being consumed; the world has been watching him for a long time. And yet in “Episode V,” even as he grows to global prominence, his world feels claustrophobically small. The playoffs can’t come soon enough.
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