Television

The Last Dance Is Just Absolutely Gripping Television for Sports Rubes

Michael Jordan, who knew?

Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan sitting at a table with a microphone, and behind them are banners for three Bulls championships.
Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan, two people who it turns out were extremely good at basketball. ESPN

It would simply be inaccurate to say I don’t know the first thing about sports. I know and have known for a long time who Michael Jordan is, what sport he played, and what team he was on. I guess I do have to admit, though, that until recently, I didn’t know the second thing about sports. Because I only just learned that Scottie Pippen was on that basketball team, the Chicago Bulls, with Michael Jordan. Prior to a few weeks ago, I kind of knew there was a basketball player named “Scottie Pippen” (was it because his now ex-wife was a Real Housewife? Who can say?), but nope, did not know Pippen was on the Bulls with Jordan for the entirety of those ’90s dynasty years.

All of this is to say that I’m not very interested in sports. So I want my comrades in sports indifference to trust me when I say The Last Dance, the 10-part ESPN documentary that wraps up this weekend and is responsible for teaching me that Scottie and MJ were teammates, is gripping television. I might even like it more than people who know enough about sports to see its flaws. It’s taken me from not knowing who Pippen is to seeing both him and Jordan as figures of almost Shakespearian intrigue and complexity. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself to justify how much fun I’m having watching them lay waste to a cavalcade of teams that had the misfortune of not being the 1990s Chicago Bulls.

In the first episode of The Last Dance, it’s established that the documentary will follow the team through the ’97–’98 season, which could be the last one for coach Phil Jackson (another incredibly famous person I had zero knowledge of ’til now) and several key players. This is because the team’s general manager, and the villain of the documentary despite being a particularly harmless-looking man, Jerry Krause, has decided that the team has gotten old and needs a shake-up—even though they’re coming off two straight championships in ’96 and ’97 and another three championships in the early ’90s. Even to me, Krause’s plan sounds preposterous, but one thing it does is provide something for the team to rally around: They want to prove Krause wrong and cap off their Bulls careers with one last big win and a historic second three-peat.

The story of that final season is covered in the doc, but the timeline frequently flashes backward into earlier parts of Jordan’s career, and ’97–’98 ends up being more of a jumping-off point to get into the larger story of how Michael Jordan became Michael Jordan. All of this may be the standard Jordan lore that sports fans are already familiar with—Chapel Hill, the 1984 draft, that fateful foot injury, the Dream Team—but much of it was new, and fascinating, to me. When I thought about why, the theory I came up with is that seeing footage of Jordan before he was famous is like seeing pictures of my parents before they had me: absolutely transfixing, and more than a little narcissistic. I’m interested in Michael Jordan because he loomed large in my childhood universe, and I automatically look at that time period through nostalgia goggles: That was when the world was run by competent adults, athletes were heroes, Saturday Night Live was good. I think a lot of us may feel this way to varying degrees about times when we were younger. I’m old enough to know all of this is bologna, of course. But bologna tastes good, especially right now. It’s poignant to see footage of college or rookie Jordan juxtaposed alongside that of Jordan in his prime, and then to compare that with how Jordan looks in the documentary’s present-day interviews: older, a few pounds heavier, mortal after all. Who can’t relate to the inescapability of time?

I sometimes think sports movies secretly appeal more to people who don’t like sports than people who do: Sports fans can see all the ways in which they’re unrealistic, fake, corny, whereas I, gullible, ignorant, a sap, am free to marvel that this ragtag group of kids from the wrong side of the tracks won the Cold War through hockey. If the team in question is real and not fictional, many of the characters and much of the drama will be new to us (like this Scottie Pippen character—he seems great!); we won’t be spoiled by knowledge of who’s going to win. If, in the abstract, I’m able to reason that no, it wouldn’t really matter if a bunch of millionaires won five rather than six titles, movies can manipulate us into caring. Scripted films and documentaries like The Last Dance have the advantage of being able to edit out all the boring moments or those that don’t fit the narrative, and so it’s no surprise that these episodes are full of last-minute shots and thrilling feats of athleticism.

I’ve seen some carping that The Last Dance is too edited and too deferential to Jordan’s desire to uphold his legacy—he had final approval over what made it in. That’s fair. But I think sports obsessives, among whom it’s been conventional wisdom for years that Jordan was kind of a jerk, underestimate what a revelation that still is to rubes. It’s true that The Last Dance is careful to accompany most of Jordan’s bullying with the proviso that the target didn’t really mind or that he was only doing it to push his team toward greatness. But the bullying, the trash talk, and the gambling is a lot for some of us. You have to understand that I thought this man was friends with Bugs Bunny.

But eh, maybe they’re right that the series is too admiring, because I do find Jordan incredibly charming in it. I don’t know what I love more, his gargantuan suits or his sly smile. When he cracks up at his foes for implying that, even just once, they were better than him? Beautiful. The “I’m Back” press release? Chills. The last two episodes air on Sunday, and I better not hear any spoilers before then about whether the Bulls win the ’98 championship. I want to be surprised.