If you loved "The Last Dance," you better cherish everything you got from Michael Jordan in it, because the documentary was probably the last time we'll ever see the greatest player in NBA history present and reveal himself like this again.
Jordan was as open, quotable, funny and irresistibly watchable here as an interview subject -- in the present tense -- as he was 22 years ago in a Chicago Bulls uniform.
Despite being the owner of an NBA franchise and working his way to becoming, by far, the wealthiest athlete/ex-athlete in the history of the planet, Jordan has famously become a myth of a figure with the media and the general public. For plenty of understandable reasons, the man has walled himself off for the most part over the past 15 years.
So with that in mind, what "The Last Dance" afforded us was special if not historical. Jordan of course had no true reason to do this project other than to extend his legend ever further and give it life and light for a new generation of basketball adorers, LeBron James flag bearers foremost among them. And as an aside, the fact Adam Silver and few other NBA personnel had the foresight in 1997 to document, with a camera crew, what would become the final championship run for the Bulls … well it's one of the best business decisions in the history of the league.
More amazingly, Jordan and everyone else with the organization -- but Jordan at the top of the list; he had last rights of refusal on all the footage -- agreed to it.
So for the past five weeks, the 10-part doc filled a void and brought American sports culture together as we worked our way through an unprecedented, largely sports-less phase in our country and on this planet. Sports was appointment viewing again, the way it hadn't been, truly, since February's Super Bowl. We were aching for games, for something to rivet and rile us -- and there was Jordan, one last time, making an event out of watching him and the Bulls.
It's been the best possible proxy to the live sports experience anyone could have asked for, and it's only something No. 23 could have pulled off. Only Michael Jordan could make 22-year-old highlights feel refreshing.
"The Last Dance" immediately goes into the must-watch sports documentary hall of fame. That's not for any clear-cut greatness or urgency. It's not for its secrets revealed, truths told, issues tackled or world-bending views from or about Jordan. It's an all-time documentary for what it provided us -- Jordan as the main character and willing interview subject -- when it provided it to us and how it envelops a defining sports dynasty while still leaving the viewer wanting another 10 hours to go back and visit so much more.
Though lauded for its nostalgic pull and all-access perks, the doc hasn't been thin on critics who've lamented all it could have been but wasn't.
But it had Jordan, and Jordan was more than enough. And though 9 and 10 fall somewhere in the middle in terms of episode quality, the last part of the last episode wound up giving us what we wanted more than anything:. He wanted it then, wants it now -- just like you and I wanted it then and want it now.
For about nine hours and 45 minutes, the documentary was about the progression of the 1997-98 season -- that Last Dance -- juxtaposed against the evolution of Jordan's life, even going back to when he was young and losing to his brother, Larry, in competition against each other and for the affection of their father.
But did 1998 really have to be the final tango? Lucky number seven in '99 -- close out the century, how poetic -- well, damn, that's something we can hypothesize and argue about for another 100 years.
And thanks to what Jordan wrapped the documentary with, we probably will. Jordan positing that most everyone on that 1997-98 Bulls team would have signed a one-year deal to come back for a seventh title chase is an irresistible fan-fiction moment.
"If you ask all the guys who won in '98, Steve Kerr, Judd Buechler, blah, blah, blah, 'We give you a one-year contract to try for a seventh.' You think they would have signed? Yes, they would have signed," Jordan says. "Would I have signed for one year? Yes, I would have signed for one year. I'd been signing one-year contracts up to that. Would Phil have done it? Yes. Now Pip, you would have had to do some convincing, but if Phil was gonna be there, Dennis was gonna be there, if MJ was gonna be there, to win our seventh? Pip is not gonna miss out on that."
Never mind that no one else on that team was actually asked that question or provided an answer to Jordan's hypothetical. Let's just play to the fantasy here, which is where this documentary thrived (and opened itself up for critiques). Jordan's hope and imagery of what could have been for 1998-99 closed out this throwback cultural experience with the one thing we wanted: not just to relive what was, but to still imagine and want for something that never could be.
"It's maddening because I felt like we could have won seven," Jordan goes on to say near the end of the final episode. "I really believe that. We may not have, but man, just to not be able to try, that's something that I just can't accept for whatever reason. I just can't accept it."
That probably cuts at the heart of why Jordan was willing to sit down for three long interviews and go back through his life, through his final epic season in Chicago, and.
"They can't win till we quit," Jordan says in episode 10, which is so badass and true. In a doc filled with a lot of great quotes, leave it to Jordan to drop probably the best one in the closing moments.
The 1990s Chicago Bulls, mostly because of Jordan but not exclusively because of him, are among the most famous and dominant sports teams in history. They were a cultural force that helped define a decade and redefined what was possible in their environment. They were all the more intriguing because of their turmoil, the brilliance within and, ultimately, treated elegantly by history because of the timing of their breakup. That ultimately secures the legacy.
The band goes out on top.
Sounds like another epic group who since the day they split up have been unbeatable but endlessly bemoaned for breaking up too soon.
It was often said that to see Jordan and the Bulls in the '90s was basketball analogue to The Beatles. The Bulls and The Beatles' timelines certainly have obvious parallels. And it's quite clear the 1997-98 season was Chicago's Abbey Road. (Jordan says in "The Last Dance" that the 1998 title is the most gratifying, and Abbey Road is the best Beatles LP; just let it be.)
Few wanted either to end -- right there, at the height of their powers -- but it had to. It was messy and there was surely more greatness still left, but could it have ever been better than when things stopped?
So it went, and then didn't, for the Fab Four and Jordan's company of teammates, all of whom have been lifted in legacy 20-plus years after the fact. Even the ever-maligned, late Jerry Krause was finally lauded and credited in the doc's closing minutes, by Scottie Pippen of all people.
"Jerry Krause, obviously the greatest general manager in the game," Pippen says.
There's a plot twist!
The selling points of this documentary, back before we'd seen an episode, were the all-access scenes and the worries from Jordan himself about how he might come off, that some of his shine would scuff. The latter, as previously explained,. But the former had some of its best payoffs in the final episode. Jordan jokes with the media, during a pre-game shootaround, about playing piano earlier in the day. In a passing comment, he says the piano is actually in his hotel room.
And in the early hours of Salt Lake City on June 14, 1998, an unbelievable scene that is unrepeatable in the modern era: it's the most famous athlete in the world getting off a bus, worming his way through hundreds of frenzied fans in a hotel lobby. He's high-fiving, soaked in celebratory champagne and ready for more. Jordan is flanked by personal security and making his way to the elevator, camera crew right on his heels.
Then it's Chekhov's gun: cut to Jordan banging the piano in his suite, everyone draped over him or the baby grand, reeling in happiness. The man wasn't lying: he really had a damn piano in his room. These were the views we were looking for. These are the kinds of things we no longer see, ironically not even in our current era of cell phone opulence and dependence. It was never more gratifying for Jordan or that team than in those stolen moments in a Salt Lake City hotel suite.
Come back for a seventh title? That's not in that hotel suite. That's what could have been. It's what makes that Jordan group so compelling. He lived up to his legend, and 22 years later he's still not entirely satisfied. That's what made him not just great, but the biggest sports icon in history.
Nothing was ever enough for Jordan, and that's why we'll never get enough of him, either. We were given 10 episodes of unprecedented access to the greatest basketball player in history but we still want so much more. Jordan won six titles but is still making up circumstances, as a 57-year-old, for how he could have gotten to a seventh championship in Chicago. The greatest NBA career in history still has a what-if attached to it, and it's strangely appealing to know he'll live and die never letting go of something he still couldn't have.