The Unfortunate Ugliness of ‘The Last Dance’

Sports is the last oasis of monocultural moments. The Super Bowl, March Madness, the opening pitch to start the baseball season, the NBA Finals, and the Summer Olympics are a few of the events we still collectively share, even in our sliced and diced entertainment landscape. These events, which timestamp the seasons in our subconscious, have been taken away from us by the coronavirus pandemic, but something close to a substitute has blessedly emerged.

For those immune to the ESPN hype machine, this is The Last Dance, the long-awaited documentary about the final season of the Michael Jordan Bulls dynasty of the 1990s. Rare footage, unseen since it was filmed over two decades ago, has emerged as a mammoth 10-part series to be shown over five weeks on ESPN. The release date was moved up to fill the content hole created by the coronavirus. Ratings for parts one and two are through the roof, the highest ever for an ESPN doc.

Grateful as I am for this film’s existence, it is a very flawed product. So far, it hasn’t been worth the gargantuan hype that has accompanied it. Granted, I was not necessarily the target audience. I grew up a Knicks fan in the 1990s. Michael Jordan’s Bulls stomped on the chests of those Pat Riley/Patrick Ewing Knicks teams. At times, reliving the Bulls’ supremacy felt like watching a frothy documentary about my last root canal.

For those born after 1990, I could see this being a useful education into the sheer physical and psychological dominance that Michael Jordan brought to the court every single night. It’s also novel to see the 57-year-old Jordan interviewed about his life. Speaking about himself, particularly his childhood in Wilmington, North Carolina, does not come easily to him. It’s moving to see him attempt to make sense of the racial and familial considerations that propelled him to seek refuge on fields of play. For being such a ubiquitous brand for almost four decades, Jordan is surprisingly reticent. It makes for riveting, if not always elucidating, viewing.

Yet, as was seen infamously in Jordan’s churlish, biting Hall of Fame speech over a decade ago, the real Jordan behind the smiling hype and poetical play is compelling but also repellent. He was a bully as a teammate and someone who wanted to rip out your soul as an opponent. That he treated those around him so poorly does not make Jordan unique among those deemed geniuses in their craft. Steve Jobs wasn’t exactly warm and cuddly. But The Last Dance lionizes this behavior to an absurd degree. While exposing a new generation to Jordan’s greatness, the filmmakers also project his bullying as critical to his success. Former presidents and Hall of Famers, in tiresome fashion, pay tribute to his “intensity,” without a thought as to its toxicity.

Jordan’s insistence on being the alpha asshole deserves criticism, not praise. As soon as Jordan’s playing skills eroded, when he returned from retirement for two failed last seasons with the Washington Wizards, we saw the limits of this approach to building a championship team. If you are the greatest player ever, you can be a jerk or you can be Mother Theresa. You probably will find success. When Air Jordan became Floor Jordan in Washington, it was far less charming, as his harangues lost their power and teammates were beaten down with none of the attendant success.

The other part of this documentary that is (perhaps unintentionally) nauseating is the vilification of the late Jerry Krause, the portly general manager of this championship team. Krause is made to carry all of the blame for breaking up this dynasty. He is portrayed as some kind of petty schemer who wanted to tear it all down just to show he could rebuild a championship team without Jordan, Scottie Pippen, or coach Phil Jackson. The film crudely never mentions that Krause died in 2017, giving the impression that he decided not to cooperate with the project. No one is on hand to give his side of the story, or provide a sympathetic view.

Krause was no saint, and is by no means blameless. But to see Jordan, Jackson, and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf repeatedly throw him under the bus is gross. It’s especially noxious since Jordan is now an NBA owner himself and putting all the blame on Krause gives his fellow “team governor” Reinsdorf a pass.

If the recollections of Krause feel unfair, the old footage from 1997 shows Krause constantly being belittled to his face by Jordan about his height, weight, and general appearance. Again, this is all presented not only without criticism but with a message that this is part of what made Jordan great.

There is clearly space for a critical documentary about Michael Jordan and his legacy. Only judging by the first two episodes, this ain’t it. Given that Jordan and the NBA reportedly had veto power over all the footage, and that ESPN is a broadcast partner in this process, not a critical journalistic entity, no one should expect much to change with the episodes that lie ahead. It’s a shame.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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