Considering The Last Dance: Its Achievements, Its Enigmas, and Its Frustrations

Courtesy of Netflix

Hear the Take the Field crew discuss the final 2 episode of The Last Dance here.

We’ve now watched and, to a certain extent, processed all 10 hours of The Last Dance. What can we say about it without controversy? I think we can safely say that its 10 hours retell a story that, when we first watched it happen, was already thrilling and inspiring. I think we can also say that its director, Jason Hehir, and his crew, retold the story with technical excellence. I think there’s a tendency among viewers to underestimate the difficulty of something like video editing because if it’s done right, you don’t notice it. But we’re told that The Last Dance was premised upon the existence of 500 hours of footage, some 3200 reels of 16mm film. 

Incidentally, on my way to praising Jason Hehir’s work, I need to also shout out the NBA Entertainment crew who gained access in the first place through careful relationship-building with Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan. Jordan was won over by a promise that he was only granting access to the film crew, not permission for release of the footage, and he in part trusted those promises because they were made by an NBA Entertainment producer with whom Jordan had built a working relationship: Andy Thompson. The amicable relationship between Jordan and Andy Thompson began when Jordan learned that Andy is the brother of Mychal Thompson—Mychal with a Y—the NBA player who won back-to-back titles with the Showtime Lakers. Additionally, NBA Entertainment shot the footage on film instead of the industry standard Betacam video, which would have been easier and much cheaper, because they correctly ascertained that shooting on film would be better preserved over time. That’s a decision with some foresight, and it speaks to the fact that those of us who followed the Jordan era knew that what we were watching was special even as we watched it. 

Of course, the assurances given to Michael Jordan have been one of the crucial controversies of the docuseries, and it’s one that’s worth talking about. Documentarian Ken Burns has of course voiced his opinion that the association of Jump 23, MJ’s film production company, with the docuseries, calls into question the series’s claims to objectivity. I think that’s a claim that’s worth taking seriously. And I made a joke on a previous podcast where I said something like “if there’s anyone who knows about forcing a narrative in a documentary, it’s Ken Burns.” I was mostly joking when I said this. I actually love Ken Burns, and I think some of his work is really instructive when talking about the way a skilled documentarian accounts for the contestability of truth and the influence of the documentarian’s, the subjects, and the viewer’s individual perspectives. Ken Burns navigates this well in his docuseries Baseball. I think if you look at Baseball, it covers parts of the history of the game that MLB might prefer people forgot about: the wholesale handing-over of the fate of the game to Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who was unequivocally bad for racial justice in the game of baseball. But I’d argue that Burns’s docuseries by and large makes the claim that in spite of the sins baseball has committed, it’s still a beautiful game, and one that inspires the human spirit so much that it’s worth standing by. In a way, Burns’s docuseries validates the notion that a project like this can care about objectivity and still end up praising its subject. 

And if Burns or anyone else doubts that Jason Hehir even had the option to be critical of Jordan, I personally think that’s a pretty fair assessment with reasonable support. Horace Grant has been quoted saying that the documentary is 90% bullshit. When I look at the specific allegation Grant makes of the documentary, it boils down to MJ saying Horace was the source for the Sam Smith book, and Horace denying it. I’d argue that it’s a stretch to suggest the documentary takes MJ’s side here. This is just my reading, but when I watched that exchange, I thought the most logical conclusion I could draw was probably that Jordan is convinced it was Grant, and that Grant’s denial was equally sincere. What Grant also claims is that the docuseries cut out interview footage critical of Jordan, implying that Grant himself made such statements on camera. I see no reason to doubt that this happened.  

Yet Hehir has appeared on ESPN’s Jalen and Jacoby: The Aftershow immediately after the release of each documentary episode. On these podcast episodes Hehir has consistently denied that Jordan’s PR team has muzzled the documentary. He’s described exchanges with people on Jordan’s team, and my reading of his description of the exchanges is that Hehir has been willing to stand up for his directorial independence, even as the existence of these exchanges proves that Jordan’s PR team definitively did attempt to undermine that independence, even if it did so by means of persuasion rather than coercion. It matters whether or not people believe that The Last Dance has a reasonable claim to make in support of its journalistic and historical integrity. Due to the timing of the documentary’s release during the sportsless pandemic of 2020, watching The Last Dance week-by-week has been a communal sports-watching experience—that much is evident based on the number of sports and pop culture podcasts talking about it. So to some extent The Last Dance has already successfully staked a claim to some spot in the zeitgeist. I think we’re all still negotiating where precisely that spot will be. 

 Then there’s the even-less-straightforward question of what effect, if any, this docuseries will have on Michael Jordan’s place in sports culture. Rumors emerged before the series came out that Jordan was worried that its depiction of him would be unfavorable. I believe these rumors were part of the MJ hype machine. Episode 7 of the series—my favorite episode by a mile, incidentally—tackled this issue head-on. The episode’s emotional crescendo comes when Hehir, off-camera, asks Jordan: “Through the years, do you think that intensity has come at the expense of being perceived as a nice guy?” Jordan considers Hehir for a moment, making a facial expression that seems to suggest that Jordan finds the question worthy of his consideration even if it stings to hear it. Then Jordan monologues: 

“Winning has a price, and leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. And I earned that right because my teammates came after me. They didn’t endure all the things that I endured… once you joined the team you lived at a certain standard that I played the game, and I wasn’t going to take anything less. Now, if that means I had to go in there and get in your ass a little bit, then I did that… You ask all my teammates, the one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn’t fuckin’ do. When people see this, they’re going to say, well, he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant. Well that’s you, because you never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well.” 

The Last Dance, Episode VII

Interspersed with footage from practices and games, it’s some really skillful narrative editing, I’d argue. The screen comes back to Jordan, who finishes his monologue by saying, “Look, I don’t have to do this. I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.” Jordan, on the verge of tears, then calls for a break, and the episode ends. It’s an undeniably compelling moment that might lay bare what Jordan’s message to the world is, what I’ve called “The Jordan Doctrine”: that nice guys finish last. That Jordan’s unparalleled greatness on the basketball court, which is frankly undeniable, is a product, at least in part, of his antagonism. He’s Jack Nicholson as Col. Jessup screaming that we can’t handle the truth. Did Michael Jordan order the code red? You’re god damn right he did. What I wish Hehir had asked at some point, is this: so you say that winning and leadership have a price. Are you still paying it? Has it been worth it? Because legend and fact had conspired to tell us much of this already. We knew MJ was capable of pettiness. We heard it in his hall of fame speech. We knew the Lebradford Smith story. In my opinion, we had regarded it as evidence of his greatness. We rarely talked about Michael Jordan the jerk because instead of jerk we said ultimate competitor. Rarely did we stop to think, if Jordan had been a nice guy, would he have failed to win 6 titles? If that’s his argument, I’m inclined to concede he might be right. But I’d also ask how many titles could he have won if he had treated his teammates with dignity and professional respect? And what number would we accept if we could put a number on it? Can 3 rings outshine 6, if the 3 are won with better personal and professional ethics? 

Thinking about this aspect of MJ makes me consider a few NFL coaches. Jimmy Johnson was fired as the Dallas Cowboys’ head coach in the offseason immediately following his second consecutive Super Bowl win. His successor, Barry Switzer, would win the Cowboys a third Super Bowl in the 90s using mostly the roster that Johnson had assembled, including, of course, Troy Aikman at quarterback. In the years since his retirement, Aikman has spoken publicly about how much he preferred playing under Jimmy Johnson precisely because of Johnson’s disciplinarian tendencies. One story Johnson himself has told is of the time he cut a kicker from the roster because the kicker told Johnson he suffered from asthma. Johnson pointed to the parking lot and told the kicker, “the asthma field is over there, go over there and have you some damn asthma.” Conversely, there are no legends of Barry Switzer’s discipline. Aikman argues that Switzer’s more forgiving approach to coaching his players made it so that Aikman himself was forced to become the team’s disciplinarian. According to Aikman, it made him a less effective quarterback and made the game joyless for him. Isn’t there a pretty reasonable argument to be made that Jordan lost his ability to find joy in the game of basketball at least twice? Should that affect his legacy? I also think about Bill Parcells. Parcells was a disciplinarian too, but the legends of Parcells as a motivator often depict him intentionally playing mind games with the players and coaches under his charge, as though Parcells is a man with remarkable emotional intelligence who simply decided that he would wield it as a weapon and never use it as a balm. Is that who Michael is, too? 

In some ways The Last Dance got Michael Jordan to show us a bit more of him than we’ve ever seen before. But in some ways, what it couldn’t or wouldn’t show us is a question that people will continue to ask. When Hehir asked Steve Kerr if he and Michael had ever discussed the trauma of losing their fathers to violent crimes, and Kerr said no, his answer contained a hint of an alibi for Jordan. It would’ve been too painful for each of us, he said. In that moment I wanted Hehir to cut to a shot of him handing an iPad to Jordan to show him that discussion. Not because it would be good filmmaking—I think there’s an argument to be made that it would be emotionally manipulative—but because I yearned for evidence that Michael Jordan feels human compassion for people who don’t penetrate his most exclusive inner circle, which by all accounts includes his immediate family and a few security guards who earned his trust over the years. But that silence could be one of honest omission by Hehir. Perhaps less easy to explain is the apparent nonexistence of Craig Hodges, Luc Longley, Jordan’s two seasons with the Washington Wizards, and Jordan’s lack of success as principle owner of the Charlotte Hornets. Are we owed an explanation for these silences? And can we find meaning and value in our experience of The Last Dance even if those explanations never come?

It’s easy to read some potentially problematic tendencies in Jordan’s personality. It definitely seems like Jordan at times tried to avoid dealing with painful emotions by inventing and fostering petty grievances, and by investing large parts of his self-worth in winning these conflicts. But who are we to judge him for that? We expected so much of him, and we act like his profits from sponsorship deals and Space Jam entitle us to judge how he met those expectations. We feel as if by dropping $125 on a pair of Jordans we’re not just buying shoes but his image as well, so he’d better take care of it. You tell me if you’d put up some walls between yourself and the public if some of the public openly declared their suspicion that you caused your father’s murder. Tell me- if you were Michael Jordan, wouldn’t you find it safer to hide Michael Jordan the human being from the public, and give them only Michael Jordan the brand? Ultimately as viewers we have to acknowledge that this is a person who has consistently, and with good reason, felt surveilled and scrutinized by the attention that accompanied the adoration he earned. And we have to acknowledge ourselves and our interest in him as part of the surveillance structure that produces the enigmas about Michael Jordan that we’re frustrated we can’t solve.

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