Michael Jordan is the dominant, commanding presence every step of the way.
From the first moment we see MJ, there’s zero doubt who’s the alpha dog, who’s running the show, who’s on the mind of everyone else.
I’m not talking about Jordan’s basketball career — though of course all of the above would be true in that case as well. I’m referring to Jordan looming like a giant throughout the 10-part documentary series about the 1990s Chicago Bulls titled “The Last Dance,” which premieres on ESPN at 8 p.m. April 19 with the first two hourlong episodes, followed by two-episode runs for the next four Sundays. I’ve seen the first eight episodes, and while some might question whether even one of the great team sports dynasties of all time merits such a lengthy treatment, if anything each episode left me wanting more. Not only were the Bulls a team for the ages, they also gave us a sports soap opera for the ages.
Often with an unlit cigar and a tumbler of something brown by his side, Jordan is candid to the point of being blunt, self-reflective, quick with a wisecrack, brutally honest when assessing a certain Bulls executive and deeply emotional — at times welling up with tears as he looks back on some painful memories. Of course, he’s the unquestioned star of “The Last Dance.” Who’d you expect, Jud Buechler? Scotty Burrell? Will Perdue?
Actually, Buechler, Burrell and Perdue provide some valuable interview contributions to the series, as do Michael’s more well-known former teammates and opponents, including Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Gary Payton and Isiah Thomas. Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and former Bulls coach Phil Jackson also gave generously of their time and insights, as did a host of journalists who covered the 1990s Bulls — and a former state senator by the name of Barack Obama, who says he was a huge fan of the team but couldn’t even afford nosebleed seats at the time.
Director Jason Hehir wisely eschews voice-over narration in favor of straightforward graphics and animated timelines framing each episode and putting events in perspective. “The Last Dance” begins near the end of the Jordan-led dynasty and then hops back and forth in time throughout the series — an unnecessary flourish. There’s so much rich material, so much game-changing basketball history, so many powerful dramatic moments off the court, there’s no clear purpose to so much bending of the linear timeline.
The archival footage is priceless, whether we’re reliving some of the greatest moments from the Bulls’ six championship seasons or cracking up at the period-piece hairstyles and fashion choices. Early on, we’re reminded of just how woeful the Bulls were when they drafted Jordan in 1984. The Chicago Sting soccer team was routinely outdrawing the Bulls, a team of underachieving party animals known as “The Bulls Traveling Cocaine Circus.” Jordan recalls entering the hotel room of a teammate and seeing nearly the entire squad knee-deep in debauchery: “[There were] things I had never seen in my life. You got your lines over here, your weed over there, your women over there. … I’m out. I was more or less on my own.”
Some of my favorite moments in “The Last Dance” are when Jordan is handed a tablet to watch a replay of an interview conducted for the documentary. He smiles warmly when he sees his mother, Deloris, reading aloud from a letter MJ had sent to her when he was in college, in which he asks for money because he has only $20 in his account and could she send him some stamps as well? He laughs uproariously when Gary “The Glove” Payton of the Seattle Supersonics talks about how Seattle might have downed the Bulls in the 1996 NBA Finals if only Payton had been allowed to guard Jordan the entire series.
And then there’s Isaiah Thomas of those dreaded Detroit “Bad Boys” Pistons, who defends the Pistons skulking off the court without shaking hands after the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. An incredulous Jordan listens to Thomas’ rationalization and says, “Well I know it’s all bull----. Whatever he says now, you know it [doesn’t reflect] his true actions then. … There’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an ass----.”
The long-form narrative affords the filmmakers the opportunity to dive deep into the most famous (and infamous) chapters of the 1990s Bulls saga, from the escalating tensions between GM Jerry Krause and the players and Jackson; to Jordan’s gambling issues; to the shocking murder of Jordan’s father; to MJ’s stunning retirement and his foray into minor league baseball; to the arrival of one-man circus Dennis Rodman; to Jordan constantly berating and pushing his teammates to do better, try harder, play tougher.
MJ reveals the fist pump after he hit The Shot against the Cavaliers was directed at doubters, including media pundits who predicted the Bulls would lose the series: “All you ------- can go to hell.” After we see a number of former teammates saying they loved Michael and treasure playing with him but he was not necessarily a good person to them, Jordan says he never asked any teammate to work harder than he did. His eyes mist as he says, “If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way…” and then calls for a break in filming as he walks off camera.
Even in the present day, nobody wants to win more than Michael Jordan.