‘Last Dance’ brings a perspective to the Michael Jordan Bulls that couldn’t be had at the time
Sometimes the past needs to sit before all its different textures can be seen.
Distance, the social kind, is the only distance we seem to know these days. Believe it or not, kids, there’s a different kind, one that accompanies the passage of time. It brings understanding and perspective.
That variety of distance has become a foreign concept. Social media has brought on a chorus line of knee-jerk reactions and a sprint to the next outrage. Pedal to the metal is how we roll now.
The beauty of ESPN’s “The Last Dance’’ is in its time, space and separation. In its distance. For years, Michael Jordan had blocked behind-the-scenes footage of the 1997-98 Bulls season from seeing the light of day. He finally gave his permission, and he and we are blessed with seeing everything with new eyes 22 years later.
And what a beautiful, messy, involved sight it is.
It’s great to see Jordan, sprawled on a chair, talking so candidly about that season, those players and that era. When he was in the thick of his playing career, we didn’t get 25 percent of that. We didn’t get it 10 years after he retired. Sometimes the past needs to sit before all its different textures can be seen.
And there’s Phil Jackson, often a sphinx, speaking with his feet on the ground and his head not in the clouds. In “The Last Dance,’’ he’s relaxed and open, enough time having passed that he feels comfortable speaking at length about the challenges and issues that came with coaching the Bulls. There’s a lot of wisdom here, and not just from the Zen Master.
“Straight-up bitches,’’ Horace Grant says in Episode 4 of the Pistons, who walked off the floor without shaking Bulls players’ hands after losing in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals.
OK, maybe don’t file that one under “wisdom.’’ Put it in whatever category allows people to say something they couldn’t have said publicly 20 years ago without it being cloaked in ellipses or a parenthetical bleep. (We’re oh-so modern now, but it’s still a bit jarring to hear F-bombs being dropped left and right in ESPN’s documentary. When did that wall get knocked down?)
Distance is a wonderful thing.
How does it work today? If you’re Dwyane Wade, you retire in 2019 and the documentary about you comes out in 2020. It’s called “D. Wade: Life Unexpected.’’ The life might have been unexpected, the doc wasn’t.
No shot at Wade, who obviously is looking to be more than a basketball star, but what’s lacking is mystique. Twenty years after the fact, there was still a lot we didn’t know about Jordan and the Bulls. Don’t you feel like you know everything about Wade already? About LeBron James? I know more than I want to know.
It always felt like Kobe Bryant believed he was being studied and idolized. It always felt like he adjusted his comments, attitude and facial expressions to fit whatever he thought the moment called for. It always felt like he was playing a role.
Jordan was playing cards with his teammates.
That was the difference between the two men. One was intent on creating an aura. The other was intent on beating the crap out of his opponent in a game, any kind of game. That comes through in “The Last Dance.’’ It’s called “honesty’’ and “genuineness.’’ It’s not always pretty.
And it’s not just Jordan.
There’s Scottie Pippen, something of a lost, needy soul. It’s not just money he wants. It’s respect. And, OK, it’s money. There’s no hiding his petulance. That’s real, and it’s why the series is so good.
There’s Dennis Rodman, still trying to explain himself to the world and still not quite being able to do so. Possibly because, when you really get down to it, there’s really not much to explain.
And Jordan, the star then and the star now, finally telling it like it is and was.
It might feel like yesterday to some of you, but yesterday wasn’t this interesting. Yesterday was as exciting as hell on the court, but it didn’t have this context to it. It couldn’t, by definition. Time often needs to pass before we see something as it really was. That’s what “The Last Dance’’ is.
You find yourself 22 years removed from those days, and the world looks a whole lot different. You can see it in Jordan’s twinkling eyes, and you can hear it in his comments. It’s quite a distance. A great distance.