Is it more important to be respected or liked? Most everyone wants to be both, but only a few achieve that goal. The rest of us scrap for one or the other. They’re not always mutually exclusive, but they often are.
Exhibit A: Michael Jordan, one of—if not the—greatest basketball players of all time was a 14-time NBA All-Star, five-time NBA Most Valuable Player, six-time NBA champion, and six-time NBA Finals MVP. Note the last two: MJ went six-and-oh in the finals, something none of the greats can claim, and something none of the current greats will get to claim. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have both walked off the wrong side of the hardwood in the finals twice; LeBron James has done it five times.
Jordan was a basketball phenom and a scoring machine. He made everyone around him better players. He elevated the game, taking the NBA from 80 countries to over 200 during his two-decade tenure. He became a household name and a slogan, “Be like Mike.” He was also a bully, a ruthless competitor, and unapologetic in his pursuits—on or off the court. Twenty years later, he’s still standing by it.
The Last Dance, the 10-part documentary from director Jason Hehir for ESPN Films and Netflix, covers all that and a lot more. Each episode runs roughly 50 minutes and is structured around the Chicago Bulls’ final season and the run-up to their sixth championship, their second three-peat.
Jordan is the draw, and the majority of the documentary is filtered through his perspective. His interviews to camera either introduce or comment on archival footage pulled from the 1980s and ’90s, much of it coming from another documentary crew that was allowed all-access during Jordan’s final season with the Bulls. Much of it has never been seen before because much of it is superfluous. It’s nice to see Jordan interacting with Make-A-Wish kids before and after the games, cutting it up with his security details, and recounting the old days to recruits, but it adds little to the bloated running time of The Last Dance. You can cover a lot of ground in two hours of cinema. With 10 hours, you could tell the history of the world.
Jordan shares the spotlight, somewhat, with teammates Scottie Pippen (Ep. 2), Dennis Rodman (Ep. 3), Steve Kerr (Ep. 8), and coach Phil Jackson (Ep. 4). Frankly, Jackson’s career should get the 10-hour treatment: Two championships with the New York Knicks as a player, six championships with the Bulls as a coach, and another five with the Los Angeles Lakers. And Jackson left the Bulls following three championships, took a year off, and then joined the Lakers, winning another three championships in a row. Yes, he had Jordan on one team and Kobe Bryant on the other, but neither Jordan nor Bryant won a championship without Jackson.
Hehir uses the Bulls’ 1997-98 season to flashback through the career of Jordan (he does not flash-forward to Jordan in a Washington Wizards jersey) but keeps the focus entirely on Jordan’s career. Gambling and Jordan’s father, James R. Jordan Sr., are discussed frequently, but only because they informed Jordan’s game. His wife and three children are almost entirely sidelined, save for a few shots in the final episode.
The result feels a little bit like hero worship. It also feels like Jordan is making a point: For me to be this good, this is what I had to do. Success does not come by waiting for things to happen; will, and will, alone make it happen. Interestingly, the documentary could have used the same footage and made the argument that Pippen’s laid back approach or Jackson’s Zen Buddhism were equally effective and yielded the same results of Jordan’s constant effort. Then again, they still needed Jordan to get there.
The Last Dance is currently available to stream on ESPN+ and will be available to stream on Netflix starting July 19.