The Last Dance, ESPN’s ten-hour commercial — excuse me, documentary — about Michael Jordan’s final year as a Chicago Bull in 1997–98, features an early sequence from 1984 of a then-rookie Jordan warming up before a game. He’s thinner, with a full head of hair. His jump shot looks awkward, not the perfection of form we’d come to know later. Young Michael is asked about the future. His future. This was so long ago the two hadn’t dovetailed yet. What does he want from his career?
“I just want the franchise, and [the] Chicago Bulls, to be respected as a team.”
The Last Dance rolls interviews with Jordan’s family, his teammates, their families, coaches, NBA executives, opponents, friends, celebrities, and, most prominently, Jordan himself to show just how much he succeeded beyond being “respected.”
The ten-part series was originally scheduled for a June release. But ESPN — recognizing a ratings colossus when it saw one — moved up the launch date to April 19 to take advantage of the dearth of live sports. The final two episodes will air this Sunday.
With The Last Dance, ESPN and Jordan himself — MJ retained authority over the final cut — are selling public relations as truth, mythmaking as historical record. The series is being promoted as a documentary. It’s not. After earning nearly $2 billion in lifetime endorsements, Jordan is hawking all that’s left to sell: himself.
The footage for The Last Dance sat in a New Jersey library for nearly twenty years, unused. When did Jordan green light the project? On June 23, 2016 — the day LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers held their victory parade after winning the NBA championship. Given that Jordan admits in the series he has a “competitive problem,” it’s not hard to imagine him agreeing to a project that boosts his mythmaking right as his historical rival is building up his own.
Jason Hehir, the director, was supposedly “shocked” that the footage and stories about Jordan’s clashes with teammates, like the time he punched Steve Kerr, are included in The Last Dance. He shouldn’t be. That story is safe to share because it doesn’t counter the Jordan mythos — it supports it. When Jordan talks about the Detroit Pistons roughing him up in the late 1980s, the implication is clear: the Pistons were violent, and that violence was bad for basketball. But when Jordan gives Kerr a black eye in practice, he’s a heroic competitor pushing himself and everyone around him because he just cares that much. The myth is always, always for sale.
And it is here that the series’ shortcomings are most pronounced: when Jordan is exempted from the same standards as everyone else. Episode five features interview clips with Kobe Bryant before he was killed in a helicopter crash in January. Bryant and LeBron are Jordan’s only successors to earn comparisons to MJ. Bryant attempts to invalidate the debate, saying: “What you get from me is from him. I don’t get five championships … without him. Because he guided me so much. He gave me so much great advice.”
It’s common for even the greatest basketball players to credit their inspirations. Earlier in the series, Jordan’s Chicago running mate, Scottie Pippen, lists Julius Erving as his hero. But over the first eight hours of The Last Dance, there is no mention of which players inspired Jordan. This is no oversight. Mortals have ancestors. MJ doesn’t.
The lack of objectivity creates yawning gaps in the storytelling, often when someone with something at stake in Jordan’s success is trying and failing to sound credible. When presenting the Bulls with their second championship trophy after the 1992 Finals, then-commissioner David Stern proclaims, “One is great. Two is almost impossible.” Yet the two years before Chicago’s titles, Detroit won back-to-back championships. The two years before that, the Los Angeles Lakers did, too. But the NBA depended on the Jordan myth for their profits explosion, so what’s a blatant lie between billionaires?
After the 1992 US Men’s Olympic team won the gold medal, Jordan, Nike’s most famous spokesman, draped an American flag over his chest to hide the Reebok logo on his official Olympic gear. Willow Bay, who worked for NBC when it televised the NBA during Jordan’s prime, says, “Michael was so singular in his competitive drive and the drive that extended to his partners like Nike that he could not bear the thought of wearing the Reebok logo on a global stage … So he covered the Reebok logo up with the United States flag. It was extraordinary.” Perhaps not as extraordinary as Jordan’s legacy as both corporate icon and apolitical void.
One criticism of MJ that has persisted over the decades is his refusal to endorse North Carolina Democrat Harvey Gantt’s 1990 Senate run against Republican Jesse Helms, the racist incumbent. (Jordan grew up in Wilmington and attended the University of North Carolina.) Jordan’s infamous defense was that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Today Jordan says that comment was made off-the-cuff as a joke to teammates. Yet he continues to defend his lack of involvement: “I wasn’t a politician. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That’s where my energy was.” Nike, McDonald’s, Gatorade, Hanes, and a host of brands could happily prove Jordan wrong on this claim. He was focused on his craft. But he was also focused on helping companies move more merchandise. That’s also where his energy was.
Of course, The Last Dance doesn’t delve into that. Even corporate successes are carefully curated. David Falk (MJ’s agent) and Sonny Vaccaro (the man who signed MJ to his first sneaker deal) are two of the biggest bold-faced names in Jordan’s ascension from athlete to icon. Falk is interviewed and discussed often. Vaccarro is never mentioned. Guess which man Nike fired in 1991?
Jordan reserves his greatest ire in the series for Jerry Krause, the former Chicago general manager who passed away three years ago. “I would never let someone who is not putting on a uniform and playing each and every day dictate what we do on a basketball court,” MJ says of Krause’s ostensibly overstepping-its-bounds front office. Jordan resented management’s attempts to interfere with the on-the-court product.
But what if we apply his words to other contexts? Nike had nothing to do with the Dream Team winning the gold medal in 1992. Surely Jordan didn’t cover up the Reebok logo in defiance of Nike’s wishes. How is the front office’s interest in the team on the floor less appropriate than a shoe company impacting a medal ceremony?
One of the ironies of success is how it can push someone away from the same conditions needed for further success. Jordan was relentless in his drive to be the best basketball player ever, and he achieved that lofty status. But his success in that job and the qualities that drove him to such heights may have created blind spots in Jordan the retiree and owner of the Charlotte Hornets. In many ways, Krause is precisely what Jordan’s flailing franchise lacks.
Krause was named general manager after Jordan’s rookie season. He orchestrated the trade to acquire Pippen fresh out of college. He hired Doug Collins, a coach Jordan loved in part for agreeing the best strategy was to get Michael the ball as much as possible, then fired Collins despite Jordan’s affection because he knew the Bulls needed something different. Krause’s first hire was Tex Winter, who designed the famed “triangle offense” that Chicago ran during all six of their championship seasons. Collins was replaced with Phil Jackson, who was on no other team’s radar and who went on to win eleven titles, more than any coach in NBA history.
Krause drafted Toni Kukoč in 1990 in the second round. He later became a key member of Chicago’s last three championships. Perhaps most impressively, Krause opposed the idea of trading for Dennis Rodman, a challenging personality who’d been with Detroit when they bullied and beat up the Bulls years earlier, but Krause listened to other voices in the front office and trusted them enough to approve the move. (Jordan’s long-term friendship with Charles Barkley ended a few years ago, after Barkley said: “As much as I love Michael, until he stops hiring them kiss-asses and his best friends, he’s never going to be successful.”)
One of the more human moments in The Last Dance occurs when Jordan complains about Krause’s pursuit of Kukoč. “Krause … he’s willing to put someone in front of his actual kids, who have given him everything that we could give him.” Many of us would struggle with Krause’s behavior. When he drafted the Croatian, the Bulls were already one of the league’s best teams, and by the time Kukoč left Europe for Chicago the Bulls had already won three championships. Yet here was Krause, openly wooing an outsider and paying him more than Pippen. Why risk rocking the boat?
Krause wasn’t content to sit on a winner. He’d inherited Jordan, the most significant piece of the puzzle, the one everyone could always point to and say, “That’s why they won.” A relentless drive to win, to do it his way, to show the world he wasn’t satisfied, even after three titles: that kept Krause going.
If anyone could appreciate those qualities in a competitor, it should be Michael Jordan. But it doesn’t fit with the myth — and the myth, like the man behind it, is now and forever still for sale.