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Padding the Stats: Last Word on ‘The Last Dance’

May 20, 2020

For the last five weeks, Sunday night was appointment television for sports fans across the country. ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” the 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls delivered in five installments, was exactly what the country needed and I shared what it meant to my family after the first two episodes.

Now, the docu-series is complete. We’ve seen all 10 parts and I’ve had a couple days to digest everything we got to see.

First of all, enormous props go out to the ESPN crew for pulling off moving it up. According to the directer, Jason Hehir, they had only finished the first four episodes when the COVID-19 pandemic shut the country down. In fact, the final episode wasn’t ready to go until Thursday of last week. The production crew did an incredible job of finishing this thing while facing a serious time crunch and difficult working conditions.

ESPN and Heir’s team were rewarded for their effort with outstanding ratings throughout the five-week series. However, I’ve found the discourse around it to be interesting.

First, let’s start with the positives. From a strictly entertainment value perspective, it was an incredible watch. I was sitting there on the couch with my family each and every Sunday with the volume turned up to the max (sorry to the people in neighboring apartments). The music and the highlights interspersed between the interviews and other segments were terrific. While we didn’t quite get as much as I was hoping for from the exclusive footage from the ’97-98 season, what we did get was interesting and certainly added to the overall storytelling and separated it from other projects on the Jordan Bulls.

The other thing that separated it was the Jordan interviews. We’ve never really heard him speak as openly and extensively about his career and experiences as we did in this docu-series, or at least I haven’t. Besides the tremendous meme material, the interviews provided some terrific insight as well as some wonderful television — mostly when the interviewer handed him the iPad to listen to clips from other interviews.

I’ve read Jordan’s auto-biography, “For the Love of the Game: My Story.” I’ve watched old games and seen highlight clips and box scores and I’ve heard the stories of his accomplishments. But this docu-series brought all of that to light like never before. For those that lived through it all, it sent a wave of nostalgia washing over them, and for the younger crowd, it might have been their first real extensive introduction to who Michael Jordan is and was.

With all that being said, “The Last Dance” has its detractors, including someone who participated in it. Horace Grant was not too pleased with the final product, and although there might be some bitterness between he and Jordan coloring his testimony, Grant’s not wrong. Heck, the infamous Utah pizza delivery guy showed up out of nowhere to call the story Jordan and his trainer shared about a poisoned pizza nonsense.

Hehir and his crew definitely touched on some of the less-than-flattering stretches or moments of Jordan’s career, but taken as a whole, it was basically one big giant piece of Jordan propaganda. His influence in the final cut was obvious, though that should have been expected considering ESPN couldn’t even use the behind-the-scenes footage until Jordan gave the OK.

What this documentary has done is continue to build up and reinforce the Jordan mythology, to further paint him as a larger-than-life figure. His biggest moments are iconic in a way that perhaps no other basketball player can hope to match, and this docu-series brought them all back and put them on center stage once again. 

Perhaps the one thing this series tried to reinforce more than anything else is the fierce competitiveness, the maniacal will to win that drove him in everything he did. That spilled over to his interactions with his teammates; he was brutal to them at times (especially poor Scott Burrell, who somehow became a main character in the series as the primary target of Jordan’s bullying despite being a just bit player on that ’97-98 team). 

However, the Bulls weren’t necessarily as successful as they were because Jordan acted the way he did. Correlation is not always causation. It worked for him, but that doesn’t mean it was the best way or that it would work in any situation or that it should be emulated. Phil Jackson was a special kind of coach and Scottie Pippen was a special kind of second option.

ESPN’s Pablo Torre articulated my thoughts on the matter better than I could, so give this a listen and pretend I said it. 

You can strive to work as hard as Jordan did, but unless you’re the absolute best at what you do, I’d advise against trying to emulate Jordan in other ways.

Speaking of, that’s another thing I’ve seen on social media that bothered me: that this documentary somehow cements Jordan as the greatest player of all time or that it proves that someone like LeBron James doesn’t even belong in the discussion. ESPN put out that ridiculous Jordan versus James fan poll on Scott Van Pelt’s SportsCenter after episode 10 that had Jordan winning every category (including “better passer”) in a landslide. They just ran 10 hours of Jordan propaganda while James was stuck quarantining at home; how did they think that was going to go? What was the point?

Jordan probably is the GOAT, but nothing in the documentary made his case any stronger or more clear considering his career statistics, accomplishments and highlights are all just a few key strokes away, and those are all much more relevant than a documentary designed to make him look good.

For whatever flaws “The Last Dance” may have had, it was incredibly entertaining and, as I wrote before, it was exactly what sports fans needed at this time. And now that it’s over, it’s leaving a big void behind it. ESPN will try to fill that gap with new 30 for 30 films on Lance Armstrong, Bruce Lee and Sammy Sosa/Mark McGwire, but it won’t be the same. I know I’m personally not really interested in any of them. 

However, one good thing that came out of our “The Last Dance” viewings is that, as a family, we’re planning to continue to get together every Sunday moving forward just like we have been to eat dinner and perhaps find something different to watch. My brother already has a movie picked out for this week.

So thank you once again, ESPN. Thank you Jason Hehir and thank you Michael Jordan. The last five weeks have been a heck of a ride.

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