Sports is theater: A review of ‘The Last Dance’

Anyone who is automatically enthralled with Michael Jordan’s win-at-all-costs antics is in need of some empathy, but people who couldn’t enjoy what they were watching in The Last Dance are in need of some cojones. 

Jason Hehir’s documentary on the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty in the 1990s that aired on ESPN this spring, while the country was in the thick of a worldwide pandemic, divided viewers. 

Either you think that Jordan is a gambling-addicted bully that needed Scottie Pippen and the Triangle Offense to help him win NBA championships, or you think Mike is just being a leader that tells his team what they need to hear in order to be successful. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, because that’s just the nature of athletics and fame, but it was interesting to see everyone argue about this again.

For the record, it is likely that both things are true: The way Jordan treated his teammates to maintain a “competitive edge” is at the very least petty and sometimes even reprehensible. The only reason why he was able to do that is because he’s Michael Jordan and they aren’t. It’s easy to berate somebody who has no chance of standing up to you on the court. 

MJ teased Scott Burrell because he was a bench player that had no agency on the Bulls. If you noticed, Dennis Rodman missed practices and Mike said nothing. That’s because Rodman would bite Jordan’s face off if he spoke to him the way he spoke to Burrell. MJ would argue that he didn’t have to do that because Rodman always showed up ready to play. That’s fair, but it is more likely that MJ knows who he can push around and who he can’t. 

At the same time, the best parts of this documentary were when Mike was being a charming grinch in the interview forum and when he’s verbally bullying Jerry Krause. Every time producers gave him the iPad and had him react to something or someone, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. 

Sometimes he would make the type of face that you’d make when someone is saying something that feels like bullshit to him. On other occasions he would literally start laughing like he did at Gary Payton. He’s ruthless, cunning, hilarious, and the type of person that you never want to cross. Getting his reaction feels like getting the reaction to someone who is obsessed with having the last word. 

Jordan doesn’t have a gambling problem or a problem with authority; he has a problem with not having the last word. He has a competition problem. That’s essentially what this is all about: a man who is content and focused on getting his. If he leads the team to the championship, he’s content. He wouldn’t have wanted to play the Pippen role. 

A key moment happens in the seventh episode: By the end of the episode, the documentary is getting his former teammates’ reaction on who Mike was as a person. BJ Armstrong said that he couldn’t have been a good person if he wanted to be the greatest player of all-time, as if greatness and decency are binary. 

While the documentary shows MJ running suicide drills and working out as if he was the only person doing so, he’s making a passionate defense to why he was a tyrant as a teammate. He pointed to the camera and said “you never won anything” and began to get choked up. 

When the episode ends when he says “break,” you don’t even realize how choked up he got. We’ve seen him be the supreme commander at the top. To see him get choked up doesn’t feel empathetic at all; it feels petulant. Maybe that is the way Jordan wants it. 

A lot of writers and viewers complained about how biased the documentary is towards MJ. Despite profiles on Pippen, Rodman, and Phil Jackson, it doesn’t feel like it is about them at all. It’s about how they helped Michael Jordan succeed. It is how they helped him because the single greatest entity in NBA history. It obviously is slanted, in part because he produced it, but also, in part because MJ is that good. 

I enjoyed how slanted it is towards Michael. I would rather be given the sociopathy or aloofness of a subject and be allowed to come up with my own thoughts than to be outwardly told how much of a jerk Michael Jordan is. As I said before, anyone with a brain can tell that. I still want to be entertained while watching it. 

Sports is theater and MJ still understands that better than anyone. At the end of the documentary, Tim Grover and others help MJ with his purposeful rendition of his truth. They say he was food poisoned in Utah, they say he won because he outworked everyone to greatness (not because, y’know, he was 6’6 and an athletic freak), and they give us their theories on why there will never be another player like him. 

I was reminded of crime movies and how they trick the audience and I saluted MJ for this. There’s always a rise. There are always God complexes. Frank Sheeran doesn’t know in The Irishman that he’ll end his life as a sad loner without the love of his family and friends. Henry Hill doesn’t know that he’ll end up as an anonymous vagrant in Goodfellas. But I have a feeling that The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort knows that he’ll end up teaching the next cycle of capitalist goons. There’s always bullies and fullies. 

Wouldn’t it be better if we watched someone tell us who he is? Wouldn’t it be great if we got to see what moves this maniacal man? I don’t want to be told how to think about somebody even if that person is obviously full of shit. Maybe there’s a Michael Jordan in all of us. Unfortunately, life isn’t about winning championships for regular folks like us.

Jayson Buford is a lifelong rap fan and New York based music writer who writes for The Fresh Press, Passion of the Weiss and others. He co-hosts New Music Tuesdays on the Spotify room app every Tuesday. He misses sitting up top at Madison Square Garden.



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