Sometimes God looks down from the heavens and remembers that he loves us, and that is the only explanation for why the The Last Dance dropped during the darkest year in modern American history. Now that those without ESPN can catch it on Netflix and ride the high our friends with cable were all on back in the springtime, be ye not discouraged. We can, and will, get through these harrowing times. Air Jordan will raise us up on his wings.
At the time of its release, Ken Burns let it be known that he is not a fan of The Last Dance because Michael Jordan is both the subject and executive producer of the series. Ken Burns says that this is not the way one ethically “does” journalism or history. Well, my love for a good 37-hour, celebrity narrated PBS deep dive aside, Ken Burns is going to have to take a seat on this one, because as Reggie Miller reminded all of us in episode 9, you don’t talk trash about Black Jesus.
Kenny’s were, alas, not the only thumbs down. Early reviews, when critics wanted to slap a judgment on the whole mess after seeing just two episodes, struck an oddly familiar tone. You could pull any number of snarky sports columns from the mid-90s up and lay them against the critical response to The Last Dance and you’d likely find some phrase matches. As the great Homeric poet once wrote, haters gonna hate. The same old gripes resurface: Jordan’s a control freak, a grudge holder, a bully, an image more than a man, a black celebrity who hasn’t taken enough of a stand on issues of racial justice (many of these reviews came prior to the murder of George Floyd and Michael Jordan’s $100 million dollar investment in advancing the cause of racial justice). Some new gripes emerge: the series is overtly biased and provides too much cover for Jordan’s shortcomings, Jerry Krause is bullied by both the participants and the production, and this so-called “warts and all” documentary is more like a trophy polishing session.
Take it from this elder millennial 90s NBA superfan: good job, idiots. You missed the entire point of the series.
The Last Dance is to OJ: Made in America what apples are to ice cream trucks, so do yourself a favor and skip any review that attempts to compare the two. OJ: Made in America is an in-depth exploration of systemic racism, policing, celebrity, and Blackness in America. The Last Dance is, very intentionally, straight up fan service to an exhausted and demoralized American millennial generation that is sick and tired of explaining to the baby Z’s why basketball will never be as good as it used to be. (Reader: it just never will. Don’t @ me.) That’s what makes it so good! The fact that Jordan produced it confirms that he still understands we cannot live on bread alone, even sixteen years after he left the court for good.
The Last Dance is a perfume-scented love letter to everyone who can still sing the NBA On NBC theme music. It’s wrapped in more game tape than a goddamn mummy. Every shitty headline a hack ever penned gets excavated from the clip file for an owning. It spends no more than 90 seconds acknowledging Space Jam. (Importantly for this fan, it also brings the receipts when Isiah Thomas pretends to be mystified about his rep and tries to claim that Jordan’s pettiness, and not Thomas’ well-photographed propensity for being a sore loser, resulted in him not getting picked for the ’92 Dream Team.) It’s soundtracked with just about every essential rap jam from late 80s to the early 00s. You even get a few requisite Spike cutting up courtside clips. President Barack Obama gets chyron’d merely as “former Chicago resident”. It’s edited with the same manic energy we now-ancient mils once employed when recounting our favorite game highlights to each other the next morning in homeroom.
The Last Dance is exactly what all God’s children need in 2020: a high-dollar time machine that takes you to a place where there are no pandemics, where Trump is just a distant, meaningless, east coast punchline, and triple overtime means you get to stay up late on a school night. In The Last Dance Michael Jordan gives us ten more hours of what he gave us for the nearly twenty years he spent in the NBA: superior entertainment, delight, and thrill. He affords us an honest but measured look into the work required to achieve greatness and the sacrifice made to sustain it. And in doing so, he also makes a powerful point about the media’s love of building up a myth and then brutally dismantling it, an inclination that even some of the best critics and pundits have unwittingly given into yet again with their needlessly negative takes on the series.
A Greek chorus of every sportscaster and sportswriter you remember from the period (less one scandal-hexed Marv Albert) pulls up a chair to gird the footage and player interviews with critical history lessons about Basketball of Yore. Ahmad Rashad in particular manifests his physical presence like an immortal sage, flanked by the icy marble of what might be his dining room or could just be the sacred temple where retired Inside Stuff anchors trade their war stories, offering heartrending and hilarious details from his lifelong friendship with Jordan.
And nearly every great, living player or coach you hope would weigh in does, going all the way back to the Carolina days. I won’t spoil all the surprises, but some of these things you could guess before they materialize, and they’re still damn entertaining. Scottie Pippen quietly muses that he wouldn’t have done anything differently when he’s asked about that third game against the Knicks, you know the one, when he refused to come off the bench after Phil Jackson positioned Kukoc to hit that final jumper. Carmen Electra admits to hiding in a hotel closet when Jordan showed up to extract an AWOL Rodman from his infamous Vegas vacation. Pat Riley, looking like some ancient wizard, phones in some playoff memories from the lanai of his retirement home. And in addition to almost all of the original members of those core championship Bulls squads, competitors like Magic, Ewing, Salley, Barkley, Stockton, Rice, Byrd, Rose—and of course the aforementioned god of the 3-point shot, one Reggie Miller—plus many more, all graciously descend from Mt. Olympus to describe what it was like to actually play in those games that had all of us screaming at our TV sets.
And reader, we haven’t even gotten to Black Jesus yet.
When first he speaks, the Greatness, as we all knew he would be, is the ultimate elder statesman. Appointed simply with a crystal tumbler of Very Expensive Tequila or an idling cigar, positioned in his chair like a Roman emperor, Jordan offers his narrative with an economy of words and a perceptible depth of emotion. Critics have continued to misunderstand much of his supposed “grudge holding”—which Rashad accurately points out was acutally a deliberate mental tactic of Jordan’s more than an incurable personality flaw. He talks candidly, but not contritely, about the ways in which he was hard on his teammates, reaching tears when he explains that it wasn’t simply because of his own personal desire for victory, but his desire to share victory with his teammates. He similarly makes no apologies for his gambling, his refusal to weigh in on politics, or his perceived aloofness toward the press. And he doesn’t need to.
He comes across as actualized rather than curated, and that means not everything he says or does is going to be immediately pleasing or acceptable to his audience. Encountering an actualized individual in today’s media culture tends to evoke a visceral and polarizing reaction from critics and viewers who have grown used to performative personas that they can readily dismantle. But you can’t do that with somebody who only knows how to be themselves. While he’s never offensive or argumentative, Jordan’s confidence is sincere, not manufactured, and thus he won’t dial it up or down to make it more palatable for others. It’s a quality that leaves even those he butted heads with to acknowledge that while they may view certain events differently, it doesn’t diminish the fundamental respect they can sustain for one another as individuals.
Some critics feel that the greatest flaw of the series is the way it supposedly shields Jordan from too much examination. I don’t fully agree with that. For one thing, Jordan’s lived under a public microscope for the last forty-odd years of his life; even things he tried to keep secret (Slim Bouler, hush money to a mistress, front office disputes, fights with teammates in practice) have all eventually come out in the wash. Though he could have used his production credit to rehab those events, he shows pretty remarkable restraint, mainly because like most grown people, he owns the good with the bad. Despite his legendary generosity to his fans, particularly the neediest among them, there’s a striking humility about his years of philanthropy and personal connections made, and a perceptible sense of privacy and protectiveness regarding family and friendships. Good for him.
There is also a sharp sliver of grief about the murder of his father which will feel immediately familiar to anyone who’s tried to go back to work, or just go on living, after losing somebody vitally important to them. There’s the weight of seeking and subsequently also mourning father figures he sought in the aftermath of his father’s death. Steve Kerr makes the rather insightful point that these things aren’t talked about (his own father was murdered by terrorists when he was a college student) not necessarily because they are too private, but because they’re simply too painful. In today’s reality-TV fueled, no-holds-barred social media culture, it might feel jarring to younger viewers to consider that there was a time where being a professional meant working to establish definite boundaries in the furtherance of one’s mental and emotional well being.
I could go on, but I don’t want to give it all away. I’ll tell you that The Last Dance is the first thing that’s engrossed me so deeply that I didn’t think about the pandemic. I didn’t think about the election. I didn’t doomscroll instead of pay attention. It’s that good.
If this review sounds gushing and hyperbolic and intensely biased, that’s because it absolutely is. I am squarely in the target audience for The Last Dance and I love it. Not that many things exist purely for the unironic joy of elder millennials these days, so hell yes, I am going to roll around in this for a good long while. Basketball was better then, and kids today may never understand it, but this series will certainly get them close.
Being a basketball fan in the 90s meant not just loving your favorite team, but loving a cadre of individual and equally extraordinary players scattered across the league. Jordan was the greatest of them all, and he made everyone around him that much greater by association. He brought the sport to its zenith not only because of his athletic prowess but because of his personality—one that could be as mercurial and mischievous as it was composed and curated. He did all of his best work live on TV at a time when basketball was still carried exclusively on network television—and thus readily accesible to anyone with an antenna rather than an expensive cable subscription. It was a different sport then, for a lot of reasons, but largely because it belonged to everyday people in a way that few things still do.
Interviewed in The Last Dance, Jordan seems keenly aware of how a man meets the moment. And meeting the moment was what that last great season was all about. If you weren’t there when it all went down, or if you long for a heady whiff of the old glory days, hop in the time machine and let Black Jesus deliver you to heaven.