Sport Editor Adam Robertson reviews the acclaimed documentary The Last Dance.
In recent years, obsessions with documentaries have been on the rise. Predominantly, these documentaries revolve around true crime stories as Netflix continues to plunge much of its funding into producing these. Indeed, I imagine many of us passed a few hours of lockdown watching the extraordinary world of Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin in Tiger King and, only a few days ago, a documentary about Jeffrey Epstein was released. Surprisingly though, there are few sports documentaries which have received as much attention and plaudits as the recent exploration of the 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty – The Last Dance.
For whatever reason, the sports documentary often seems like one that is hard to nail down. This is not to say that a sports documentary is necessarily always bad, but they never seem to garner the same attention as a Planet Earth or a Blackfish. Amazon have done their best with their All or Nothing series which have focused on such teams as the All Blacks as well as capturing the Manchester City centurion team. Perhaps what makes The Last Dance so successful is that it is not just an insight into the world of professional basketball, but also into 90s popular culture with the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan at the centre.
The show uses the Bull’s last championship win in 1998 as its focal point and provides flashbacks to highlight the rise of many of the dynasty’s best players, predominantly Jordan, but also Scottie Pippin, Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr as well as providing interviews from many of the team’s two “three-peats” – which seen them win six championships in the space of just a decade. The series also benefits from a wide range of voices from in and around the game. It is not just the players who get a say in how this story is told, and given that for many it is likely to be the first time they have heard it with any level of detail, it is helpful to here from scholars, personal trainers, family members and experienced journalists who covered the Bulls for a long time.
Perhaps though, the reason for my enjoyment of The Last Dance lies in my ignorance of the world of professional basketball. I imagine a lack of awareness of the sport is something many UK readers will share. I mean, I’m sure we’ve all seen Space Jam but other than that, I myself knew little about Jordan, his team or the iconic moments and images that come along with them. The series thus does an excellent job at never alienating its viewers and maintaining your attention for all ten episodes. At no stage did I feel confused by the rules, regulations or system under which the league was run nor did I feel like it was dragging anything out.
In spite of all the plaudits it has rightfully earned though, the documentary does occasionally fall into the “good-guy” versus “bad-guy” narrative that is commonplace throughout much of sports filmmaking, be it fictional or not. This is most evident through its presentation of the Bull’s biggest rivals in the late eighties and early nineties – the Detroit Pistons. Depicted as nothing more than a bunch of aggressive, hyper-masculine bullies, the series’ reflection on Isiah Thomas and co almost makes you forget that this was a team which won successive championships in 1989 and 1990.
At the same time, the filmmakers, Michael’s opponents down the years and indeed many of his own team-mates refuse to pull any punches on the athlete’s persona and the lengths he would go to in order to win. You should not expect to come out of this thinking that Michael Jordan was in some way a “nice guy” and it’s something Jordan is happy to openly admit. For much of the documentary, what is most fascinating is not the fact that the Bulls won so much but rather the commitment and will to win that was more interesting. As incredible as it was to see highlights of the team, the series was at its best when it went behind the scenes and tried to show just how these men tick.
Moreover, the series’ greatest achievement is that it is a documentary to be enjoyed not just by basketball fans but for anybody interested in sports. As incredible as watching Michael Jordan is purely from an athletic point of view, it cannot provide the same sense of nostalgia that a golf fan would feel watching Tiger Wood’s old highlights or that a tennis fan may feel at seeing Andy Murray win Wimbledon for the first time. This is where its focus on pop culture comes in helpful. As Barack Obama alludes to in his interview, it is one thing to be a great sports star; it is another to become a cultural icon. The series shines in its middle section when we see the rise of Air Jordan’s and the NBA around the world. Alongside the Premier League in England, the early 90s saw the relationship between sport and capitalism surge to new heights. As Jordan and co only got better, so to did they bring huge new commercial benefits to the league.
Whilst this is not a series which necessarily gets right to the heart of Michael Jordan, and that was unlikely to ever be its intention, it is one which captures him as exactly what he wanted to be perceived as – a winner. Even his own team-mates say he was generally somebody hard to read and Phil Jackson in particular talks of his shock when Jordan had written a poem after the Bull’s final championship win. His mentality to the game though is plain and simple. Jordan’s final interview is not one filled with nostalgic sentiment for the team’s 90s success. Rather, it is in fact tinted with sadness and anger at the decision of owner Jerry Reinsdorf and the general manager, Jerry Krause, to disband the team as they believed they had finally hit their peak. The series does not end with an athlete remembering all his success but rather with a man so used to winning that all he can do is reminisce on why he did not win just once more.