We’ll know more when we get the notes for the first two episodes on Sunday evening The last dance, ESPN-Netflix documentary Michael Jordan who will answer the question: with the vast majority of us in our quarantine, the already well told tale of an athlete who has not played since 2003 will serve as a group conversation? In addition, The last dance do you have the goods to transport us for an additional eight hours over the next four Sundays?
My response to the last request: a definitive perhaps.
A reasonable point. But as someone who has covered Jordan for the better part of his career in the NBA, I can say: you did not go to Jordan to plug into the national zeitgeist. You went to Jordan to chronicle his basketball trips, to testify to his GOAT-ness, to write about this ferocious force of nature that never tires of dominating, to try to deconstruct this most athletic publicity that has always lived up to its hype, something very difficult to do. Which is another way of saying: you went to Jordan to watch it to play.
Besides, if Jordan was vanilla in politics, he was never a trivial figure. He could be wound up, and working for the doc is the fact that Jordan was more closed before and during the 1997-1998 season, which serves as a The last dance.
The Bulls had come out of two consecutive championships, but Scottie Pippen was injured and furious at his contract; Dennis Rodman was a heyoka here-today-gone-tomorrow, in the words of Phil Jackson (a man who walks backwards from Native American culture); and the leadership, as if propelled by a mysterious centripetal force that they did not fully understand, was determined to break the team.
So, with a team of NBA Entertainment cameras already having unlimited access, Coach Jackson – master of aphorism, creator of themed content – called the 1997-1998 season “The Last Dance”.
Phil also liked The Band. We will come back to it.
Personal admission. I would be less than honest if I said that it didn’t matter to me not to have been interviewed for the doc, even if over the years I have pontificated on Jordan and others of his generation on too many outlets to count. According to The last danceThe producers of 130, 130 subjects were interviewed on camera, so I have to be, in the comforting words of the elders Sports Illustrated colleague Michael Farber, “No. 131, for sure.
I have been scheduled at least four times to speak to the camera, but each has been canceled, one of them because, I was told, “We have to do J.T.”
Damn it, James Taylor? James Taylor in the Jordan Doc !? Must be a “Going to Carolina in My Mind” connection with MJ. But no; the singer-songwriter is not in the doc. Justin Timberlake, however, is. Among those who make current appearances, just in the first two episodes: Barack Obama, William Jefferson Clinton, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. Ten o’clock is a big canvas, so it’s best to have a lot of paint.
* * *
As for the title, it’s doubtful whether the Bulls players were fans of Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, and the boys, but in Phil Jackson’s mind lay the classic Martin Scorsese concert film in 1978 The last Waltz, which relates the last concert of The Band, which had taken place two years earlier at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.
“It was a great takeoff for this film,” Jackson told me a few days ago. “Besides, I often talked about working the triangle [offense] as a dance. I taught players to work on a 4/4 rhythm, like hip-hop time. I said, “You have two seconds to assess your position and act. If you hold the ball longer, you prevent the offense. “Jackson told me that for many nights, assistant coach Tex Winter, one of the architects of the triangle, nudged him and said,” Get out Jordan. He’s holding the ball too long. Jackson generally ignored it.
Today’s Jordan appears for the first time in episode 1, taken from behind, alone; big shiny bald head like Marsellus Wallace from Ving Rhames in pulp Fiction; left earring; Zorro’s thin stache ’; expensive watch; looking out of the window of a manor house a sky and a cerulean sea. He could be a Central American dictator in exile, which is not a terrible metaphor for Jordan, who rarely surfaces these days and once commanded comparable power and intrigue. One of the best things about the first two hours of The last dance it’s like Jordan seems to be deep down, speaking comfortably in an armchair, a glass of something smooth next to him, a cigar sometimes in his hand.
We don’t stay there long, as director Jason Hehir goes to the 1997-1998 season, and the first thing we hear about this version of Jordan is, “Do you remember in 1984, when they wrote Michael Jordan …”
Ah, yes, nobody has already makes the third person better than Michael Jordan. Jack McCallum says no one has ever done better in the third person than Michael Jordan. MJ defines the theme for this clip from the Bulls’ first game of the season: “We are five times champions, counting six, but we need your support. “
I didn’t cover the NBA that season, and over the years I’ve forgotten the depth of the gap between the team and management, or more specifically between Pippen and general manager Jerry Krause. Jackson came with the Last Dance theme to accentuate the purpose, without forgetting the difficulty of the challenge that awaits us. It’s rare that a team with a clear expiration date has the goods to win it all, but the Bulls were that rare team.
If there is an anti-hero from the first episode, it’s Krause, who died in 2017 at the age of 77, who is rightly remembered as the man who both assembled and dismantled the six-time champions. I was often with the Bulls during their first rehearsal in the early 90s, and even then Jordan and Pippen could be cruel in their treatment of Krause, a socially awkward little man they called “Crumbs” ” Krause’s problem, says owner Jerry Reinsdorf, “was that sometimes he liked people who didn’t like him in return, and that would disappoint him. “
By the last dance season, the ridicule of Kippe by Pippen had become poisonous. The little striker had delayed surgery on his left foot so he could relax during the summer and readjust at the start of the season – “Scottie was wrong in this scenario,” says Jordan – and then he planned to demand a exchange. Krause had also started a friendship / courtship with a young Iowa State coach named Tim Floyd, sending the message that Jackson could easily be replaced as a coach, another thing that boiled Jordan and Pippen’s blood. . Jackson and only Jackson was their man.
All of this created the central tension in the 1997-1998 season, but the documentary did not stay there. In episodes 1 and 2, Hehir performs several successful pivotal movements – in the first, back to the abysmal pre-Jordan Bulls (where former WGN costume designer Bob Costas, with a wonderfully full head of wavy, blond hair from 1979, did a cameo); and then at Chapel Hill where, as Tar Heels teammate James Worthy says, “I was better than him … for about two weeks. “
When I see this film of Jordan in Carolina, and at the beginning of Chicago, I think of covering it in the middle of the Eighties, and I am struck to see which child it was. With the possible exception of Isiah Thomas, no ultimately taller player has ever entered the more childlike league than Jordan. Neither Bird nor LeBron ever seemed to be young, and, although Magic was childish in his exuberance, there was something CEO about him from the start.
Not Jordan. First-year student Tar Heels’ shot on his bike on Caroline’s campus with roommate Buzz Peterson is priceless, as is Jordan’s story of knocking on doors to find Bulls teammates during the preseason of his rookie year. And when he was finally admitted …
“These are things I never saw in my life when I was young,” says Jordan. ” You have yours [cocaine] lines here, you have your weed smokers here, you have your wives here. Jordan announced to his team, “Look, man. I went out, ”and from that moment Jordan was on an island of his own.
There was indeed a delicious naivety about it in the early years of the league. Jordan giggled with embarrassment when people used the word f, and he never got out of his mouth easily – again, I emphasize early days – which made his eventual … let’s call it “withdrawal” all the more brutal.
To a large extent, Bird and Magic had the same personality at the end of their careers as at the beginning; Jordan has not done so. He started a child and in the end he was a crisp old man, battered by the fame and the ravages of his own burning competitiveness.
The second episode begins with the eternal No. 2 of Jordan, and it was refreshing to see the hometown of “Scott” Pippen – as he was called by David Stern on the evening of the draft, 1987 – and to watch him dominate in Central Arkansas. I had never seen this sequence. Then again, there was so much about Pippen that I couldn’t see, even when I was covering the team, so Jordan sucked up the oxygen from Windy City completely. Pippen talks about his childhood in Hamburg, Ark., With a father and a brother who were both disabled. “Two people in wheelchairs,” Pippen told Hehir, who conducted numerous interviews. “Two people in childbirth” was how he described it to me for a book I wrote about the 1992 Olympic dream team.
In those moments when Pippen talks about his childhood, you can see the roots of his later dissatisfaction. He had accepted in 1991 a contract of 18 million dollars over seven years, that even Reinsdorf advised him not to sign, aware of the under remuneration that would make him in the last years. But Pippen wanted to take care of a family that had endured such a hard and difficult road. So he signed, and neither Reinsdorf nor Krause could ever fix this error. In 1997, when Pippen was one of the top five players in the league, he was No. 122 in wages. In the Bulls alone, Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Rodman and Luc Longley, as well as Jordan, all made more money than Pippen.
Episode 2 made another difficult pivot to Jordan’s childhood, which was certainly easier than Pippen’s, but difficult in his own way. I’ve heard Jordan himself speak repeatedly about his older brother’s competitive drive. “If you think I’m crazy,” Jordan told me once, “you should see Larry. But this revelation was new to me: “I always felt like I was fighting with Larry to get my father’s attention. “
Indeed, the late James Jordan – “Mr. Jordan”, like his widow, Deloris, always refers to him – haunts the second episode, knowing, like us, that in the summer of 1993, shortly after the documentary interviews , he will end up being the victim of a murder. I’ve seen Michael and his father together several times and I thought that Michael had always been the one, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. James Jordan was a handyman type, just like Larry, but Michael was not. Michael was no longer mom’s boy, as James saw him, and told his son from time to time. Jordan’s father was a more difficult man than I thought, and it had a lot to do with Jordan becoming a maniac competitor.
The moment we see Jordan recovering from his broken ankle from the second season, getting his 49 and 63 consecutive points against the Celtics in the 1986 playoffs, then pivoting again in 1997, the doc track is clear: The central story will be the last dance season, but there are dozens of possible cutaways and always something to remind me (Dionne Warwick, ’63) of Jordan’s greatness as a player.
In a way, the other questions about Jordan, his refusal to plunge his toe into controversy, the comment “The Republicans also buy sneakers” (I will let the documentary rectify the situation, because I have never heard it said directly) melt. Do I wish that in 1990 he approved the candidacy for the Senate of Harvey Gantt, a black man who runs against racial bait, “Dixie”, an anachronistic whistle known as Jesse Helms? Of course. Perhaps Jordan’s reluctance to get involved in politics will be discussed, and perhaps rationalized later.
But honestly? Seeing Jordan in another arena outside of a sports arena is not the reason most of us are listening, nor what most of us are discussing during our water cooler metaphorical. See you next Monday.
Jack McCallum has covered Jordan for years as a senior SI writer and remains a special contributor to the magazine. The author of New york times Bestseller Dream Team, he is the narrator of the next podcast Dream Team tapes, to be released May 17. here.
More from SI.com
Inside the Making of The last dance
The record, Episode one: Michael Jordan