Marc Stein takes a final look at The Last Dance and shares reader suggestions for ways the NSA can honour David Stern.
Even with that spotless 6-0 record in the NBA finals and 27 victories in the 29 playoff series he contested in the 1990s, Michael Jordan is unlikely to ever completely shut down the Greatest of All Time debate.
There will always be someone out there who prefers Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or, yes, even LeBron James.
Yet such rampant winning does engender tremendous privilege. No other luminary in league history could have managed what Jordan just pulled off: His Airness made the NBA stash exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of his Chicago Bulls' sixth and final title run in 1997-98 for nearly 20 years, then had the 10-part documentary series that he finally blessed attract an audience of 4.9 million to 6.3 million for each serving.
As we got deeper and deeper into The Last Dance, criticism about the unparalleled control that Jordan had — with two of his closest business associates, Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk, operating as executive producers — grew louder and louder. Our own Sopan Deb was on this point from the start, but nothing amplified the noise like the two-fisted blast to The Wall Street Journal from noted documentarian Ken Burns, who asserted that Jordan's influence over the project is "not the way you do good journalism" nor "the way you do good history."
Those staggering audience figures, though, slammed home this reality: The basketball public was not looking for another Burns-ian documentary.
Viewers just wanted Jordan, in a chair, speaking for the cameras with greater candour than ever before, no matter what had to be sacrificed to put him there.
They wanted to remember how it had felt to bond over a shared basketball experience, in the midst of a global health crisis, knowing it remained unclear how soon the NBA playoff reality show that we counted on every April, May and June could come back to fill that void. Even today's players were tweeting about it.
Great lessons for everybody involved in our circles.— Mario Hezonja (@mariohezonja) May 18, 2020
We needed it and got swept up in it — even the crusty sports writers like me who, amid the Sunday night doubleheaders and corresponding Twitter fests, were compiling a lengthy list of the docuseries' shortcomings.
Questions will persist about the glorification of Jordan's bullying of teammates, even when it so plainly crossed the line with Scott Burrell (and others), and why it went unchallenged for 10 hours of storytelling. The same holds for the dearth of voices speaking up for the late Bulls general manager Jerry Krause — while Jerry Reinsdorf completely dodged tough questions about why he, as the Bulls' owner, didn't assert his authority (or spend more freely) to keep a dynastic team together.
The constantly shifting timeline, back and forth from the 1997-98 season to various chapters in Jordan's past that built up to his final season in Chicago, was an oft-cited source of viewer consternation. The total avoidance of Jordan's own parenting, given the depths of his bond with his father, James, was another sizable hole, as was Jordan's refusal to acknowledge his role in keeping Isiah Thomas off the US Olympic team in 1992 — something he had previously acknowledged in Jack McCallum's 2012 book about the Dream Team.
Yet I can't co-sign the notion that the production, as some say, is merely an infomercial for No. 23's legacy. It is not a definitive, balanced retelling from the Burns school, but Jordan's aforementioned frankness, pouring out of three interviews conducted by director Jason Hehir over roughly eight hours, will give it an everlasting gravitas.
To convince Jordan to grant the requisite sit-downs and ultimately admit that he could be a tyrannical teammate, Michael Tollin of Mandalay Sports Media, an executive producer of The Last Dance, made it a big part of his pitch in June 2016 that Jordan needed this documentary now. This would be Jordan's ideal opportunity, Tollin explained, to properly educate a new generation of consumers — namely, those buying his sneakers who had never seen him play.
I remain convinced that Jordan was motivated by James' gains in the GOAT debate more than anything. James had just led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the championship by overturning a 3-1 series deficit to the 73-win Golden State Warriors when Jordan gave his blessing in June 2016. As Tollin also told us in an April 17 article previewing the docuseries, Jordan committed to the project on the same day that the Cavaliers were being feted in Cleveland with a championship parade.
Then again, why protest?
Your humble newsletter curator has never been a Jordan worshipper, but I delighted in the return of NBA appointment television as much as anyone, especially since it was so caked in nostalgia. I loved the flashbacks to the 1980s, my favorite NBA decade, and Chicago's old uniforms with the delicious script lettering and short-sleeved sweat jackets. I got tingly every time I heard the Bulls' best-of-all-time intro music: Sirius by The Alan Parsons Project.
Most of all, I loved the unvaulted-at-last footage of interactions that we would have never otherwise seen: Jordan, Ron Harper and Burrell on the bench in Paris; Jordan and his Eastern Conference teammates speaking so openly (and critically) about a young Kobe Bryant — "the little Laker boy" — shortly before tip off of the 1998 All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden; Jordan crossing paths with then-Pacers coach Larry Bird after Chicago crushed Indiana's NBA finals dreams in a taut Game 7. The way M.J. mercilessly ribbed Larry Legend like no one else could about having extra time to work on his golf game will stay with me.
I wanted even more of that footage that has been locked away for so long, but Hehir was in an unenviable position. Before even getting to what second-guessers like me craved, he had to answer to ESPN, Netflix and the NBA on top of Jordan's camp. One more challenge: Moving the documentary up from its planned June release to satiate desperate customers deprived of the NBA playoffs meant rushing to finish the final two episodes under duress. Episode 10 didn't get wrapped up until last week.
The overwhelming commercial success of the series ensures that the door has been flung wide open for follow-up projects. Brace yourself for documentaries, podcasts and books that promise to take a more exacting look at, say, Jordan's worrisome gambling habits or his reluctance to speak about political and societal issues — with interview subjects willing to be more critical than the ones we saw.
The trouble with forthcoming entries from what is bound to be billed as "The Real Last Dance" genre is that none of them will have anything close to this level of cooperation from Jordan. Hehir and Co. had to do so much on Jordan's terms to get that cooperation.
But to deliver His Airness after years of virtual seclusion? Even Krause would have to concede that it was a trade anyone in the NBA would have made.
Written by: Marc Stein
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES