The Last Dance is a documentary series that examines the phenomenal success of the Chicago Bulls basketball team during the 90s, and in particular cultural superstar, Michael Jordan. At its core the series uses never before seen behind the scenes footage of the ’97 / ’98 season which was the last season for Jordan and the dominant roster of Bulls players as they chased a rarely achieved ‘three-peat’: winning the NBA title for a third consecutive year.
I am not a basketball fan, but even with the passage of time, it’s not difficult to remember the sheer presence of Michael Jordan. Jordan was a goliath inside and outside of sport insofar as he and his image were omnipresent in advertising and marketing campaigns whilst he also held on to a reputation as being a nigh on unbeatable superhuman on the basketball court. Through The Last Dance (the name given to the end of an era ’97 / ’98 season by Bulls coach Phil Jackson) Jordan is given the most air time, with his life on and off the court examined.
As a character examination through the documentary, Jordan is a fascinating subject. His personality comes across as what the utmost dedication to a sport costs. His demands of perfection from those around him is frequently described as difficult by teammates interviewed for the series. His frosty relationship with Bulls manager Jerry Krause is attributed to various factors, such as Krause reportedly stating that ‘players don’t win titles, franchises do’, and also Krause’s determination to disband the aging – but winning – Bulls team.
The now-deceased Krause is unable to defend himself except through archive footage, but Jordan’s on camera frequent belittling of him and usage of insults regarding his weight and appearance are uncomfortably indicative of how Jordan treated people he perceived to be in the way of success.
Jordan aside, The Last Dance is a triumph of editing and context. Through the main narrative of the ’97 / ’98 season, each episode jumps back and forth through the timeline of the past 10 years or so to illustrate points, give background, and fill in the gaps. Jordan’s entire career is covered but so is the life and influence of key plays such as Scottie Pippin and Dennis Rodman.
There is plenty for those who love their backroom sports soap operas as the roiling broth of tensions within the Bulls team and management is explored. Unintentionally or not, the season footage gives an insight into flamboyant bad boy Rodman’s mentality as he’s often spotted at the edge of frame quietly not joining in with pre-game motivational huddles.
If you aren’t a basketball fan then the breakdown of on the court techniques and rule bending/breaking is likely to be of less interest, even if the athleticism is impressive. Even though The Last Dance is stuffed with plenty of game footage (as you’d expect) it’s edited around enough character work and narrative importance that such games will feel tense and important due to those factors instead. This is certainly a huge selling point because otherwise the question should be asked, what stakes are there in wondering if a hugely dominant team gets to win yet again for a season?
When linked with the ‘last dance’ element of the fates of all the key players and indeed zen-like coach Jackson (whom Krause reportedly told that it wouldn’t matter if he won every game in the season, it would still be his last) there are plenty of stakes to dunk a hoop through. The documentary succeeds in pulling in behind the scenes footage, backroom intrigue, social context, player examinations, and personal stakes all in one.
It’s equally as satisfying to see Bill Clinton or Barack Obama interviewed as it is to see Jordan be handed an iPad playing an excerpt of a particularly salacious comment from a past colleague or rival and watch as his face crinkle with intrigue: a sneaky but fun trick utilised a couple of times throughout.
Fandom and stardom pre-internet age feels like an otherworldly time capsule these days, so watch The Last Dance for a time when it was all McDonalds adverts, newspaper headlines, and behind closed doors shouting matches before coming onto a squeaky floor basketball court and slam dunking your opponent into the bleachers.
Words by Michael Record