“We saw him as this bully sometimes. But that day he showed his compassion and empathy for all of us”.
Steve Kerr’s closing remark at the end of The Last Dance is emblematic of the enigmatic picture of Jordan painted in Jason Hehir’s engrossing documentary.
I finished it after five weeks of Monday nights that did their best to paper over the frustration of the absence of the NBA. I left thinking, how do I see Michael Jordan, his airness?
This documentary is something basketball fans have been waiting eons for. Why Jordan finally agreed to it – LeBron James’ case for being the GOAT, the stagnation of his Hornets, boredom – is irrelevant. But clearly there were many scores to settle for the 57-year-old icon.
Don’t think MJ can be petty? Have a watch of his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. This isn’t a man who lets things go. The first shots are fired within the opening moments, with a cut from a Jordan presser post-championship in 1997.
“Have a sense of respect for the people who laid the groundwork so that you can be a profitable organisation,” he said.
This brings me to the villain of this documentary, because every Netflix series needs that binge-watchable drama.
Jerry Krause died in 2017, months before the Hehir began his work. The former general manager of the Bulls is lampooned within the first 20 minutes, chiefly for his supposedly outrageous quote: “organisations win championships, not players”.
We have Mark Vancil, a ghostwriter for MJ and hardly an unbiased source, hypothesising that Krause had a “little-man problem” and he needed credit. Did Krause tell Vancil this?
No episode goes by without a dig somewhere at Krause, and how he broke up a team destined to win more championships.
In true MJ fashion, the shots continue to the final buzzer. The buzzer beater on this occasion was how maddening it is that the Bulls couldn’t just sign everyone to one-year deals for a chance at a seventh title.
What he conveniently doesn’t mention is slicing a tendon in his finger on a cigar cutter in Cuba during the 1999 NBA lockout meant he would have been hard pressed to play any role in the season at all.
But enough about Krause, because of course there is more to this documentary than him (and more scores to settle for MJ). Wow, the man really is petty… did I already say that?
We have a 57-year-old man still visibly angry at Isiah Thomas and company for walking off the court early in 1991. Or BJ Armstrong enjoying his moment in the sun by simply shouting in celebration in the general direction of the Bulls bench. Or mocking Gary Payton for saying he could guard him.
Slightly cringe-worthy? Maybe.
But that makes the documentary and MJ’s persona real. He was petty. He did hold grudges, and as said many times in The Last Dance used them to fuel his competitive fire.
On the surface this is in some ways a puff piece for Jordan, to solidify his case as the greatest basketball player to have played the game. There is ample opportunity, though, for the viewer to also see the other side to his character, and how it didn’t necessarily gel with all of his teammates.
Predictably, the gambling controversy of 1994-95 is addressed but in a nice, glossy way. We see MJ playing golf, playing cards, having fun with it – nothing sinister. Whether he was actually more out of control than revealed is a moot point. We’re here for the basketball.
The same goes for stories of Jordan’s childhood and later fatherhood. While more coverage would have been nice, if we are limited to ten episodes, it has to be basketball with touches of his humanity.
Hehir uses those touches brilliantly, bringing to the fore previously unheard-of members of Jordan’s inner circle. Gus the security guard and father figure is an overwhelming highlight. When you see the footage of MJ being mobbed at every public turn, it becomes apparent how he become so close to his security team.
All in all, this is a quality blueprint if the sports documentary made for streaming platforms is to become a fad. There is a principle focus on sport with a generous helping of in-game and post-game footage, and humanising interactions are the icing on top.
My only recommendation? Please don’t bow to the boffins at the likes of Netflix and have the need to ham up a villain, because there isn’t always one in sport.