Did THE LAST DANCE Make Me Like Basketball?

I have always found it easiest to write about something I’m passionate about. That means whenever a superhero movie comes along, I usually have some opinions on them. They’re fun to talk about and a lot of people are generally interested in them.

But I feel sometimes that sells my taste a little short, because I love compelling stories, and I get that from watching lots of different media. I love dramas, I love comedies, I love animation (y’all seen Steven Universe? It’s great), I love movies, I love television. I’ll give any genre and form a shot, as long as I’m invested in the subjects or subject matter. Keeping this in mind, I gave a certain genre a shot for a change, something that I don’t really seek out because of general disinterest: I started watching The Last Dance.

The Last Dance was a 10-episode limited series about the 1990s Chicago Bull dynasty, led by the literal greatest of all time, Michael Jordan. Coached by Phil Jackson, the team would go on to win six championships. The story focuses on the last year Jordan, Jackson, and a number of star players were on the team, preparing to take their sixth championship with a long-term strategy known as “The Last Dance.” Spliced in between all of this, you get an oral history of Michael Jordan and his illustrious career with the Bulls and beyond; the ups, the downs, and everything in between, while he and other commentators give their thoughts on what many consider to be the greatest dynasty of players to ever play the game.

Now, I have never watched a basketball game in my entire life. I have seen it playing on TV before, I’ve had friends and family who were invested, but that’s as far as this relationship went. Frankly, I just never cared about organized sports. I’m well past being a “sportsball” kind of girl who looks down at sports and their fans, but I just don’t think I can watch the same kind of match 82-150 times over a single season; it’s just not my bag (the only thing I can watch that repetitively is RuPaul’s Drag Race, which I call my gay sports). I could watch one football game a year during the Superbowl, but there’s also a pizza there, you’re drunk and you watch dumb commercials with your friends in between the thing.

So, I didn’t believe I was the target audience for The Last Dance. But then I remembered another documentary I had thought something similar about.

OJ: Made in America is a seven-and-a-half-hour-long documentary on OJ Simpson, his career, the infamous trial, and everything culturally relevant that affected the “Trial of the Century.” If that run time is intimidating, it aired on ESPN in five separate hour-and-a-half episodes. It’s one of the most spectacular, engaging, and shocking documentaries I’ve ever seen. Those seven-and-a-half-hours are packed with so much information and not a second is wasted. It takes you through every relevant facet of OJ’s start as a football player, a really inspirational figure. You learn who he was to the public, how that was turned upside down and how that trial is reflected in all media today. I really can’t recommend it highly enough. When you learn about someone like that — a huge figure, an important figure to a countless number of people — and then you hear what he would go on to do, not to be insensitive, but it’s one of the greatest stories I’ve ever watched unfold. The Last Dance had the cultural impact and run time to sell me on giving it a shot. I did not regret this decision; I loved The Last Dance.

Learning how Michael Jordan became one of the most skillful, entertaining figures in all of sports, how he skyrocketed himself, his team, and the game of basketball, is as electrifying as the star himself. The way people talk about him adds to the allure; he impressed every person he ever met, and if you weren’t impressed, he’d make sure you didn’t leave until you changed your mind.

I should mention one detail in my viewing experience: I went into this documentary knowing only two things about Michael Jordan, and even less about the Bulls (I had only ever heard Phil Jackson’s name used as the punchline of a joke in Suicide Squad). The two things were as follows:

  1. Michael Jordan was in the movie Space Jam.
  2. He quit basketball and played baseball for a bit (that was also from Space Jam).

Because of Space Jam, I knew Michael Jordan was supposed to be a great player; Bugs Bunny told me so. However, I still didn’t know why. When I told my basketball-loving brother I was watching this series with no knowledge of Jordan or the outcome of most games, and specifically “The Last Dance” itself, he was insanely jealous. He’s like me whenever I see a superhero movie with a friend and I know which character is going to turn into a big monster in the third act. People like Michael Jordan are so fascinating to me. When one person performs their craft unlike anyone else ever has and grabs the attention of the entire country, it’s something I really enjoy learning and hearing about, seeing many different people come together in one place to watch this legendary person. To someone who didn’t know how the game was really played, I instantly understood the reaction to how he played. Basketball is never explained in The Last Dance, assuming you give an iota of a shit about the subject. But all I needed to see was him charging down the court, the effortlessness in his plays and tactics in others, and the way opposing players would say things like, “If he gets in the air, then it’s over.” He was practically a superhero.

My jaw dropped when he’d make complete fake-outs mid-air in a matter of half a second. I understood Michael Jordan, I understood basketball, I may actually like basketball now? Jordan was King, but the Chicago Bulls were a team comprised of many dynamic players. Learning about Jordan’s teammates and how their chemistry made them unstoppable. Scotty Pippen, considered the Robin to Jordan’s Batman, was a quiet and very different player than MJ. Seeing such an important asset to his team who never got treated as such bummed me out. He has his own drama that illuminates the overall story. And then there’s Dennis Rodman, someone I did know about prior to the doc. I knew him as the crazy man who was friends with Kim Jong-Un, and his present-day talking head bits confirm that he’s still pretty out there. But at the height of his Bulls career, he was an alpha player who was a strong asset to Jordan and kind of the bad boy of the team. He was quickly my favorite player when I saw him bounding up the court with his ever-changing hair color. I now have to live with the fact that if I were 26 back when these Bulls were playing, I’d have been mad crushing on that weirdo. While Michael on the court was captivating me, off-the-court Michael had me even more engaged.

A good documentary lays out the facts fairly and accurately. So, while many considered playing with MJ to be a divine experience, practicing with him was kind of a living hell. As a pretty laid-back person, the “I need to win” personality is one that I don’t personally get along with. But it’s something to watch Jordan hound his teammates, lose his temper, get pushy with management because he can, and then see it all pay off in spades. If you were writing the story of MJ, you’d maybe want to consider what kind of story you’re telling here. But this isn’t fiction, this is the true story of the GOAT and I couldn’t turn away. It’s made more interesting that most of his teammates remember those rough days and respect the motivation and attitude he was trying to preserve, and you certainly can’t argue with the results. It reminds me why I was always the weird kid in the organized sports my parents signed me up for.

The Last Dance was not what I expected to blow me away over this current time in isolation, but it was the perfect event to get my mind off things. Not only did it change my perception of the game of basketball, I also loved getting to talk with my brother about Jordan’s different moves and what I thought. He also told my Dad that I was enjoying it. I don’t think my Dad had been this excited to talk with me on the phone in two years when he heard I was watching this series. He was excited to go on about how crazy it was to watch Jordan and how much he respected him. Just hearing both of their words, how much seeing someone like him change the game did for their enjoyment, was why I started watching in the first place.

Claire Bamert
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