Michael Jordan masterclass

‘The Last Dance’ documentary series illuminates Michael Jordan’s career for the younger generation

Toyloy Brown III, Opinion Editor

Age is one of the biggest determinants for people’s attitudes and behaviors. This idea is certainly true when it comes to the basketball opinions of people old enough to remember watching Michael Jordan’s performance on the court and his cultural impact off of it.

Photo from Twitter

For everyone else who wasn’t around to see Jordan and may best recognize him for his NBA 2K player rating, “The Last Dance” gives us an insightful depiction of all the things we missed as well as what it actually meant to “be like Mike.”

“The Last Dance” is a 10-part documentary series that gives an extensive look into the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 NBA season and the career of Jordan. This ESPN series, which will eventually be on Netflix, was 20 years in the making — remaining in a literal vault until Jordan gave the producers permission to use the team’s private footage in 2016. With almost all American sports on hiatus, “The Last Dance” was a much-appreciated escape released two months ahead of time for millions to enjoy as we gradually adapted to life in quarantine.

“The Last Dance” is the most recent entertainment craze people have become enamored with — carrying the torch left by Netflix’s series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” Simply put, the series does a lot of things right for a wide spectrum of people. It is heavy enough for there to be a critical analysis of each episode and is light enough for some people under 30 to make brand-new Jordan memes on social media.

The documentary gave a clear timeline of Jordan’s journey from prodigy to lead man, showed the formation of the 1997-98 Bulls and provided emotional depth to one of the most accomplished players in NBA history. The two integral components that made the project feel like it was getting better with each passing episode was the candor from its participants and the unprecedented access to one of the most memorable sports teams and its best player. 

People who are unaware to the degree of Jordan’s greatness have now received a masterclass in all things Jordan.

As a ball player, Jordan was a killer who destroyed opponents with lightning-quick first steps, aerial assaults rarely seen in the league and sharp basketball instincts. As a rookie in 1984, he busted opponents’ butts averaging 28.2 points per game on 51% shooting. After torching the legendary ’86 Boston Celtics for 63 points as a 23-year-old, the best player on the opposing squad, Larry Bird, reacted by telling Boston Globe reporters after the game, “It’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

In the documentary, we also see how Jordan’s mastery of the midrange game and his mental wherewithal to win in the biggest moments allowed him to continue his dominance on the league past his physical prime.  

What is even more interesting are the traits that Jordan possessed that allowed him to maximize his talents. Story after story, the series actually proved he had a competitive streak that was greater than his foes and overbearing for fellow teammates. Jordan would use his ruthless wit to hound his teammates routinely and would sometimes resort to punching them — Steve Kerr and Will Perdue are the most famous examples — if he got too heated during practices. Jordan would also hold grudges against rivals undeserving of his ill feelings in the hopes of amping himself up.

Arguably the most contentious aspect of Jordan covered in the series was his conscious choice to become the most marketable athlete in all of sports while avoiding opportunities to talk about social issues or demonstrate black advocacy in public.

— Toyloy Brown III

One example is the time Jordan had a one-sided beef with Phoenix Suns player Dan Majerle during the 1993 NBA Finals because he was thought fondly of by Jerry Krause, the then-Bulls general manager that Jordan had animus for. 

“I knew that Jerry Krause loved Dan Majerle,” Jordan said in an interview during the series. “And just because Krause liked him was enough for me. ‘You think he’s a great defensive player?’ OK, fine. I’m gonna show you that he’s not.” Jordan averaged a ridiculous 41 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game on 50.8% shooting during the series. 

Jordan’s grudges even extended off the hardwood. He refused to ever speak to Sports Illustrated again when they had published a magazine cover of him during his stint as a Double-A baseball player saying, “Bag It, Michael” and a subhead saying, “Jordan and the White Sox are embarrassing baseball.” This happened in 1994, and Jordan still hasn’t spoken to the publication since. 

The last example definitely worth mentioning was the time when Jordan was outplayed by a journeyman NBA player named LaBradford Smith and told reporters after the game that Smith trash talked him.”Nice game, Mike” were the mocking words Smith apparently said that triggered Jordan to the point that when he played Smith the following day, he would score 47 points to Smith’s 15. The only issue was Smith never actually made that comment. Jordan lied to the media about the trash talk just to motivate himself to seek revenge. Unbelievable. 

These Jordan tall tales are in fact not tall tales at all. These are true stories that justify much of the basketball lore surrounding him. A seemingly psychotic, competitive mentality to do anything to destroy his opponent and sometimes hurt his teammates in the pursuit of winning — this was his life’s philosophy. Youngsters watching the series who are accustomed to the best players being buddy-buddy and referred to as the banana boat crew are officially stupefied by Jordan’s cut-throat nature.  

Photo from Twitter

Arguably the most contentious aspect of Jordan covered in the series was his conscious choice to become the most marketable athlete in all of sports while avoiding opportunities to talk about social issues or demonstrate black advocacy in public.

The most glaring example of this attitude was the time Jordan chose not to endorse Harvey Gantt’s bid to potentially become the first African American senator in North Carolina. He simultaneously never rebuked then-North Carolina senator and known racist Jesse Helms in his campaign to be reelected in 1990. One of Helms’ most famous showings of racial bigotry was when he deemed the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which in essence ended racial segregation) “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress.” 

Many were disappointed with Jordan’s lack of a public stance — although he said in episode 5 that he privately made a donation to Gantt’s campaign — since the most powerful thing he had to offer was his lone endorsement, and it was seen as a metaphorical lay-up of a chance to begin using his fame to incite positive social change in his home state.  

“I never thought of myself as an activist,” Jordan said in the documentary. “I thought of myself as a basketball player. I wasn’t a politician. I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy.”

The way he currently reflects on his focus during his playing career is consistent with his ambitions to maintain greatness on the court at all costs. However, it can’t be ignored that he was able to achieve the pinnacle in basketball while also leveraging his global popularity to make millions in endorsements. 

For many pre-Jordan NBA fans today who espouse mantras like “More than an athlete” and refuse to “Shut up and dribble,” knowing that Jordan regularly punted on non-basketball matters is a disappointment to some degree in comparison to the vocal star athletes of today. Jordan voicing his feelings on larger issues was not worth the cost of damaging his image as the perfect, marketable athlete.

“The Last Dance” covers a lot of ground and thoroughly explores what Jordan was like on and off the court. It catches up the younger generation of NBA fans on much of what made him the most widely accepted greatest player of all time (G.O.A.T) and most culturally impactful athlete in American sports. Some of us will marvel at Jordan’s vicious leadership style, question its results in present-day application and wonder if single-mindedness is the way to become the best. However, one thing remains definite. 

The LeBron James stans will continue to argue he has eclipsed Jordan as the new G.O.A.T, no matter how bleak the case became after each passing episode.