The Last Dance review: Michael Jordan story isn’t just the TV event of 2020, it’s the greatest sports doc of all-time

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The Last Dance

The Last Dance focuses on Michael Jordan’s legacy at the Chicago Bulls, Getintothis’ Peter Guy reflects upon a fitting tribute to an icon that transcends sport and became a global icon.

The year is 1992. Two global phenomena occupy my mind: Nirvana and Michael Jordan.

Kurt Cobain‘s band released Nevermind deposing Michael Jackson at the top of the album charts and Chicago Bulls won their second NBA championship – with Michael Jordan once again being named MVP and widely regarded as the world’s greatest team athlete of all-time.

Such was my obsession with the pair, I’d grown my hair shoulder length, bought a guitar, bought a dozen Nike Air Jordan high tops and most ludicrously of all, decided to use the confirmation name ‘Michael’.

That I already had the middle name ‘Michael’ didn’t seem too daft an idea.

Fortunately, my mother persuaded me that ‘Peter Michael Michael Guy’ wasn’t the best, and along with the long hair, changes were made.

Push forward three decades, the passing of Kurt Cobain has ensured Nirvana‘s legacy is forever cemented in music fan’s minds.

Jordan, on the other hand, has long retired and largely remained out of the public eye, seemingly consigned to the history pages prior to the era of Sky, Premier League football and new globalised television viewing.

The ESPN documentary series The Last Dance, however, brings into brilliantly sharp focus perhaps the greatest sportsman of all-time, and in doing so, has created the television event of 2020.

Centred around Michael Jordan‘s last season in 1997-98, the series blisters back and forth during his lifetime seguing from child to college prodigy through to NBA superstar taking in roller-coaster, edge of the seat drama at every turn.

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It also features first-hand interviews finally agreed to in 2016 following Jordan’s retirement pieced together with remarkable, high octane action along the way.

But what makes this series so wildly fascinating is the array of characters on and off the basketball court, the psychology of the central protagonists and the beautifully edited 500 hours of all-access footage which was shot during the 1997-98 season and is for the very first time available to watch now.

It feels like director Jason Hehir has unearthed a time capsule superbly capturing the very essence of the 1990s – and with it a near-immortal figure that was near lost along the way.

Make no mistake, this is the perfect example of fact being more magical than fiction.

From the off, Jordan‘s peerless prodigious talent is outlined from his college days as he decimates the opposition on his own – a feat he was able to take forward into his NBA career which few others could replicate.

The superlatives gush from those narrating his rise – and so they should such is MJ‘s supersonic ability, insatiable desire and magnetic charisma.

However, it’s the insights into his mind which perpetuate and intrigue throughout The Last Dance.

Jordan is the alpha alpha male; a win at any cost individual whose hunger for competition is near pathological.

You see him fiercely berate team-mates to the point of psychological warfare. Play mind-games with management so much so they’re fearful of this near-tyrannical human being.

Post-game in the changing room he loses $20,000 to his off-court minders playing jacks like he’s in the school-yard. Yet, Jordan is more pissed by the actual defeat than the outlay of cash.

On the golf course (a place he treats as relaxation, yet is all-consumed by his fixation on winning) he japes with fellow basketball pros and coaches but gambling on matches, holes and other asides take his obsession into dizzying new realms.

However, it’s the pressure he puts on himself which is greatest of all.

In one remarkable scene he convinces himself an opponent makes an off the cuff remark after beating the Bulls saying ‘nice game, Michael‘ – only for Jordan to return in the rematch and literally destroy the player with a show of invincibility.

Jordan then concedes the player didn’t even say those words and he subconsciously invented them to drive himself to new ludicrous levels of competitiveness.

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All of which may paint the picture of an imbalanced, unbearable person. However, in many respects, you can’t help but feel overawed by this superhuman and what he achieves and how he helps others reach career-highs and the history books along the way.

Those others in this incredible tale are in themselves a truly fascinating ensemble.

There’s the hippy, LSD-taking coach Phil Jackson, whose mild manner and coaching science transcends to using Native American Indian relaxation and mindfulness to get the best out of his team.

Colossal forward Scottie Pippen, the foil for Jordan‘s ego and tabloid heroism. The greatest ever wingman or sports sidekick.

Pippen has this duel character which sees him settle for a shocking (by their standards) contract making him the 122nd highest-paid player in the NBA despite being widely acknowledged as the second best player in the league.

While his skill is unquestionable he repeatedly makes decisions which confound and in one jaw-dropping sequence makes a point which could cost the Bulls, and Jordan, their place in sporting history.

MJ is incensed – and the rage is palpable coursing through the screen.

Then there’s Dennis Rodman. The defensive pink-haired behemoth who proves too technically strong even for Jordan in his early days as the Bulls struggle to overcome their titanic rivals the Detroit Pistons.

Only for Rodman to have a mental breakdown and be reborn as the flamboyant character he’s infamous for today.

Whether it’s sleeping with Madonna or Carmen Electra, going missing on a wild binge in Las Vegas, Rodman is one of the most endearing characters in the tale.

For while his bad-boy excesses precede him, his skill and ultimately his unbreakable mindset helps Jordan fulfil his unprecedented career goals.

The political nuances and financial subtexts all play a pivotal role in The Last Dance with Michael Jordan‘s revelatory mid-career retirement remaining as shocking as it is unfathomable.

As he battles with the cartoonish franchise manager Jerry Krause and shocks the world by shelving his basketball career at the peak of his powers he takes an 18 month secondment taking up Minor League baseball.

If this departure seems bizarre, throw in subplots of a gambling addiction and the tragic murder of his father and you’ve a documentary which seems almost too fantastical where it not true.

When he returns to the NBA, watching him collapse in tears on to the Bulls dressing room floor having won the championship once again on Father’s Day is one of the most moving television moments I’ve ever seen.

Elsewhere, is the inside story of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, when Jordan and the era’s greats assemble to conquer the world while barely breaking a sweat.

The Dream Team includes greats Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, John Stockton and many more – all of whom are titans of the game. But it’s Jordan who stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Such is his loyalty to Nike (and competitive streak against rivals), he drapes the US flag over sponsors Reebok when they receive their gold medal.

More remarkable during the off season when Jordan was busy filming his movie Space Jam, Disney purpose built a multi-million basketball court just so MJ could bring the NBA stars down to practice – all so he could size up the opposition before the new season.

If there’s a fault, and finding one is much like certain sections of the press who aggressively scrutinised every inconceivable aspect of his private and professional life, it’s that Jordan had final approval of the edit.

That’s led to some criticising particular arcs in the story’s narrative or the perceived take on certain individuals.

Whatever the case, Michael Jordan is to basketball what Mohammad Ali was to boxing or Lionel Messi is to football. Peerless – and whichever way you frame it, there’s no escaping their legend.

Then of course is the basketball action. Aligned to a soundtrack of some of 1990’s finest hip hop, it is nothing short of eye-popping.

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Every slam-dunk, ludicrous switch-hand layups, 50-yard baskets and those unstoppable leaps through the air for which he became known for – and indeed cemented Nike in sports shoe history – are as preposterous the more you watch.

The ten part series will tonight air the final two episodes – if you’ve yet to see it, catch up – for The Last Dance isn’t just the chronicling of one of sport’s greatest ever stars, it’s perhaps the greatest sports documentary of all-time.

  • The Last Dance episodes 9 and 10 will air on Netflix on Monday May 18 at 8.01am BST. 

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