The Last Dance – Review
The Last Dance is a triumph on every level, but it is Michael Jordan’s inspirational and era-defining pursuit of greatness that pushes this documentary to unprecedented heights. Jamie Braidwood breaks down ESPN’s most successful documentary in history that revealed the inner workings of a team’s dynasty that may never be matched.
The story had already been written, but that didn’t mean its finale was any less compelling. On Sunday, the final two episodes of The Last Dance were released, providing the closing chapters on the tale of the greatest dynasty in NBA history. It ended, of course, with Michael Jordan – whose dramatic, title-winning shot against the Utah Jazz sealed what we had been building up to over the past five weeks: Jordan’s sixth championship in what turned out to be his final season with the Chicago Bulls.
The Last Dance has made for fascinating viewing, and has provided a much-needed escape from life in lockdown. Skilfully directed by Jason Hehir, the documentary jumps between two converging timelines to tell the stories of the greatest player and greatest team in NBA history, featuring previously unreleased behind-the-scenes footage of the Bulls’ 1997-98 season. It has served as a nostalgia trip for some and a window to the past for others, reintroducing those Bulls, as well as 90s culture, to a new generation.
Naturally, Jordan is the star. He is presented early in the documentary as a global icon at the height of his powers, arguably the most famous and marketable athlete in the world. But to understand how and why the Jordan brand became so big, the documentary had to go back. Through the use of painstakingly-collated archive footage and extensive interviews, The Last Dance does an excellent job of seamlessly transitioning to the past to explore the origin stories of all of its central characters.
With Jordan, we are transported back to the early 1980s, where a fresh-faced, skinny teenager was making a name for himself first at the University of North Carolina and then in his rookie year with the Bulls. These sections, as with many in The Last Dance, are jam-packed with breathtaking highlights, and are a joy to watch if viewing them for the first time. There is dynamism in the dunks, flair in the passes, mind-blowing ball-fakes and handles, but above all there is a contagious element of fun in the way Jordan played the game, with winks to courtside, verbal jousting, and an overall air of supreme confidence and self-belief.
His 63 points against the great Boston Celtics team of 1986, a performance which left the likes of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale shell-shocked by what Jordan was doing to them, demonstrated that Jordan was already the best player in the league by only his second season. But there is a difference between being a great player and a great champion, and in the intervening years between that performance against the Celtics and the Bulls’ first title in 1991, Jordan developed an unrivalled mentality that would fuel his push for greatness.
It is through this lens that The Last Dance really comes into its own. Hardened by tough defeats to the uncompromising Detroit Pistons in 1989 and 1990, we see how the demands Jordan placed on himself grew into the demands he placed on his teammates. Often motivated by anger, Jordan was relentless in his pursuit of perfection, and he expected his teammates to do the same. When the Bulls eventually overcame the Pistons and went on to win their first title in 1991, Jordan’s teammates were shocked to see him break down while he held the NBA Finals trophy in his arms, as it had been so long since he had displayed any emotion other than anger or frustration.
Once Jordan reached the summit, we then got the insight into the elite mentality of an athlete looking to stay at the top and dominate their field. WIth every newcomer and challenger, from Hakeem Olajawon and Charles Barkley to Reggie Miller and Karl Malone, Jordan raised his game to another level. He also used any slight on his name as fuel for his motivational fire, often completely fabricating personal insults in his head in order to give him the edge for a particular game.
There can often be consequences when you have an edge that sharp. Jordan’s drive could boil over and there were times where he would physically lash out at his teammates during practices. At the end of Episode Seven, Jordan breaks down when reflecting on the relationships he had with his teammates, and whether they actually liked him as a person. “Winning has a price”, he says, acknowledging the cost that comes when pushing those close to you to their limit.
It is an extraordinary moment, one of many that displays his human side and vulnerabilities. As well as his reaction to winning his first title in 1991, there is the aftermath to winning his fourth in 1996, which was won on Father’s Day and dedicated to his late father. The lingering shot of Jordan collapsed on the locker room floor, physically and emotionally drained after Game 6 of the 96 Finals, conveys just how hard Jordan worked to get back to his best upon his return to basketball, while the pain of his father’s death was still at the forefront of his mind. The relationship between Jordan and his father is key to those mid-90s years, and his two years away from the Bulls.
The Last Dance is more than just Michael Jordan, however, and much in the same way that Jordan would not have won six championships alone, The Last Dance would not have been the same without the contributions and compelling storylines of his teammates. From Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman to Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr, everyone gets their moment and The Last Dance carefully waits until the right moment to tell those individual stories. Kerr’s own personal tragedy, for example, is told near the end of the series in Episode Nine, just as he makes his own telling contribution on the court in Game 6 of the 1997 Finals.
But everything comes back to Jordan, and in the closing seconds of the 1998 Finals, with his body running on fumes, we see a final, devastating push to execute the layup, steal, and shot required to deliver Chicago’s sixth championship. It is the sort of ending you would expect to see in a Hollywood film, let alone a documentary, and yet, in Jordan’s eyes, it shouldn’t have been the end of the Bulls’ story.
While The Last Dance ended in 1998, the competitive fire remained within Jordan for many years, and is still present in him now. Clearly, he believes that the Bulls could have won their seventh title in 1999, and there is frustration on his end that the team was broken up too early. If anything, The Last Dance comes across as another outlet for Jordan to extend his greatness to a new generation, to unleash his vengeance on those who wronged him for a final time. And after watching the last 10 episodes, you wouldn’t expect anything less from Michael Jordan.