For whatever reason, basketball has never interested me. Plenty of other sports have managed to catch my eye over the years, but this particular one has never meant anything other than a few famous names that I’ve heard references to. LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and, of course, Michael Jordan.
In the playground one could invariably count on someone jumping in the air and shouting “KOBE” as they attempted to get the ball in the basket, but other than that, basketball never really generated any excitement or meaning for me. I could probably have told you the very basic premise of the game, name a handful of teams and players, but that was as far as my enthusiasm ever went. Indeed, of all the sports popular in America, baseball was the only one that genuinely piqued my interest.
Nonetheless, this all changed after watching The Last Dance, a ten part series recently released on Netflix that chronicles the career of Michael Jordan and the incredible Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s. In the space of two weeks, I’ve gone from being someone who couldn’t care less about basketball, to now finding myself falling asleep to videos of Dennis Rodman interviews on Youtube.
Put simply, The Last Dance is without a doubt the best sports documentary I’ve ever seen. Indeed, this comes in a crowded field, as the genre has developed into a lucrative market for those able to gain access to the very elite players.
Earlier this year I watched The Test, a documentary made by Amazon that chartered the fall and rise of the Australian test cricket team. After watching it, I doubted that I’d be able to see something of that ilk that impressed me so much, with the same access and footage, let alone from over twenty years ago.
So why has The Last Dance generated so much hype? How has it managed to engage with such a wide audience?
Well to start with, the portrayal of the former players and the candid and incredibly illuminating interviews with them makes for fascinating viewing.
One can’t help but feel the desire to want to meet with them all, to probe them more, and in the case of Scottie Pippen, just hear him speak. Make no mistake, if oak trees could speak, they would speak like Pippen. His portrayal as the man who plays second fiddle within the best basketball duo of all time (him and Jordan) is captivating. In interviews he comes across as stern and straightforward, a giant of a man who offers a frank description of the journey the Bulls team went on. As a player his aggression and flare made him one of the poster boys of that generation.
Then there is Steve Kerr. At first it’s hard to fathom how this reserved, humble and articulate man fit alongside the likes of Pippen and Jordan, but as the series progresses, one begins to appreciate the key role he played. His willingness to stand up to Jordan (something very few did) is as brave as it is commendable, something the latter admits to and highlights as a key turning point in their relationship.
Perhaps the most intriguing character is Dennis Rodman. Most of what I had heard of him before this series involved his bizarre relationship with the North Korean despot, Kim Jong Un. Indeed, almost everything about Rodman is bizarre. He was a master of self-promotion in an age before social media, gaining swathes of attention for his relationship with Madonna, his maverick hairstyles and his infamous involvement in a WWE wrestling event in the middle of a playoff game. His team mates regularly had to put up with his mid-season trips to Las Vegas and all the dramas and publicity they involved. Despite this, his style of play was gritty and selfless, happy to do the dirty work in a team full of wonderfully talented stars. Once again I found myself truly fascinated by yet another one of these men.
Furthermore, even off the court there were enough characters for a good Bond film. Jerry Krauss, the Bulls General Manager throughout this period, is portrayed as a polarising figure who deliberately and unnecessarily oversaw the demise of the wonderful Bulls side of the 1990s. He is occasionally praised for his smart recruitment, but more often that not is cast as an aloof boardroom type who deprived the city of Chicago’s basketball team of a few more years of success. One is left to ponder on how somehow with such poor man-management skills and a distinct lack of charm was able to rise to the top of one of the world’s biggest sports teams, adding another unexpected dynamic to the series.
In Phil Jackson, the head coach of this team, the word ‘calm’ comes to mind. He exudes it from top to bottom. As an ex-player turned hippie turned coach who was tasked with bringing all these great if very different personalities together to create a winning dynasty, what shines through more than anything is his ability to understand every single one of them as a unique individual, the key to any great sports management.
This required understanding their innate characteristics and how best these could be fused together, whilst also appreciating that each of them dealt with the pressure and their success differently, and respecting this. And if that means giving Dennis Rodman time to cool off in Las Vegas (and all that entailed), so be it.
Then of course there is Jordan, the star of the show, the best basketball player of all time and one of the most famous sport stars on the planet. Admittedly, there is an element of self-promotion and advertising on the part of Jordan and his team, but for a man who has amassed over $2 billion dollars in wealth, and well less than half of this from his basketball career, this is not to be unexpected. Jordan seems to have left viewers divided on his legacy, and I myself (who knew next to nothing about him before watching this) was at times compelled to dislike him, unlike any of his team mates.
The series seems to have generated a debate surrounding Jordan’s uncompromising nature, suggesting that he arguably went too far in the pursuit of success. Tales of his training game bust-ups and relentless pursuit of greatness have led to some observers to label him sociopathic, as his intense commitment to be the best, arguably whatever the cost, create this image of Jordan as cold and ruthless.
Perhaps one of the most poignant moments of the entire series is when Jordan is asked if his determination to be the best (and being the best) has come at the expense of being considered a nice man. A visibly flustered Jordan articulates that winning and leadership “has a price”. He concedes that at times this required “getting in your ass”, but justifies it by saying, “if you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.” This segment offered us mere mortals a glimpse into the mindset of the very elite mentality possessed by only the greatest athletes, namely the persistent and relentless desire to win. The rest, provided it doesn’t break the law, doesn’t really matter.
And here we come to the key to it all. Jordan never signed up to be a role model in regard to how to treat others. He signed up to win basketball games, and did so in a way that no one else has ever done.
One can’t help but feel that the age old debate of whether the ends justify the means and vice versa is at play here. But is this fair? However much we sometimes like to say it is, sport isn’t politics, it isn’t war, it isn’t religion, and so perhaps we should refrain from judging our sports stars in the same ways we do our leaders.
The Last Dance undoubtedly offers an insight into this conversation. On the surface it is a documentary that explores the historic success of the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s, using a wonderful array of real footage to do so. But in reality, it is about greatness, and it is about Michael Jordan. If it tells us anything, then surely it is that true greatness is only destined for a few of us, and that the pursuit of it is a tough, aggressive and egotistical world. Who are we to judge? If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.
Image rights: mccarmona23 via Flickr