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‘The Last Dance’ review: A ringside view to when Michael Jordan ruled

Michael Jordan in ‘The Last Dance’

Michael Jordan in ‘The Last Dance’  

The ESPN/ Netflix docu-series is a spectacular effort in deconstructing the competitive spirit and career of the legend, who still sits on top of basketball’s echelons

For many, the NBA first entered the sports fandom lexicon in India in the late 1990s. My first memories of being affixed with watching basketball on screen — it was probably on the Internet in the late 1990s — was seeing a gif image of Michael Jordan ascending from the free throw line, with his limbs in flight, his mouth agape and tongue out, stretching his arms to the rim and dunking with elan. This image was spectacular to watch, it seemed like Jordan was flying, and “Air Jordan” was a moniker that stuck in the subconscious quickly.

More than two decades since I viewed that image, Jordan still looms large in the basketball world. Currently a majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets, Jordan’s athleticism during his playing days and his winning mentality is still inspiring young hoopsters across the globe and his Nike shoes running into several editions are still selling like hotcakes. It is no wonder that the ESPN-produced and Netflix-hosted The Last Dance series is such a hit, aided by the fact that basketball activity has been halted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Last Dance is named after the theme given by former coach Phil Jackson of the Chicago Bulls to describe the 1997-98 season as he and his colleagues went to prepare to win the NBA championship for the sixth time. Jackson coached the team that achieved two “three-peats” (three titles in a row) and in which there were just four other key constants: the superstar Michael Jordan, his sidekick Scottie Pippen, the team’s general manager Jerry Krause and the team’s owner Jerry Reinsdorf among other supporting staff.

In this June 11, 1997 file photo, Chicago Bulls Scottie Pippen, right, embraces an exhausted Michael Jordan following their win in Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz, in Salt Lake City. The flu-like illness Jordan fought through to lead the Bulls to a crucial victory in the 1997 NBA Finals created instant fodder for the virtue of perseverance

In this June 11, 1997 file photo, Chicago Bulls Scottie Pippen, right, embraces an exhausted Michael Jordan following their win in Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz, in Salt Lake City. The flu-like illness Jordan fought through to lead the Bulls to a crucial victory in the 1997 NBA Finals created instant fodder for the virtue of perseverance   | Photo Credit: JACK SMITH

This group and its aligned cast of role players, coaches, and others built a dynasty that ruled over the NBA in the 1990s and their success catapulted an once-in-a-generation superstar Michael Jordan into a global icon. Jordan’s exploits in the NBA and in international basketball spawned a massive fandom for the sport, inspiring scores of athletes world over and has directly influenced the globalisation of the NBA today which features 108 international players from across 38 countries and territories.

So why was the 1997-98 season, the ‘last dance’ for this group? This is the question that sets off the Netflix series. Jerry Krause, who took over as general manager of the Bulls in 1985 (a year after Jordan was drafted third by the Bulls in the NBA draft), built and rebuilt the squads that delivered Jordan his six championships. He also had the foresight to hire Phil Jackson as an assistant coach in 1987 and promote him to the head coaching slot in 1989, in introducing the brains behind the Bulls’ vaunted “Triangle Offence”, Tex Winter to Jackson besides drafting Pippen, Toni Kukoc and a number of key players for the team.

But as they say, “familiarity breeds contempt”. Jordan resented the insinuation that the front office deserved the credit for the Bulls’ success. Pippen, who took a longer contract with a lower yearly pay in the early part of his career sought a contract renegotiation with Krause to no avail and that fuelled his antipathy to the front office. Jackson and Krause’s friendship had melted into open disdain and Krause had decided that the 1998 season was going to be Jackson’s last. This made Jackson’s labelling the season as the “last dance” and the premise for the documentary.

The Last Dance (mini-series/ documentary)
  • Director: Jason Hehir
  • Seasons: 1
  • No. of episodes: 10
  • Storyline: The docu-series traces Michael Jordan’s career with the Chicago Bulls, along with exclusive unaired footage from the 1997–98 Bulls season, his final season with the team

The series features visuals from the exclusive access granted to a camera crew to the Bulls locker room for the season and intersperses the linear telling of the Bulls’ year with storylines from the past, beginning with Jordan’s journey into college basketball and then the pros, Pippen’s rise from poverty and rural America into becoming one of the most versatile players in the league, the addition of the maverick athlete Dennis Rodman and his hedonistic ways that went along with his ferocious defensive play on the court, among other stories.

In this May 19, 1998, file photo, Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan looks at the MVP award presented to him before the Bulls-Indiana Pacers playoff game in Chicago

In this May 19, 1998, file photo, Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan looks at the MVP award presented to him before the Bulls-Indiana Pacers playoff game in Chicago   | Photo Credit: FRANK POLICH

Just as Jordan dominated the sports landscape in the 1990s, his overwhelming presence looms over the series, which tracks his progress as the lone superstar carrying a mediocre team in the 1980s, becoming the lynchpin of a improvisational system (the Triangle Offence) which allows him to overcome his nemesis (the Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s), sharpening his competitive instinct and ferocity in leading the Bulls to become a ruthless outfit and a multiple championship winner. The series also tracks the rise and rise of Jordan into a basketball legend, a sporting icon and an invaluable brand who fuelled the popularity of the sport, the NBA and the sneaker industry to new heights. It also dwells on the controversies and lows of his career: his widely publicised gambling exploits, his father’s murder that motivated his unprecedented early “retirement” to pursue a short career in professional baseball.

I have only seen eight episodes of the ten part series so far and we know the ending: the champion Bulls were dismantled after the 1998 season and they never tasted glory again since then. But the intrigue that played into the season during The Last Dance, is well worth seeing it through. As a basketball nut, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Jordan and the late Kobe Bryant’s careers. Bryant, who tragically died in a helicopter accident earlier this year, modelled not just his game on Jordan, but his mentality and approach towards winning. Bryant’s talent was not as profound as Jordan, and he couldn’t always find the right admixture between seeking glory for himself and using his teammates to reach the winning goal. But he won five championships too, one less than Jordan.

As for Jordan, he retired in 1998 after coming back from his hiatus in 1995, only to “un-retire”, again, and this time to suit up for the Washington Wizards for a couple more years. He had limited success but there was no let-up on the spotlight even in his advanced years, as he retired finally as an “All-Star” with players and competitors paying obeisance to him wherever he went.

In this June 16, 1998, file photo, NBA Champions, from left: Ron Harper, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan and coach Phil Jackson are joined on stage by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, second from right, during a city-wide rally in Chicago to celebrate the Chicago Bulls 6th NBA championship

In this June 16, 1998, file photo, NBA Champions, from left: Ron Harper, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan and coach Phil Jackson are joined on stage by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, second from right, during a city-wide rally in Chicago to celebrate the Chicago Bulls 6th NBA championship   | Photo Credit: BETH A. KEISER

Jordan has had a less than stellar career as a front office executive: first as a general manager with the Wizards, and later as owner of the Bobcats/Hornets, and knowing what we do from watching the series, it must be really hard on him to see his teams not succeed. But Jordan as a brand remains vibrant, and has propelled the 57-year-old to become the fourth richest African-American in the U.S. He still carries the slights he received — again, perceived or real — to fuel him; witness his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, that would have been termed petty if one didn’t understand what motivated Jordan all his life.

No other team has managed to win six championships since Jordan retired; only Bryant’s Lakers (also coached by Phil Jackson) and the San Antonio Spurs came close with five with diametrically different approaches. LeBron James has threatened to conquer the Jordan-peak with three titles and numerous individual accolades, but for many, Jordan still sits on the top of basketball’s echelons: a ruthless winner all the way. And the series that deconstructs his legend explains to us, how and why.

The Last Dance is currently streaming on Netflix

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