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The Last Dance With Michael Jordan

A review of the 10-part TV documentary.

Jordan was a mischievous adolescent, on a path that surely would never bring him to greatness. We are told his father spoke with him, reached him, and enabled him to tow every line, academically and in sports (including baseball). Michael then made it to a mountaintop of college basketball, the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), where he was coached by the legendary Dean Smith. He left college after three years to play pro ball, with Smith’s blessing. A gem of an origin story.

The Last Dance was the title that Bulls coach Phil Jackson gave to their 1997-1998 season, which was Jordan’s final year with Chicago, when they went on to win their sixth championship, another "three-peat."

The Last Dance, as well, is the title of a 10-part documentary, mesmerizing in its action and its reflections, first produced by ESPN and recently available on Netflix. It is replete with archival film from Jordan’s basketball—and baseball—career, especially pro-basketball playoffs and championships. We have a virtual courtside seat in the Chicago arena and on the road. We are taken into practices, the locker room, and the weariness of buses, planes, and commercial hotel rooms. We see the unremitting crush of fans and media on Jordan, the curse of fame. We get to witness time spent by Jordan on golf courses, another of his (competitive) sports passions. There also are plenty of "in your face" confrontations among rivals on the court and with teammates, and, of course, with management.

Jordan’s incubus, his intrinsic demon, was that he could not bear defeat. His was an unwavering, endless determination to win. This theme runs throughout the series, and Jordan himself is not at all reserved about claiming that winning was the only thing. As the show reports, “It don’t mean a thing without that ring.” He did win, abundantly. But was irascible and incessantly pressured his teammates, which often left him little favor with fellow Bulls, and those he faced on other teams. He has been called the “best trash-talker” in the sport.

This series, as much as it centers on Jordan, connects us to other greats, like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller (who famously called Jordan either the Black Jesus or the Black Cat), John Stockton (whose full-court pass, off a rebound, remains a wondrous moment in sports), Isaiah Thomas, Bill Cartwright, Kobe Bryant (one episode is in his memory), Horace Grant, Steve Kerr (the other Chicago Bull’s player whose father was murdered) and many others who get their due share of coverage and comments.

As do Phil Jackson, the Zen-like coach of the Bulls during their dynasty, the made to be despicable general manager, Jerry Krause, and the cerebral Jerry Reinsdorf (who owned both the Bulls and the Whitesox). Even President Obama gets some screen time, himself a devotee of basketball. He remarks that, like himself, Jordan faced the test of being a "black superstar."

Even Disney has a bit part, when Jordan films Space Jam, during a supposed summer break. Supposed because he had Disney build a complete basketball training site, on the production lot, so he could—on top of 10-12 hours of filming—spend hours every day returning to the physical form and playing capabilities he had before he left the Bulls to play baseball.

Tragedy and controversy are finely covered as they darkened Jordan’s later career. These took the form, respectively, of the murder of James Jordan, Michael’s diminutive (5-foot-6-inch) and omnipresent dad, and Michael’s propensity to gambling, seen by many as an “addiction.” Some irresponsible journalists, with no evidence whatsoever, claimed a link between his gambling and the murder. Jordan, at the time in an interview with Connie Chung, said he didn’t have an “addiction” problem but one of being fiercely competitive, all the time.

It was the murder of his father that seemed to be Jordan’s greatest trial. In the wake of his father’s death, and amplified by Jerry Kraus’s determination to “rebuild the team”—and get rid of Jackson—Jordan left the Bulls and basketball for 18 months. Tears streamed throughout Chicago.

Jordan went to play baseball. For the farm team of the Chicago Whitesox. In this documentary, we also get to travel from the hardwood floors to the baseball diamond. A terrific film excursion, and no less revealing of Jordan’s character. Jerry Reinsdorf remarks that Jordan could have made it into the majors because of how swiftly and ably he improved. His work ethic was unrivaled as was his need to excel, to win. But then a baseball strike, when Jordan refused to break the picket line, interrupted that chapter of his life. He was ready to return to greatness with the Bulls.

If more could have been packed into the scope of this vast and totally entertaining documentary, I would have wanted more backstory. How, especially, can we understand the genesis of Jordan’s unrelenting, at times ruthless competitiveness, so much a theme of this show? Jordan had but one objective: winning. When it came to winning, he was 100 on a scale of 10. Where did that come from? How was it sustained? More backstory, as well, could help us understand the intensely close relationship Jordan had with his dad, who was forever at Michael’s side, truly his closest friend.

After 10 episodes of The Last Dance, you can feel like you have traveled near and far—in geography, psychology, sociology, sports, entertainment, media, and business. We meet people we never would otherwise. We are able to peer under the hood of the boundless passion that sports unleashes; in players, fans, coaches, trainers, commentators, writers, weekend “warriors” (still trying to score), those of us who sit on couches glued to the TV, and many others. We see the price of glory as well as the sheer and ceaseless work that excellence requires. The documentary’s personality explorations and insights into complex family, friends, and professional relationships are done with intelligence and care, says this psychiatrist.

You don’t need to be a sports fan to be taken on The Last Dance’s great ride.

Michael Jordan was the best ever to play basketball. He was a hugely successful leader, in his own way, true to his nature and aims. A man who led his team to the cover of the NYT Magazine as the best basketball team, ever. An American icon.

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