What will be the legacy of “The Last Dance”? ESPN’s 10-part documentary series about Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls concluded on Sunday night, offering unprecedented access to one of the greatest dynasties and players of all time. With the NBA season on hold, Jordan and that era of basketball helped fill the void.
So, what does this mean for MJ’s legacy, and how will it affect future generations of superstars?
ESPN’s NBA experts reflect on the series and what’s next.
MORE: Everything you need to know about “The Last Dance”
MJ completely changed the game
Kirk Goldsberry: During his final 60 seconds in a Bulls uniform, Michael Jordan scored six points, recorded one gargantuan steal and sank one of the most legendary jump shots in basketball history, propelling his team to its third consecutive championship.
The way Jordan sealed that victory in the 1998 NBA Finals — crafting and executing a Hollywood ending unlike anything we’d ever witnessed — remains unrivaled more than two decades later.
Consider MJ’s last three plays. John Stockton had just sank a triple, putting the Utah Jazz up by three points with 42 seconds left. Then, Jordan imposed his will while demonstrating what made his game both transcendent and revolutionary:
Play No. 1: Chicago calls timeout. On the broadcast, Doug Collins says that the Bulls desperately need a 2-for-1 to stay in the game. Jordan catches an inbounds pass on the Jazz decal. All eyes are on him. Nobody expects him to pass. Doesn’t matter. He just races right past Bryon Russell to the rack for a quick 2 that brings the Bulls within one point.
Play No. 2: The Jazz try to kill the clock before finally posting up Karl Malone on the left block. Everyone knows it’s coming — especially Jordan, who swoops in and steals the rock from the second-leading scorer in league history.
Play No. 3: The Bulls don’t call timeout (because they have Jordan), and MJ never lets go of the ball before he goes and buries the world-famous series clincher over Russell. One reason that this move works — aside from the push-off — is that Jordan had just torched Russell to the rim on the previous trip. Ballgame.
Like watching Mikhail Baryshnikov in the time of TikTok, revisiting Jordan in 2020 has been a trip. Those three final acts perfectly epitomize Jordan’s game, his career and his singular form of greatness. He shifted the game out to the perimeter, thriving off dominant shot creation. He slew the sanctity of big men in the process. And he became the definition of clutch.
After steeping in 10 hours of archival snippets, whiskey-soaked interviews and dramatic montages, we’re dropped back on the doorstep of an uncertain new decade in basketball history. But one thing is clear: Nobody will be like Mike ever again.
MJ embraces his own mythology
Zach Lowe: I’m not sure what the screen-time math says, but in totality, “The Last Dance” felt more like a documentary about Michael Jordan than one about the 1997-98 Bulls. The filmmakers devoted early episodes to Chicago’s other stars, but those always included Jordan’s thoughts on those characters and what they meant to him. When non-Bulls discussed Jordan, he got the last word via iPad.
And that’s fine! I devoured every second of “The Last Dance.” Jordan is the main character of the Bulls’ story, and of the modern NBA, and in that sense every other person until maybe LeBron James is a side character in a larger Jordan-centric arc. Even now, Jordan’s wordless presence is the looming threat in Bleacher Report’s “Game of Zones.” Jordan’s centrality needed no boosting.
There were small moments throughout when it felt as if Jordan was intentionally feeding the narrative that he drove almost every event around him — that he had to overcome the weaknesses in others, or help them overcome those weaknesses themselves.
When filmmakers bring up Scottie Pippen‘s migraine on the day of Game 7 of the 1990 conference finals against the Detroit Pistons, the camera catches Jordan smirking — eyes alight. Whatever Jordan meant with that look, he and the filmmakers had to know the impression it would give: that Jordan still doesn’t quite buy the severity of Pippen’s migraine, or the notion that any migraine — any malady at all — could impact his own performance in a big game. (Jordan has grounds to believe that about himself. Witness the Flu Game, and his refusal to heed medical advice for a broken foot during the 1985-86 season.)
When recounting Dennis Rodman‘s ejection from an early-season game in 1997 — a game Pippen missed recovering from foot surgery — Jordan recalls his anger at Rodman for “leaving me out there by myself.” It’s a throwaway phrase, but it renders everyone else faceless and meaningless. He scoffs at Gary Payton‘s defense in the 1996 Finals. Shawn Kemp, who outplayed Payton and arguably Jordan in that series, is barely mentioned in the discussion of it.
Episode 7 is perhaps the most memorable, interrogating Jordan’s ruthlessness as a teammate. He punches Steve Kerr and Will Perdue, and taunts Scott Burrell. In the “Rocky”-like montage that ends it, Jordan describes how he had to show teammates the toughness required to win — to “drag” some of them along — as footage rolls of Jordan winning practice drills. In those moments, the particulars vanish, leaving only a general gut feeling in viewers: Jordan transformed these guys into champions. Even if no one explicitly says it, the impression that will linger is that Kerr, and Burrell, and everyone else performed in the clutch only because Jordan steeled them for it.
There is truth to all that. Jordan more than anyone made the Bulls champions. His tough love likely had some effect. But Jordan in a way underestimated himself. He demonstrated plenty of toughness and mettle without verbal or physical abuse. His example — his work, his play, his gutting through injury and illness — did enough talking. The old Chicago approach didn’t work in Washington, when a lesser Jordan tried it on lesser teammates.
Jordan is the greatest and most charismatic player ever. He appeared then, and appears now, invincible. I get goosebumps watching old highlights, and when I hear “From North Carolina!” or even “Sometimes I dream …” He required no subtle mythologizing.
Those hints stand out even more because Jordan in “The Last Dance” fades into the background when it is convenient for him: in the controversy of Isiah Thomas’ exclusion from the Dream Team. The way Jordan tells it in the film, he never mentioned Thomas to organizers. The historical record, including some audiotapes in the possession of the longtime Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum, contradicts that account.
The film is a huge achievement. There are so many images and clips I will never forget. Hearing the unearthed audio of Jordan heaving and bellowing tears on the floor after winning the 1996 Finals sent the rarest kind of jolt through me. The documentary is entertaining every second, and revealing — maybe even in ways Jordan didn’t expect.
Was Jordan’s tough love necessary?
Jackie MacMullan: The indelible image of “The Last Dance” occurs when Michael Jordan is pressed on why it was necessary for him to be such a tyrant to teammates who were mere mortals lacking his athletic gifts and mental tenacity. That’s when the veneer cracks. In a moment that is both fleeting and remarkable, we peer into the soul of this impenetrable icon, who, in spite of himself, reveals the wounded emotions of a man who simply wanted to be liked in addition to being revered.
“Break,” Jordan directs the crew, as he fights off those unexpected tears.
Jordan was neither the first nor the last superstar to callously demand more of his running mates. Magic Johnson purposely threw the ball at veteran Jamaal Wilkes’ head so he would become accustomed to Johnson’s no-look passes. Larry Bird proclaimed his teammates “sissies” after being trounced by the Lakers in Game 3 of the 1984 NBA Finals. Kobe Bryant ruthlessly shamed Dwight Howard, publicly and privately, during their brief tenure in Los Angeles together.
So is tough love a necessary ingredient for a championship recipe? Jordan fervently believed it was. He felt compelled to drag along his less gifted teammates for their own good, challenging them with such vigor that some feared him, and others, at various points, despised him.
It’s impossible to say whether the Bulls could have won six championships without that tension. Jordan argued that by continuously requiring his fellow Bulls perform under duress — duress he manufactured — it would prepare them for when the lights were the brightest and the pressure at its apex.
Knowing Jordan and the tunnel vision that drove him, he was likely unaware of the psychological damage he was inflicting on his Chicago comrades. For him, the only thing that mattered was hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, even if that meant some uncomfortable interactions along the way.
I would even guess that reviewing the footage of former teammates calling him “an a–hole” (or worse) may have been mildly shocking to Jordan. He did it for them, for the team. Didn’t they understand that?
The path to greatness is often a daunting journey. The underbelly of Jordan’s ethereal run is the surgical precision with which he manipulated the emotions of his teammates, and the friendships it may have cost him. “The Last Dance” does highlight Jordan’s evolution of learning how to trust, whether embracing Scottie Pippen in his later years as his confidant and near equal, or allowing Phil Jackson to wrench the ball from his hands, or counting on players such as John Paxson and Steve Kerr to take the big shot.
In Episode 9, Kerr reveals that while he too endured the heartache of the murder of his own father, who was a professor in Beirut, he and Jordan never discussed their shared anguish. “Michael lived a different life than the rest of us,” Kerr said “It was hard to reach him emotionally.”
And, yet, we witness the poignant relationship between Jordan and Gus Lett, his longtime security guard, who raced to MJ’s side when he called in the middle of the night, sobbing over the loss of his father. When Lett was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Jordan was a constant presence at the hospital and his home, offering love and support.
That softer side of Jordan surely could have benefited his teammates, but if he could do it all over again, my hunch is MJ would handle himself much in the same manner. The results — six rings — are right there, the legacy cemented forever.
Besides, Michael Jordan has always understood the burden of rarified air: It’s lonely at the top.
The breaking point of greatness
Steve Kerr, Bill Wennington and Phil Jackson remember how the 1997-98 season got referred to as “The Last Dance.”
Ramona Shelburne: A few years ago I went on a vacation and dropped my phone in a creek. It was a stupid accident. I’d been walking at night and pulled my phone out to use the flashlight. I fumbled it, juggled it and ultimately dropped it. But when the phone splashed into the water, I didn’t get angry or freak out. I laughed.
“I think that’s some kind of sign,” I said to my husband.
I had just come off of our traditional late-season run — NBA playoffs, draft, free agency and summer league — and was feeling particularly exhausted and burnt out. I needed this vacation badly. Perhaps my subconscious even made sure I got it by fumbling that cell phone into the water.
I thought about that a lot as I watched “The Last Dance,” seeing how some of the most intense, competitive men in professional sports dealt with the consequences of pushing themselves so hard for so long.
There’s the scene with Michael Jordan on the golf course, explaining how much he appreciated his coach, Phil Jackson, for understanding that players in the crucible of the playoffs need a day off, outside on the links to clear their heads, not an extra day of practice before the next game.
There’s Jordan escaping with his father to gamble in Atlantic City, the night before a playoff game against the New York Knicks.
There’s Dennis Rodman running off to Las Vegas with Carmen Electra for a 48-hour vacation in the middle of the 1998 season, and then heading to Detroit — in the middle of the Finals! — to wrestle Hulk Hogan.
There’s Jackson riding off to his cabin in Montana every summer or leading guided meditations sessions instead of scrimmages.
And, of course, there is Jordan, retiring after the 1993 season to play baseball, because he was absolutely exhausted by leading the Bulls to three straight titles and gutted by his father’s murder.
The kind of fire you need to perform at the level that Jordan, Jackson, Rodman and the rest of the Bulls did during their run is almost impossible to sustain in a healthy way for a long period of time.
There are escapes from it. Coping mechanisms. Attempts at balance. But that level of focus, desire and determination is inherently unstable. The best anyone who pushes themselves that hard can hope for is to recognize — in themselves and in others — when they have reached a breaking point, then channeling that energy into something that isn’t self-destructive.
I think that was one of Jackson’s unique gifts as a coach, and a key reason why he took two franchises on sustained runs of greatness during his 20-year coaching career. He understood not only when to give his players space, but why they needed it. And it built a bond and a trust between them that sustained a dynasty.
This isn’t the end
Brian Windhorst: Today’s superstars have a new path to follow Michael Jordan down.
For 20 years, they’ve been chasing his championships, his impact and wealth from the shoe world, his marketing and branding dominance, his moviemaking, his ownership of a team and his ability to extend his influence and money-making ability long beyond his playing years. Jordan is best-in-class across that board.
And now “The Last Dance.”
There are a number of big-name players who have established their own media or production companies over the past decade. Kevin Durant and Chris Paul have both come out with documentary projects in the past week alone. LeBron James has two different media companies churning out content. Dwyane Wade, James Harden and Stephen Curry are also on this expansive list of stars-turned-executive producers. Kobe Bryant, of course, was the only man with an NBA MVP and an Oscar.
Well, Jordan has one-upped them all again, setting a new standard for career documentaries to strive for.
There has been plenty of discussion as “The Last Dance” has rolled out about what it is not. This era’s most decorated documentarian, Ken Burns, told The Wall Street Journal that, “If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made, it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period.”
Yes, that is correct. It isn’t a Ken Burns documentary. But that doesn’t mean it’s not great. It can be both.
It’s mythmaking, score settling and, in stretches, vicious. We all understand that. And when James, Curry or Durant sit down and make their life stories, they would do well to do that exact same thing.
We won’t forget the unvarnished and semi-unflattering behind-the-scenes access, or the haughty laughter aimed at adversaries. Let Burns say what he wants, but you cannot do anything except laud director Jason Hehir for the concept of showing Jordan trash talk on an iPad and capturing his reaction in real, meme-making time — from his still-festering dislike of late general manager Jerry Krause down to the cutting analysis of his teammates. All of that.
When “King James” — or whatever LeBron’s epic documentary will be called — is released in 10 or 15 years, it’s expected to be filled with glorification of the 2016 Finals, trash talk of Draymond Green when both are graybeards, a rewritten narrative around The Decision and pregame huddle speeches in which James sounds like a Roman general before going into battle.
And it’s also now expected that James will talk with perspective about his comments following the NBA’s controversy with China, when he said that, “We do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.” Jordan set that expectation by addressing his “Republicans buy sneakers too” comments.
Jordan is not perfect, and neither is this 10 hours about his life and basketball career. But both are awe-inspiring. MJ’s basketball inspiration has gifted fans with generations of wonderful players trying to be like him, filling so many of our days with enjoyment of this chasing of mastery.
Let’s hope this project can help create more joy in the years to come from those who follow in its footsteps.