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Like many of you, I spent 10 hours over the last five weeks watching the story of Michael Jordan unfold in a dizzying array of flash-forwards, -sideways and -backs. I was about to turn 10 years old when Jordan won his first title, about to turn 17 when he won his last. I was a basketball fan for the bulk of this run, albeit in the vague removed way it was possible to be a basketball fan in that era — following the league through newspaper box scores, Sports Illustrated cover stories, SportsCenter highlight packages and the national television broadcast schedule.
As a Pacers fan (living in upstate New York), I was always rooting against Jordan. He was the defining character for my formative basketball years but always as a foil, a villain, the final boss in a game that Reggie, Rik and the Davis boys could never beat. My sense of Jordan was shaped by his frustrating basketball inevitability and the visceral abrasiveness of his competitive intensity.
When the premiere of The Last Dance was announced I expected, perhaps naively, that it would be a look at the Jordan I never had the chance to see. The Jordan we might all know intimately if he had played in the era of social media and League Pass, ubiquitous cameras and first-person features at The Player’s Tribune. And after 10 hours, I’m a little disappointed to find out that Jordan is pretty much who I thought he was.
The doc definitely shared anecdotes I’d never heard, built an incredible library of new quotes and memes that will be with us for years, and contextualized events I hadn’t really understood decades ago, as they unfolded in real-time. We heard things in his own words, his versions of events, many, for the first time. But I don’t think the documentary ever delivered on the implied promise of offering new insights into Jordan’s character or motivations.
Ten hours later, it’s just as clear that he was a transcendent athlete who helped shape a generation of basketball and the culture at large with his historic accomplishments. He forged that professional path by outworking (many of) his peers, scraping and sweating for any extra edge he could build on top of his prodigious talent. He was a human being who survived a slew of personal tragedies, who valued loyalty and could be incredibly generous and protective of friends and family.
He was also a viciously unbearable asshead. A bully who used emotional abuse to assert dominance. A player who came to blows with more than one teammate and publicly belittled his bosses. A professional at the top of his game who took everything personally — slights both real and contrived, from both equals and inferiors — to fuel his competitive drive. In just 10 episodes we heard Jordan unpack or allude to personal feuds with Karl Malone, Byron Russell, LaBradford Smith, Isiah Thomas, the Pistons, Reggie Miller, the Pacers, Jerry Krause, the Orlando Magic, Toni Kukoc, Clyde Drexler, Dan Majerle, Charles Barkley, B.J. Armstrong and George Karl. And those were just the ones relevant enough to the overall narrative arc to be included in the movie. Surely they are just the tip of his motivational iceberg.
I understand those fans who are enthralled by the overwhelming brilliance of his on-court achievements. I understand the usefulness of his mythology as a parable for the value of hard work and dedication to a craft. But I also loathe the way the darker aspects of his character — the bullying and general assheadery — are conflated with his work ethic and folded in as necessary if regrettable pieces of the process. As Pablo Torre said so succinctly, “A legendary leader does not have to be a legendary jerk.”
And if you would argue that Jordan’s behavior was necessary to help draw the best out of Scott Burrell or Jud Buechler, please tell me how Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have been able to consistently get the best out of fringe role players without telling them they’d “whip their ass” the next time they seem them. Or ask yourself how Tim Duncan was able to win titles with Will Perdue and Steve Kerr without punching them in the face in practice. Look at Kerr and the Warriors and tell me which dynastic experience — his time with Jordan or his time with the Spurs — had a bigger hand in shaping his inarguably effective coaching style.
The Last Dance was a fun and engrossing watch but I feel a little let down in the lack of illumination. Jordan’s life experience doesn’t seem to have changed his perception of himself and watching him narrate that experience didn’t change my perception of him either. He was who he appeared to be when he was still playing basketball. A flawed human being (like all of us) who did both good and bad, created both joy and pain for the people around him. He was an incredible athlete whose accomplishments are something to aspire to and whose process (and the mythology around it) has poisoned the well, creating unreasonable expectations for many young stars, an unhealthy interpersonal template for athletes who followed him and an absurdly inappropriate idea of excellence for people to apply to other domains.
I recognize I’m in the somewhat luxurious position of living a life without public stakes. There is no city, no millions of fans with an emotional investment in whether I become the best in my field. But, this Monday morning, I’m more comfortable than ever with the knowledge that I would trade a great deal of professional success for simple happiness and human decency. To each their own, but after 10 hours of The Last Dance, I’m absolutely positive I don’t want to Be Like Mike.
If you missed the final two episodes of The Last Dance, Gerald Bourguet has you covered with a thorough recap. If you just want to skip to the good stuff, check out the best quotes and biggest revelations.
From one fascinating documentary, directly into another. Quibi has released, Blackballed, their Chris Paul-produced look at Donald Sterling’s racist behavior and the circumstances that resulted in the end of his ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers. Here’s everything you need to know about this film and its unconventional presentation.
As long as we’re making basketball documentaries, Gerald Bourguet has ideas for a few more from the 1990s that he’d love to see.
The Final Tango > The Last Dance.