The Last Dance set to stand the test of time
Updated: Dec 5, 2022
We are yet to reach the halfway point of The Last Dance - ESPN's epic homage to Michael Jordan (and the 97/98 Chicago Bulls) - and there has already been avalanche of acclaim for what is shaping up to be a seminal series.
Given Michael Jordan's demigod status on the basketball court and the reverence with which he held by sports fans around the world, it was of course entirely predictable that The Last Dance would be a slam dunk. When the main subject is one the most reported and recognised athletes we've ever known and the script is known from start to finish, it's a tough task to make the storytelling original and compelling. That's just one of the reasons it's such a captivating watch so far. Jason Hehir and his team have done a brilliant job in stitching 10,000 hours of footage together and creating a narrative that works: cutting back and forth from the 97/98 season, to the formative years of the key protagonists, to explain exactly why we are watching the last throws of the Bulls dynasty and the career of the sports greatest player.
Notwithstanding, in amongst the awe-inspiring action and anecdotes, there are some questionable character traits on display in the first four episodes that provide an awkward undertone and, so far, seem to have been glossed over in much of series, and the subsequent media coverage. Indeed, you could could argue that Jordan's legendary competitiveness and 'win at all costs' mentality is being used as a valid excuse for his unsavoury side (covered in detail here). With media and fans alike get caught up in a collective nostalgia, desperation to see the unseen and our enduring affection for a sporting icon, the documentary has so far skirted around this key issue.
The question is why? Perhaps it's a simple case that nobody wants to be the one to criticise the GOAT. Or an acknowledgement of a different era? Maybe the social conditions we find ourselves in at this particular moment in time are impacting on our rationalisation of what we are witnessing? Everyone will have their own take on whether the documentary is objective and critical enough, but let me offer a few reasons as to why the series, and the media reporting of it, has been overwhelmingly positive.
COVID-19 With the ongoing hiatus in live sport this series couldn't come soon enough for ESPN and sports fans around the world. Networks have collectively lost millions of viewers due to the cancellation of sports events and documentaries and archive footage is the closest substitute for live coverage. It was a smart move by ESPN to bring the premiere forwards from June to April and fill the live sport void left by the COVID-19 outbreak. Without any live events competing for attention, The Last Dance has been left wide open with a buzzer beater for the win.
Imagine for a moment a world where Coronavirus didn't exist. If The Last Dance was aired during an epic NBA Finals series dominated by LeBron James and the Lakers, would the series have the same cut-through or the narrative be as strong? Are we just thankful we can watch this treasure trove of unseen footage and happy to celebrating a sporting icon without asking ourselves if he should be held to greater account for some of his more unpleasant attributes?
ESPN's Marketing Campaign
With The Last Dance, ESPN ripped up the rule book on how to publicise sports-focused series. This was already the most highly-anticipated sports documentary of all time, but ESPN approached it's release like a Hollywood movie and marketed it accordingly. Their strategy, as outlined in this article, was to tease potential audiences with trailers as far as 18 months in advance, then maintain interest levels with additional promos at six months, three months, one month and, finally, the first five minutes of the episode one, in the days before release.
There is no doubt this strategy worked, and with COVID-19 inadvertently playing a hand by suspending live sport, it raised anticipation to a whole new level. Due to the lack of live events, ESPN has been able to prioritise it's promo spots and focus all editorial attention on the series. They've used all owned platforms and channels available and used ESPN's popular daily programming - including The Jump, First Take, Get Up, Highly Questionable, and Jalen & Jacoby - to push controlled editorial lines before and after the latest episodes.
Quite simply, The Last Dance has dominated the sports conversation in the US and, via it's global distribution strategy with Netflix, has quickly become the most in-demand documentary worldwide too.
Perhaps in approaching this series like a Hollywood blockbuster, ESPN has fallen in to the trap of providing an ending where all expectations are met - Jordan is still untouchable, Pippen is still Robin to MJ's Batman, The Bad Boys are still the villains and Jerry Krause is still responsible for breaking up a dynasty before it was done. Any questions that were going to challenge the status quo were parked to ensure a storybook ending with Jordan as the superhero.
The Jordan Rules
No not those ones. It's no secret that the NBA has been sitting on this footage for 22 years waiting for Michael Jordan to green light to what became The Last Dance. As this excellent article by Ramona Shelburne on the origins of the series reveals, sign-off finally came in 2016, shortly after LeBron James won his third NBA title with a for-the-ages win over a Golden State Warriors team that had just bettered Jordan's Bulls best-ever regular season record. This wasn't a coincidence, rather a calculated choice by the ultimate competitor to reassert his supremacy over a contender to his thrown as the sport's GOAT.
The very fact that Jordan was the kingmaker in the project says much about the positioning of the series and is perhaps the single biggest factor in why the documentary appears to vacate the lane rather than take the contact and confront some of the tougher questions.
A hallmark of other ESPN films, ones that have maintained an independence from the main subject, or found one will to open themselves up and admit to past errors in judgement, has been their critical and unflinching approach. Maybe this will come in later episodes.
What can't be debated is the fact The Last Dance was ESPN's most ambitious film project to date and it hasn't disappointed from a ratings perspective. The first four episodes are the most-viewed original content broadcasts on ESPN Networks since 2004, with an average audience of 6 million across ESPN & ESPN2. That's before taking in to account the global numbers from Netflix.
The overriding emotion from absorbing the first four episodes, and having read many great articles reviewing them, is that this will undoubtedly stand the test of time as the must-watch content for anyone with an interest in Jordan, the Bulls, basketball, and sport in general. Just reliving the moments is thrill enough but, when you add the unseen footage and insights from 100+ interviews, it's truly monumental.
As a viewer, you just have to remind yourself that what you are watching is happening more than 20 years ago. Although it still feels like yesterday, the internet was in its infancy and social media didn't exist - a lot has changed and athletes, their attitudes and actions, are measured by different standards today.
Just as the torch as the league's leading player was passed from Michael to Kobe and from Kobe to LeBron, the expectations of society as to how you should behave on and off the court has changed immeasurably. Perhaps this was the determining factor for the filmmakers in framing their portrayal.
Jordan entered the league in a 'greed is good' era and became the poster boy for the commercialisation and globalisation of sport and its biggest stars. In the present, players are judged not only by what they do on the court. Now they must play in the right style and spirit, be supportive teammates, inspirational leaders and flawless ambassadors for the game, while also displaying a social and political conscience.
Now, how you win is as important as winning itself. Jordan was the ultimate competitor and was not afraid to show it. The Last Dance captures that fire in all it's glory, not everyone will like every single way that manifests itself, but it was of its time and that is what it should be measured against.
Update May 9, 2020
There have been some brilliant articles written covering some of the themes I raised in the days since I published this post. These go in to far more detail and are written far more eloquently than my words here so check them out!
The Last Dance: Is the Michael Jordan documentary a dressed-up puff piece? [The Guardian] https://amp.theguardian.com/sport/2020/may/09/the-last-dance-michael-jordan-netflix
The Unfortunate Ugliness of ‘The Last Dance’ [The Nation] https://www.thenation.com/article/society/michael-jordan-last-dance/
Michael Jordan couldn’t get away with his apolitical brand building in 2020 [Fast Company] https://www.fastcompany.com/90500636/michael-jordan-couldnt-get-away-with-his-apolitical-brand-building-in-2020