In the 1990s, Michael Jordan was arguably the most famous human being on the planet. At the height of his powers – and that was quite some height and those were quite some powers – he was the face of not only the Chicago Bulls, but basketball as a whole. The icon was an iconoclast of what was believed to be possible on a court, his versatile, seemingly innate offensive skills balanced out by defensive ones honed through intense study and practice.
But in 1997, four years after Jordan’s first three-peat – consecutive NBA titles in 1991, 1992 and 1993 – and with a second triple on the cards, fans began to feel that the end was nigh for the Bulls dynasty and their star man. Tension between Jordan and the Bulls’ front office combined with timing to set up what coach Phil Jackson would call “The Last Dance” – the subject and title of director Jason Hehir’s new documentary on ESPN and Netflix.
In truth, The Last Dance feels more like an exposé, an enthralling piece of television that is educational for the uninitiated but also revealing for diehard fans of basketball.
Back in his heyday, everyone wanted a piece of Jordan. Even celebrities like Prince, Jerry Seinfeld and Spike Lee, as the documentary shows. As a result, there are myriad takes on who the man was – but the sheer volume and variety of footage in The Last Dance will likely undermine those of even the keenest followers of Jordan.
Hehir’s series draws from a seemingly limitless archive of immersive footage from the Nineties – from Jordan cycling around his college campus to team-mate Dennis Rodman gallivanting in Las Vegas – and the documentary’s greatest strength is its ability to balance this content with exclusive interviews from the present day. The number of contributors is staggering, the unfettered access Hehir achieved laid bare.
Jordan anchors the series, while star teammates Scottie Pippen and Rodman are among a host of NBA legends to speak. Key characters in the Bulls hierarchy appear, as do journalists, former agents, childhood friends, college room-mates and Jordan’s mother. Former US president Barack Obama, a Chicago native, even appears throughout.
The Last Dance gives respect and screen time to every relevant personality, and from the opening moments, it is clear that Hehir – director of 2018’s Andre The Giant – delights in his time with Jordan and co. He relishes the chance to explore one of the most significant periods in sporting history and makes certain not to squander his opportunity.
Hehir’s fear of being formulaic fosters a compelling freshness, and his ability to subtly segue between tones ensures Jordan’s auras of magnetism and intensity are highlighted at the appropriate moments – as is the mistrust that festered beneath the 1997 and 1998 season and led to “The Last Dance”.
Much like Jordan in so many of the memorable games the documentary revisits, The Last Dance frequently finds ways to come up clutch.
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The Last Dance will air in weekly, double-bill instalments – from Sunday night on ESPN in the US, and from Monday on Netflix for the rest of the world.
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