Be Like Mike? Who’d wanna be after watching sycophantic, nostalgia-porn Michael Jordan 'documentary' The Last Dance...
Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo
Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, and the much-hyped ESPN 10-part documentary on his career and final championship season with the Chicago Bulls, 'The Last Dance,' which comes to a close this Sunday night, claims to reveal the man behind the legend.
I’ll save you the suspense – spoiler alert – and let you know how the movie ends… the Bulls win a sixth championship and Jordan is never challenged… not on the basketball court. Nor, sadly, in this documentary.
'The Last Dance' isn’t so much a documentary as a piece of '90s nostalgia porn that serves as an exercise in sports media genuflection in the form of an epic, 10-hour infomercial for the Jordan brand.
The film’s alleged claim to fame is that it reveals never-before-seen footage of Jordan during the Bulls’ 1998 championship run. The problem is that Jordan himself controls the rights to this painfully banal and contrived footage, and in order to use it, producers Michael Tollin and Jon Weinbach, as well as ESPN and Netflix, had to make Jordan’s production company, Jump 23, a co-producer on the project. It all means that His Airness got the last word on what does, and does not, make the final cut of 'The Last Dance.' The result of which is more shameless hagiography than documentary.
As a business decision, ESPN and Netflix undoubtedly made the right one, as the film is being devoured by sports-starved fans in the age of coronavirus, and is a runaway success with sky-high ratings.
As a journalistic decision, though, 'The Last Dance' traded away any semblance of journalistic integrity for the golden goose of access. Whether it is embedded journalists with troops in a warzone, or the press making deals in the halls of power, access to power is always acquiescence to power.
Evidence of which is that the 'The Last Dance' doesn’t try to “Be Like Mike” with his trademark tenacity, instead it goes remarkably soft on its subject, and delicately dances around his pronounced shortcomings.
'The Last Dance' feels like one of those interviews with a politician where they are asked: “What are your greatest weaknesses?” And the politician answers, to much eye-rolling, that they “work too hard and care too much.”Also on rt.com Michael Jordan reveals he wanted to sign with ADIDAS, not Nike, but said the sportswear giants WEREN'T INTERESTED enough
The docu-series reduces Jordan’s compulsive gambling and toxic personal behavior and bullying of teammates into simply being the result of his maniacal competitiveness. You see, according to 'The Last Dance,' even Jordan’s personal failures are because he is so great.
The film lays it on particularly thick when teammate B.J. Armstrong claims the notoriously bullying Jordan wasn’t exactly a good guy. Jordan self-pityingly responds, in essence, that his being considered “not a nice guy” is the heavy price he had to pay for his greatness. Jordan then breaks down crying and dramatically declares the interview over. Of course, the hapless director, Jason Hehir, doesn’t dare resist his boss.
There is another telling sequence in the film dealing with Scottie Pippen’s “quitting” on his team in the final 1.8 seconds of a playoff game in 1994, when coach Phil Jackson calls on Toni Kukoc for the final shot instead of Pippen. Jordan comments in the doc that the “quitting” incident "is always going to come back to haunt [Pippen]…”
What is so striking about that sequence is that Jordan wasn’t playing on that Bulls team, he had “retired” at the end of the ‘93 season, supposedly because he was exhausted dealing with the difficulties of superstardom and the omnipresent media.
What did Jordan do in 1994 to escape dealing with fans and the press? Did he go into seclusion? Go fishing? No. He went, with great fanfare, and played minor league baseball, and then 18 months later returned to basketball after the Bulls failed to win a title without him.
According to Jordan and the decidedly deferential 'The Last Dance,' Pippen quitting on his team for 1.8 seconds means he is forever tarred by it, while Jordan, who quit on his team for a full 18 months, is beyond reproach.
The docu-series doesn’t have the journalistic courage to challenge the myth of Jordan at all. If it attempted to be even mildly adversarial, it might highlight that, unlike Jordan, fellow NBA greats like Magic Johnson (five titles) and Bill Russell (11 titles) weren’t jerks to their teammates, but inspirations.
Or that, unlike say Johnson or Larry Bird, who won titles early in their careers, Jordan had to wait until all the great teams of his time, such as the Celtics, Lakers and Pistons, had aged out of their prime before he could go on his championship run in an NBA greatly watered-down due to expansion in the 90s.
It also fails to notice that Jordan’s greatest moments during his reign came against lowly positional rivals like John Starks, Craig Ehlo and Bryon Russell… not exactly Hall of Famers.
Or that since his retirement, his main claim to fame has been a TV advert for Gatorade entitled Be Like Mike, set to the song from 'The Jungle Book.'
The bottom line is this: Jordan is undeniably one of the most aesthetically and athletically dynamic icons in sports history, but 'The Last Dance' isn’t an investigation or even contemplation of the man and his legacy, but rather a cultish coronation that unquestioningly embraces previously manufactured mythmaking. That’s not sports journalism, it’s self-serving sycophancy, and NBA fans deserve much better.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.