Glued to ESPN Sunday nights this spring, I tuned in with millions of basketball fans to catch The Last Dance, a 10-part documentary series spotlighting Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty leading up to their last run at a championship in 1997-98. Having been too young to remember much of the Jordan era, I was surprised to find myself—a lifelong Lakers fan—mesmerized with this series, coproduced by ESPN Films and Netflix.
Director Jason Hehir’s suspenseful, exhilarating, and poignant documentary explores all angles of Jordan’s iconic career and the complex relationship dynamic between players, coaches, and management.
The Bulls granted an all-access pass to an NBA Entertainment film crew for the entirety of Jordan’s last season, allowing an in-depth look at the inner workings of one of the greatest teams of all time. The docuseries supplemented never-before-seen footage with interviews with more than 100 people, including NBA personalities, celebrity fans, and individuals close to the team. Even with the rise of social media, the behind-the-scenes of professional sports is still largely a mystery, making The Last Dance a goldmine for anyone interested in sports or popular culture. Composer Thomas Caffey’s riveting score pairs Game of Thrones grandness with hip-hop classics of the era.
Harder, smarter, better
Episode 7 of the series highlights Jordan’s competitive nature and teammates’ perception of him. Being an intensely passionate player who always wanted to win, Jordan was famous for grilling his teammates to play harder, smarter, and better. His past teammate B.J. Armstrong didn’t particularly enjoy playing with a hyper-competitive alpha dog, saying, “He was a difficult person to be around if you didn’t truly love the game of basketball.”
Some might view Jordan as a real jerk, but I don’t see him through that lens. Armstrong’s comment made me wonder why a player would join the NBA if he didn’t truly love basketball. I don’t subscribe to people criticizing star players for being too intense or tough on teammates, as leadership in team sports is a fascinating and intricate beast. There are many great players whose individual game is top-tier, but who can’t manage to motivate teammates to reach their own potential. Jordan was a player who got the job done in the only way he knew how, and has the right to set the tone because he suffers, sacrifices, and works the hardest.
Reflecting on whether his intensity has come at the expense of being perceived as a nice guy, Jordan became visibly emotional. “Winning and leadership have a price. So I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled,” he said. “I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged.” While defending himself, Jordan began to cry and said “Break” to the cameras. The fact that some of his teammates didn’t like him or enjoy playing with him caused Jordan deep pain, whether he agreed with them or not.
The real competition
Being intensely competitive myself, I gravitated toward sports and was on the basketball and swim teams in school, later joining the San Francisco Outrigger Canoe Club to compete in canoe races across the Bay Area. Whether it’s playing cards on vacation or a pick-up basketball game, the desire to win has always felt like a part of my genetic makeup. I can relate to Jordan's competitive nature on a cellular level, and the unfair reputation that goes along with it. I never lashed out at other people while competing, but as early as elementary school, my peers made me feel bad for wanting to win.
Highly competitive folks like me are often misunderstood. While I am focused on defeating my opponent during a competition, the larger battle is how I stack up against myself. I’m really testing myself, seeing how far I can go, how to always be better, and overcome any obstacle by channeling my own strength, power, and skill.
The Last Dance illuminates Jordan’s cultural impact on a domestic and international scale, translating outside the realm of sports by showcasing how a diverse group of people can achieve a common goal. Jordan is a flawed, complicated, and wildly talented public figure whose excellence set a new standard for greatness, and continues to inspire new generations to chase their dreams with a fervor that separates them from the pack.
What, When, Where
The Last Dance. Coproduced by ESPN Films and Netflix. Jason Hehir directed. Originally aired April-May 2020 on ESPN, and is now streaming on Netflix.