film companion the last dance

Director: Jason Hehir

Genre: Documentary Series

Streaming on: Netflix

At its core, sport is a physical numericalization of life. It turns ambition into an equation, winning and losing into tangible results, and people into complex processes. The pursuit of perfection, however, retains a sense of theater – it’s the phase where maths speaks an emotional language. Where greatness is still an unknown number. At this point, there’s storytelling within the statistics. But the moment a player or a team becomes great, they cease to be the underdog. For all matters and purposes, the hypothesis looks complete. The code is cracked. Dominance can be a cold-blooded narrative. Life is boring when there are no odds to beat. Yet, once in a generation, there comes an athlete who expresses art in the repetition of formula. 

The Last Dance, a ten-episode ESPN documentary series, reveals Michael Jordan as this peerless athlete. At first glance, the series has no business being thrilling in any capacity other than a hagiographic one – it is, after all, a story of a champion basketball player in a champion team during the most dominant phase of his iconic career. Moreover, it is co-produced by his production company. The Last Dance opens with the Chicago Bulls, five-time NBA champions, aiming for a sixth title in eight years during the 1997-98 season. The events of this season are intercut with Jordan’s Bulls’ career leading upto the moment, a large chuck of which is devoted to the all-conquering decade of NBA dominance. In short, there’s a lot of winning. A lot of ruthless hunger. A lot of rings and wings, air and care.

Michael Jordan dramatizes his own narrative, thereby turning superiority into a story and invincibility into an underdog emotion

But what’s fascinating about The Last Dance is the narrative grammar it chooses. Early on, teammates and experts speak of Michael Jordan as someone who thrives on firing himself up. He holds grudges and remembers indignations so that he can summon them into his head the will to prove a point. A coach looking past him, a celebration in his face, a press-conference taunt, a tough loss, a trash-talking young pretender: he is driven by these little battles within the big war. If there’s nothing to summon, he imagines an incident – like the time a casual “good game, Mike” from a victorious rival spurred him to destroy them in the next game, only for him to reveal years later that he had made the slight up in his head. At the peak of his powers, he quits the game for 22 months to become a baseball player. Which is to say that Michael Jordan, unlike most champions who win by defying opponents, creates his own conflicts to win by defying himself. He creates his own challenges to reset his motivation levels. He dramatizes his own narrative, thereby turning superiority into a story and invincibility into an underdog emotion. Remarkably, the series, too, channelizes his mentality by using a non-linear structure to ping between timelines and memories. In a way, The Last Dance is trying to call upon history – wistful waltzes and brutal brawls – to make history. Just like its famous subject, it remembers and refuels, making something out of nothing, and finds context to frame the significance of yet another title. Yet another statistic.

For instance, there’s a bit of internal drama in 1998: General manager Jerry Krause is looking to rebuild, Scottie Pippin is underpaid and injured, it’s coach Phil Jackson’s last season, and consequently could be Jordan’s and his record-breaking warriors’ “last dance”. They’ve run out of on-court rivals, so they’re fighting time, change and the game itself. As a result, the excellence of victory somehow wears the inevitability of defeat. Any other team, or any other series, might not have made success look like it’s constantly defying failure. Krause’s ego inspires Jordan and his team to push harder, just as it inspires the series to recall echoes of previous seasons and the lessons learned: The mediocrity of the mid-80s, the post-broken-foot 63-point stunner against the Boston Celtics, the Detroit Pistons’ downfall, the three-peat, “Teardrop” scoring Jordan’s NBA title on Father’s Day after the death of his dad, his Game 5 heroics against the Utah Jazz despite food poisoning. It’s not so much the pursuit of perfection as perfection itself – six NBA titles, two Olympic golds, 14 All Star games – that exhibits a sense of theater. 

I’ve never had an eye for basketball, but even I could tell that Jordan and his teammates made the ball do different…special things. Every other shot of theirs seems to crack a new code. Every rebound tells an untold story

I’m certain there are books that provide a fuller picture of Michael Jordan’s legacy. Of the way he single-handedly globalised an American sport. Of his family behind the scenes, of his friends he rarely speaks of. Most sports documentaries (The Test, Fire In Babylon, Senna) humanize champions outside their kingdoms to amplify the meaning of their talent. But in rare cases, the kingdom alone is enough. By staying largely on court, The Last Dance chooses to evoke the concept of greatness rather than reveal it. There’s something impossibly visceral about the way this series depicts the sport. The energetic angles strip it of mechanics and formality. The raw footage looks found. I’ve never had an eye for basketball, but even I could tell that Jordan and his teammates made the ball do different…special things. Every other shot of theirs seems to crack a new code. Every rebound tells an untold story. Strung together, they paint a picture of life sprinting from end to numberless end. The Last Dance trusts in Jordan’s skills just as much as the man himself does. It trusts in the fact that every time we see Jordan in the zone, mocking gravity and physics to make ridiculous buzzer-beating shots, we understand the past and the future. It trusts that every time an ex-teammate describes how his bullying in practice forced them to raise their standards, we understand the evolution of the game. It trusts that when we see him in action, we hear the revolution and see the pressure.

It trusts that when the media targets him for an alleged gambling habit, we understand that O.J. Simpson’s murder trial has conditioned a country to doubt its African American idols. And most of all, it trusts that when we see him abstain from endorsing a black politician in the race against a white racist, we understand that his greatness is already political. Him playing basketball the way he did is, in itself, an aesthetic version of taking a stand. Spike Lee, a famed basketball fanatic, makes socially conscious movies that drip with Jordan-like rhythm; his characters reinvent cultural cinema with the sass of the Bull slam-dunking in the last quarter of an NBA final. Barack Obama, who features in this film, grew up in awe of Michael Jordan. He hints at how perhaps Jordan wasn’t vocal enough for the black community, but his Chicagoan pride is unmistakably a consequence of athletes like Jordan breaking the glass ceiling. 

Life might be boring when there are no odds to beat. But watching Michael Jordan soar through the stadium sky is discovering a world beyond the odds, where champions meet and Gods greet. The Last Dance gives us an adoring glimpse of this world – and offers irrefutable proof that sports, when transcended, is nothing but art jiving with two left feet. 

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