Review: Exceptional 'Last Dance' celebrates Jordan, Bulls
10-part docuseries, kicking off Sunday, will help satiate those who are missing sports right now
A quarantined populace, bleary-eyed from binge-watching "Tiger King," looks for its next great piece of serialized storytelling and finds it in "The Last Dance," ESPN's invigorating docu-series about the Chicago Bulls' 1997-98 season and its chase for its second three-peat.
So anticipated was this 10-part series from a sports-less nation that ESPN bumped it up from its planned June arrival to 9 p.m. Sunday night, when it will air its first two episodes back-to-back. It will continue, two episodes every Sunday, through May 17.
The series — The News viewed its first four episodes for this review — takes a deep dive on that historic Bulls team and the personalities that shaped it: there's Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player to ever live; Scottie Pippen, arguably the greatest No. 2 man to ever play the game; Dennis Rodman, the unpredictable rock star workhorse of the squad; and coach Phil Jackson, who brought his Zen philosophies to the Bulls and taught them how to go from being the Michael Jordan show to a full-fledged basketball team.
Director Jason Hehir, who also helmed HBO's "Andre the Giant" documentary, takes that Bulls squad as a jumping off point and goes back and forth in time, telling the individual stories of Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and Jackson and how they came together as teammates.
That '97-'98 team had a documentary crew following its every move, so there's no shortage of footage from practices, training facilities and the Bulls' private jet.
There are also candid 1-on-1 interviews with the key players, along with talking heads from around the league and the team's orbit. At least two former Presidents are interviewed in Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, just in case there was any doubting the magnitude of the Bulls' dynasty.
A big part of that Bulls dynasty was the team's struggle to overcome the Detroit Pistons, and no punches are pulled when discussing the Bad Boys teams of the late '80s and early '90s. "I hated 'em," Jordan says of the back-to-back championship-winning Pistons. "And the hate carries even to this day."
Episodes 3 and 4 detail those wars with the Bad Boys, as well as the infamous walk-off incident where the Pistons left the court without shaking the Bulls' hands following their loss in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. Isiah Thomas tells his side of the story, Jordan sloughs it off; all these years later, there's clearly no love lost between the two.
There's plenty of rich story to mine in that centerpiece '97-'98 Bulls season: they started slow, with an 8-7 record early in the year; Pippen, frustrated by his contract, decided to spend the first part of the schedule nursing an injury he could have had taken care of over the summer; and Rodman decided, in the middle of the season, that he needed some time to go blow off some steam in Vegas. If you think there's no drama to wring here just because you know the outcome, you're wrong.
Hehir puts his story together in a lively narrative that never lulls, and his time-shifting story structure allows each of the elements to fall into their rightful place in the timeline.
"The Last Dance" — the name comes from the theme Phil Jackson assigned to the season, which he knew would be his last with the Bulls — could easily be a fanboy celebration of Jordan and his accomplishments. And while there's some of that, there's much more at play; it's a story of teamwork and the importance of a unit, not the individual.
Jordan didn't start winning championships until he learned the value of a team, and Hehir takes that message to heart. "The Last Dance" shows the best dances are done with a partner, or in this case, several.
'The Last Dance'
Rated TV-MA (ESPN)/ TV-14 (ESPN 2)
9 p.m. and 10 p.m. Sunday