In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the best that sports and television can offer is ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary, which focuses on Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls championship team.
The 10-part series reached a high point with last week’s episodes that highlighted the Bulls finally beating the Pistons in 1991 and winning their first NBA title. The series moved forward with this week’s two episodes, which focus on Jordan’s ascent to worldwide fame, his relationship with Nike, the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team and Jordan’s apolitical stance during his career.
Episodes 5 and 6 feature more good backstories and interviews that help color the bigger picture around both the Bulls team and Jordan as a somewhat mythical character.
Here are some takeaways from this week’s episodes:
1. Respect for Isiah Thomas
After all the beef in the previous two episodes, Jordan takes on the prevailing belief that he was the leading force behind keeping Thomas off the 1992 Dream Team. Rod Thorn, who headed the selection process, said that Jordan never asked about Thomas but a couple of clips in the episode bring some of that into question.
Jordan said there were others on the Dream Team who didn’t want Thomas selected, but Jordan held Thomas in the highest esteem.
“I respect Isiah Thomas’ talent. To me, the best point guard of all time is Magic Johnson and right behind him is Isiah Thomas. No matter how much I hate him, I respect his game,” Jordan said. “It was insinuated that I was asking about him (being left off) but I never threw his name in there.”
That's an incredible statement from Jordan. If Thomas wasn’t on the team because some thought that John Stockton was better — as some have argued — then that’s one thing. If Thomas was better, why wasn’t he picked? The second part is just as intriguing: Jordan’s use of the word “hate” is news to Thomas.
“I’m really surprised that he has that kind of hate and anger,” Thomas told The Detroit News. “I’ve never experienced that being around him. My son was wearing Michael Jordan jerseys and shoes. They have Jordan jerseys on from the Olympics and the Bulls jerseys that I bought for them.”
There was more to it than just Thomas’ talent, which was undeniable. The suggestion was that there were others, such as Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone, who had an ax to grind with Thomas, and maintaining some level of friendliness on the team was a prevailing factor.
“The Dream Team, based on the environment and the camaraderie that happened on that team, it was the best harmony. Would Isiah have made a different feeling on that team? Yes,” Jordan said.
2. Honoring Kobe Bryant
The opening montage of Episode 5 with Kobe Bryant was heart-tugging. Bryant’s fans will appreciate the hat-tip, with highlights from the 1998 All-Star Game. Bryant, then a rookie, asked to guard Jordan, then got a first-hand glimpse at a patented baseline fadeaway.
Pistons All-Star Grant Hill made a cameo appearance, not wanting to get caught on the wrong side of a highlight-reel dunk from Bryant.
“I ain’t tryin’ to be down there on a poster, dog,” Hill said in a huddle. “I ain’t jumping with him.”
The admiration that Bryant had for Jordan came through and was heartfelt, as he eschewed the comparisons to his mentor.
3. Jordan without Nike? Nah
The incredible story of Jordan wanting to sign with Adidas initially is one of the hidden gems in this weeks’ episodes. Converse was the prevailing brand when Jordan entered the NBA but he wanted to be with Adidas.
Jordan’s mother insisted that he meet with Nike: “You may not like it, but you’re going to listen,” she prodded. He took the trip to Oregon and the rest is history.
Another tidbit: Nike expected to sell $3 million in Air Jordan shoes in the first four years. They sold $126 million in the first year.
4. It’s not all rainbows and lollipops
There’s more mention of some of the salacious parts of Jordan’s persona, including the backlash from his gambling, his domineering personality and how that impacted teammates. His feuds with the media, which is painted as a factor in his decision to retire the first time is teased in Episode 6.
His gambling urges — whether it’s with teammates, members of his security team or more shady figures around him — comes into view. It’s an essential part of his story that has to be told with some transparency, or the whole production loses credibility. Maybe more is coming in the next two episodes.
Jordan isn’t perfect, and in some ways, his disdain for that spotlight started to show.
“If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would never want to be considered a role model,” Jordan said. “It’s like a game that’s stacked against me — there’s no way I could win.”
5. 'The Last Dance' is well produced
Much like director Jason Hehir’s “Fab Five” documentary, music is a driving centerpiece of “The Last Dance.”
Whether it’s Prince’s “Partyman” or LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad” or Kool Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now,” the music from the documentary is a fitting soundtrack for the time — and it still bumps today.
What’s noticeable in the interviews and archived footage is the true-to-life raw emotions and the no-holds-barred inclusion of profanities. It absolutely wouldn’t be the same with 100 sanitizing bleeps.
The series is clearly centered around Jordan — and it wouldn’t have been made without his OK — but the way in which his Bulls teammates and their issues are featured is excellent. Weaving tales between the ’97-’98 season, earlier in the decade and the interspersing of current interviews weaves the whole tale together.
And who didn’t love the first references to President Barack Obama as “Former Chicago resident” and President Bill Clinton as “Former Arkansas governor” in the opening episode?