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ESPN's in-depth docuseries is the definitive story of Michael Jordan and the '98 Bulls
Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time and still one of the most recognizable people in the world, almost 20 years after his final retirement from basketball. He's been the subject of bestselling books like The Jordan Rules and When Nothing Else Matters and his own 30 for 30 documentary, Jordan Rides the Bus, about his time playing baseball in 1994. But he's never been covered as comprehensively as he is in Jason Hehir's 10-part docuseries The Last Dance, which premieres April 19 on ESPN in the U.S. and on Netflix internationally. The limited series is as complete a portrait of Michael Jordan's extraordinary basketball career as fans will ever get. It's a Citizen Kane-like biography about Jordan's relentless pursuit of greatness at all costs. It doesn't shy away from his flaws, nor does it diminish any of his achievements.
The Last Dance is framed around the Chicago Bulls' 1997-98 season. That season was the end of the dynasty, when the team completed its second championship three-peat knowing going into the season that it would be the last one, due to resentful general manager Jerry Krause driving Jordan, coach Phil Jackson, and second-best player Scottie Pippen out of Chicago. Jordan was mulling retirement the whole season, and the underpaid and under-appreciated Pippen was openly hostile toward Krause. It was a tense, conflict-plagued season that nevertheless produced transcendent basketball, and Hehir was given a treasure trove of archival footage, as a camera crew received unprecedented access to document the behind-the-scenes action that season, and shot over 500 hours of material. The Last Dance shows players at their most unguarded, with incredible fly-on-the-wall footage of practices, bus rides, and Jordan pitching quarters with members of the Bulls's security team and relentlessly busting the balls of just about everyone he knows.
The series jumps back and forth through time to show the other pivotal moments in Jordan's career, from the famous story of how he didn't make his high school basketball team to his father's tragic murder in 1993 and everything in between, as well as sequences about other important members of the Bulls, including the likable but sulky Pippen, the sphinx-like Jackson, and erratic but brilliant rebound specialist Dennis Rodman (who was recently the subject of his own illuminating 30 for 30). Just about everyone who could possibly have been interviewed for the documentary has been, with a few notable exceptions. It's very unfortunate that Jerry Krause, who died in 2017, doesn't get a chance to defend himself. Hehir does a good job of being fair to where Krause was coming from, but the GM still comes off as the bad guy of the story, whose ego destroyed the dynasty.
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Jordan also comes off as not a great guy, but a complex and human personality whose pathological need to win made him the greatest to ever do his job, but also made him difficult to be around off the court (and on the court, if you were the target of his vindictiveness). The series does not shy away from his notorious gambling and bullying, but it also makes you understand his mindset. There's an extraordinary sequence in Episode 7 where present-day Jordan is asked if he thinks if the intensity that drove him to win came at the expense of him being perceived as a nice guy, and he gets emotional, giving a speech about how "winning has a price, leadership has a price," and he pushed people to be the best they could be, because he pushed himself to be the best he could be. And the results speak for themselves. He gets about as vulnerable as a billionaire celebrity can get in public consensually.
This is not to say that nothing is off-limits. Jordan's ex-wife, wife, and children are not interviewed, which does give the portrait a feeling of incompleteness. And the documentary doesn't attempt to define what it all means culturally, the way that ESPN's previous large-format documentary O.J.: Made in America did. Its narrow focus on basketball makes The Last Dance's audience pretty limited to fans of the sport.
But basketball fans will find much to love in the documentary. It gives new perspectives on well-worn basketball stories, and is exhaustive as a basketball history. The footage of the Bulls playing will remind you all over again of how transcendent those teams were, capable of miracles on the court. And it humanizes one of the larger-than-life icons of the 20th century.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
The Last Dance premieres Sunday, April 19 at 9/8c on ESPN. Two episodes will air every Sunday through May 17.