Sports documentaries, for the most part, need to do two things: be accessible to you even if you know nothing about the discipline, and give you someone to root for. You can’t beat an underdog story like Sunderland ‘Til I Die, but the drama is bound up in your support for the show’s subject, so even if they're global superstars, you’ve got to at least like them. Then that drama shouldn't be weighed down by reams of complex tactical analysis and exposition. In one sense the first two episodes of ESPN's The Last Dance (releasing on Netflix internationally) are successful. But in the other it fails, emphatically.
Chasing a second ‘three-peat’ – winning an NBA championship in three consecutive seasons – The Last Dance follows who some consider the greatest ball player of all time, Michael Jordan, and the Chicago Bulls in their 1997/98 season. Supplemented with some never-before-seen footage and illustrious talking heads including all-star ex-pros, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and MJ today, this ten-part drama is the result of exclusive access enjoyed by NBA Entertainment cameras. You may not need to know the first thing about basketball to watch it, but you may not develop enough affection for the team to stick with it.
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Before I started the first two episodes – Netflix is dropping two each week on Mondays until May 18 – I knew little more than what an ‘alley-oop’ was, but it turns out that already made me overqualified to understand what’s going on. Occasionally terms like, steals, rebounds, and playoffs are thrown at you, but you don’t need to know what any of that means to realize that a guy once called 'Mike' Jordan from North Carolina is special at what he does.
MJ steals the show everywhere he goes, so it’s not surprising that he dominates the show’s attention, despite the efforts of some to wrench away the spotlight. Watching the man in action is mesmerizing. The sheer pace and bristling, irresistible energy with which he inhales the court in the sprint to the opposition basket is astounding. I could watch him endlessly as he contorts his body majestically, arms flailing in impossible positions to feint and pulls off ridiculous distance shots.
Eventually, however, I found myself appreciating the superstar with a detached admiration. The thing is, Michael Jordan doesn't make a great impression. When asked for an autograph after a game, he wordlessly turns to an assistant who says for him “not now”. Sarcastically offering to shoot hoops with the Bulls’ diminutive General Manager, Jerry Krause, Jordan points out they’d have to “lower the hoops” first. He even buys the team’s second best player, Scottie Pippen, a pair of golf clubs so he can put him in his place in that sport, too.
It seems like being told you’re the best NBA player for a decade can really go to your head, which is something that becomes more apparent when the show’s timeline jumps about a bit.
The 97/98 season is the glue that holds the series together, but we also see MJ’s childhood, his time in high school and college, plus the terrible Chicago Bulls roster he vastly improved in the 1980s, which provide valuable context. Experiencing MJ’s time as a child with his pushy father, with his brothers that’d fight if they lost a one-on-one basketball match against each other, and him getting cut from the high school team, makes the lurch back to 1997 even more jarring in an international exhibition win against PSG-Racing in Paris. Refusing to hug his ecstatic teammates, he dismisses the game as one that, for a regular NBA championship winner like him, just “doesn’t count”.
Like anyone who’s reached the pinnacle of their discipline, MJ’s overwhelming drive to win is a given. That said, it seems to be all there really is to him, based on this documentary. I was hoping the show would get under his skin, so I could know more about the personality of a man I’d only heard of, but never understood.
But, albeit based on the first two episodes of The Last Dance, winning does seem to be his personality. When his side is losing, he becomes apoplectic. With Pippen sidelined with injury and the team on their worst run in years, it becomes not a moment for reflection that perhaps being a team player is important, but an excuse to yell his teammates’ shortcomings in training.
The rest of those associated with the Bulls aren’t much more agreeable. Pippen may be subjected to an overly-long contract unworthy of the second best player in the NBA, but hearing of his berating of Jerry Krause on the team bus makes for uncomfortable television. Then again, despite Krause having the nerve to make the necessary point that “organizations win championships, not players” in what seems like a thinly-veiled dig at Jordan, the GM's attitude towards others in the limelight makes him come off as pretty unappealing in this documentary, also.
So they’re not a likeable bunch so far, which is some of an issue when they’re the main cast in a sports documentary. For all MJ’s heroics on the court, you remember he refers to himself in the third person. You’re not invested in seeing his team succeed, no matter how many matches they see out on a knife edge with seconds remaining.
Unlike the underdogs you can’t help but support in Sunderland ‘Til I Die, these players are serial winners. The drama of their petty squabbling doesn’t make up for the reduced stakes of following a group on their quest to simply repeat their success. In the end, unlike the famous Michael Jordan, I just don’t care if he wins.
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