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Michael Jordan’s Netflix series: The god of tall things

‘The Last Dance’ is a 10-part documentary series about how those Chicago Bulls became the most dominant team in basketball

‘The Last Dance’ cements the legacy of Michael Jordan.
‘The Last Dance’ cements the legacy of Michael Jordan.

When a young Michael Jordan, the most successful basketball player in the history of the National Basketball Association (NBA), was handed the sporting adage that “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’," the cocky superstar responded that “There is an ‘I’ in ‘win’." Nothing but net. Like Muhammad Ali before him, Jordan had a way with comebacks—except his team, the Chicago Bulls, weren’t winning. They were close, and that doesn’t cut it for a guy who likes his cigars.

Produced by ESPN and Netflix, The Last Dance is a riveting 10-part documentary series about those Chicago Bulls becoming the most dominant team in basketball. It features unseen all-access footage of the 1998 season, the final one to feature the most bullish: Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, coached by the master, Phil Jackson. They dwarfed the record books, and with one hat-trick of titles behind them, they were gunning for a second “three-peat". In the season they knew to be their last, they let in a camera crew. The results are epic.

Fragments of the Bulls stampede are mythic in their own right: a dramatically well-timed 1989 shot will forever be known, quite simply, as “The Shot". The NBA finals are a seven-game series and most years include a sixth game, but “Game 6" is immediate shorthand for the Bulls vs the Utah Jazz in 1998, the most watched basketball game in history. Like the singer Madonna (whom Dennis Rodman once dated), this legacy doesn’t need a last name.

Why, then, was the 1998 dance their last? Because the Bulls organization decided to rebuild, to bring in new players and a coach—an ill-conceived plan to dominate the future by forsaking the present. The unsightly pettiness that makes those who sign the cheques demand more power over those who play the game repeats itself often in sport: Look to Formula One, where Ferrari edged out that other Michael toward an early retirement.

General manager Jerry Krause is the clammy villain here, scouting for outside talent with the Bulls still on parade. He announced Jackson’s departure, despite Jordan’s declaration that he wouldn’t play for another coach. Over 10 episodes, director Jason Hehir finds the sprawl to lay out narrative context and give viewers stories behind the stories: the way that very Krause once built the team, recruiting the men we revere, even advising Jackson how to dress for his Bulls interview.

Other antagonists include the Detroit Pistons, who created “Jordan Rules" to foul the great one to keep him from taking his shot (“You have to stop him before he takes flight") and the mainstream media, who ripped too eagerly into Jordan for gambling on his golf games, even when he did nothing against the rules. Then there are individual challenges, like those posed by the vivid-haired, hard-partying Rodman. “Dennis Rodman’s 48-Hour Vacation", set in Las Vegas and lasting days longer, should really be a movie.

Another battle involves Pippen, a man who routinely scorched the court with such momentum that I find it unnerving to watch him here, with a polo shirt and a pastorly smile, sitting back—how is a chair even containing Scottie Pippen? One of the best players in the sport, Pippen was hamstrung by a terrible contract and tried to hold the Bulls management to ransom in the 1998 season, refusing to play, an approach that didn’t sit well with his teammates.

It must be hard for a billionaire to empathize. When Jordan signed with Nike back in 1984 (he really wanted Adidas), the “upstart shoe company" expected him to bring in $4 million (around 30 crore now) in three years; in one year, Air Jordans topped $120 million. Michael Jordan turned sneakers into a culture.

It’s a team game and those Chicago Bulls were a miracle, but The Last Dance cements one man’s legacy. The incredible journey of a college kid who used to write to his mother for money, a letter she reads out in the first episode. Any creases in Jordan’s own life — the first retirement, the baseball attempt, the post-Bulls career, the Hitler moustache — fade into marginalia when he flies.

Jordan in slow motion has always felt too good to be true. In a 1991 game, he bursts to the basket, is squeezed by defenders, leaps, fires the ball from his right hand to his left, tossing it up and sliding it in with eventual nonchalance. Words are inadequate, but The Last Dance picks a great soundtrack. A montage set to Prince’s Partyman is particularly electric, young Jordan ascending unstoppably to greatness. “All hail the new king in town" indeed. Pouring Prince over anything makes it cool, of course, but a few episodes later, there’s the purple one himself, sitting centre-court next to Spike Lee, a gold crescent and star shielding his ear, an alien god visiting to observe quaint—but so graceful—rituals.

Episode 5 features a tribute to the late Kobe Bryant, with Jordan appraising the young rival. “That Laker boy’s gonna take everybody one-on-one," he says in the locker room before a game. “What you get from me is from him," says Bryant, calling Jordan the older brother who taught him. This doesn’t just mean the turnaround jump shot he inherited; at Bryant’s funeral in February, Shaquille O’Neal reminisced about him too having a comeback for there being “no ‘I’ in team".

“That’s not Michael Jordan," Larry Bird said, after an early game. “That’s god disguised as Michael Jordan." Magic Johnson, describing how he trash-talked Michael at a warm-up game for the 1992 Olympics, giggles helplessly at the sheer annihilation it caused. Michael Jordan bounding to the basket, tongue extended like a ravenous mastiff, and taking off—there’s no sight like it. Youngsters saving up for Air Jordans today may not have seen Michael mid-air, but LeBron James, the man considered King today, wears the No. 23 as a tribute. Icons are followers at the church of air.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter - @rajasen

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