The best moment of “The Last Dance” so far comes at the end of episode 7, as an aged Michael Jordan attempts to answer whether or not he’s perceived as a “nice guy.” In response, Jordan says, “When people see this, they’re gonna say, ‘well, he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.’ Well, that’s you, because you’ve never won anything.”
As the moment builds and Jordan expands on his answer, he becomes increasingly emotional, emanating a sense of being misunderstood or alone. Through his answer, a montage of his greatest moments plays, showing him making buzzer-beaters and celebrating with teammates.
“I don’t want to have to do this,” Jordan said through tears. “I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.” Then Jordan, visually choked up, calls for a break and steps off screen.
The moment serves as a perfect encapsulation of the greatness and tragedy of Jordan. Through all of his successes, “The Last Dance” always communicates the sense that Jordan stood apart, isolated. In episodes 7 and 8, “The Last Dance” attempts to find out why that is and how one of the greatest athletes in the history of team sports could seem so entirely alone.
The answer to this question is tremendously complicated, largely because of the tragic death of his father in 1993. Jordan’s father’s death is one of the most complicated facets of his story, partially due to irresponsible conspiracy theories claiming his murder was somehow related to Michael Jordan’s gambling debts.
Jordan speaks of his father often throughout “The Last Dance,” saying his father’s death drove him to retire and start playing baseball and that he wore No. 45 because he wanted his father to have seen his last game wearing 23. In another monumental achievement of “The Last Dance,” the documentary unleashes a rousing, heartbreaking montage of Jordan and the Bulls winning the 1996 Finals on Father’s Day.
Set to the song “Teardrop” by Jose Gonzalez, the sequence ends with Jordan, alone, lying face down in a training room, crying into a basketball. These glimpses into the emotions Jordan harbored off the court are when “The Last Dance” is at its best, beautifully detailing how the sacrifices and heartbreak that total commitment to a philosophy, coupled with the devastation of loss, can lead to a chaotic mixture of success and loneliness.
By following the roadmap laid out in episodes 5 and 6, episodes 7 and 8 centered almost entirely on Jordan, shifting focus away from his teammates, coaches and Bulls executives in an effort to unlock Jordan’s psyche. While the emotional moments are the notable highpoints, these episodes also find a way to amplify quieter moments, fleshing out Jordan as a fully realized figure.
In one notable exchange, Jordan’s athletic trainer Tim Grover chokes up simply by talking about Jordan’s commitment to improving.
“Michael had an obligation to himself, the fans, his teammates, the organization, his family, everybody,” Grover says. “He said, ‘if you’re going to sit down and take three hours out of your day to watch me on TV, I have an obligation to give you my best.”
In a vacuum, this sentiment sounds simple, mirroring statements made by other athletes in their ad campaigns and attempts at self promotion. But in Jordan’s case, this idea of obsession and borderline addiction to competitiveness reaches almost comical heights. In one scene, Jordan uses a fictional exchange he imagined between himself and Washington Bullets guard LaBrdaford Smith as motivation in a regular season game. In another, Jordan vows to destroy the Seattle Sonics because head coach George Karl refused to greet him prior to an NBA finals game. In yet another moment, Jordan tears through the Charlotte Hornets because his former teammate BJ Armstong had the audacity to celebrate a late game jump shot.
From a distance, each of these stories serves as another legend and reason for Jordan’s greatness, but “The Last Dance” wants to know how Jordan’s teammates could possibly live up to the impossible standards he created for himself and others. The surprising answer to that question appears to be that his teammates couldn’t meet his goals, and some floundered under the pressure.
In the lead up to “The Last Dance” much was made of how Jordan would be perceived, particularly given the footage of him endlessly ridiculing Bull’s player Scott Burrell. In episode 7, Burrell is quickly identified as Jordan’s resident punching bag on the 1998 Bulls, serving as an outlet for his endless anger and competitive rage.
Through the two episodes, Jordan curses out and harasses Burrell, while also embarrassing him on the practice floor. While this is happening, the show cuts away to his former teammates as they talk about their own experiences with Jordan and how difficult he was to be around. Yet, none of his former teammates appear to regard him with any form of disdain or hostility. Instead, they speak of Jordan with an almost scholarly detachment, like they’re honored to have seen him up close.
But with this distance between him and everyone else, Jordan’s sense of isolation is only further engrained. Jordan is likely the most famous athlete in American history, and while “The Last Dance” is certainly dedicated to understanding how that happened, the show truly peaks when it attempts to explain the price he paid for that title.
With only one week left of “The Last Dance” on ESPN, Jordan may not be on America’s TV screens in the future as often as he has through the past month. But as the show draws to a close, viewers can take solace in the fact that there’s now an everlasting document dedicated not just to Michael Jordan’s greatness, but also his flaws and sacrifices.
Contact Chris Carr at email@example.com. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.