Last Dance Final

The Chicago Bulls celebrate their sixth NBA title during the 1990s. 

As major sports leagues remain shut down and fans await an uncertain future, “The Last Dance” finally drew to a close on May 17. One of the most popular sports documentaries ever, “The Last Dance” has provided hours of conversation and debate in this temporarily empty sports landscape, leading to an end that feels both familiar and unfinished.

Given that “The Last Dance” follows the 1998 Chicago Bulls, the ending, featuring Michael Jordan’s famous shot against the Utah Jazz, was naturally a fitting capstone. But, as has been the case throughout the series, these final episodes succeed primarily by focusing on the side of Jordan that America is unfamiliar with. The “flu game” and Jordan swearing vengeance against Karl Malone after the 1997 regular season are all well documented, but what’s less often seen is footage of Jordan saying “fuck you” to Larry Bird after a game 7 or playing the piano in his hotel room after winning the finals.

What these final episodes offer, however, is yet another side of Jordan’s intense personality. While the majority of “The Last Dance” has been concerned with separating the smiling, commercial Jordan from his behind-closed-doors ruthlessness, episodes 9 and 10 wanted to understand the emotional depth that hid behind these dueling personas. What makes these insights so interesting is how little they actually rely on Jordan’s own account of himself, instead of relying on secondhand accounts of Jordan’s feelings and generosity.

Moments like Jordan comforting his longtime security guard Gus Letts through chemotherapy or writing poetry about the importance of the 1998 team feel almost more secretive than the stories of Jordan’s anger and rage. Jordan has no issue speaking about past slights and personal grudges, but when asked about these emotional touchstones, he almost seems at a loss for words, preferring to hide the positive aspects of his personality while amplifying his legend.

Jordan may have often searched for motivation or reasons for anger, but as “The Last Dance” drew to a close, he didn’t have to look too far. The fact that the Chicago Bulls chose to rebuild behind the leadership of former general manager Jerry Krause rather than re-sign Jordan and head coach Phil Jackson remains confusing to this day. This decision is even further complicated by one of the most interesting moments of the entire documentary when Jordan details how badly he wanted to compete for another championship in 1998-99.

When asked if it was gratifying to retire at the peak of his powers, Jordan responded, “No. It’s maddening because I believe we could’ve won seven. I really believe that. We may not have, but man, just not to be able to try, that’s something I just can’t accept for whatever reason.” Had Jordan returned, Chicago would’ve competed in a shortened 1999 season which eventually featured a hobbled New York Knicks team that posted a 27-23 regular-season record playing a San Antonio Spurs team led by a young Tim Duncan in the NBA Finals.

Whether the Bulls would’ve defended their title feels beside the point, but finishing “The Last Dance” on such an unresolved note feels maddening for the viewer as well. Throughout its 10 episodes, “The Last Dance” has struggled to decide whether it’s a documentary about the life of Michael Jordan or about the rise and fall of one of the greatest dynasties in the history of American team sports. While the show has excelled when focussing on the former, the latter is almost equally interesting, as Chicago’s decisions continue to raise questions over Krause and owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s priorities.

Regardless of how Jordan’s Bulls tenure came to a close, “The Last Dance” still finished with the same attention to detail and basketball history that’s made the series so beloved. “The Last Dance” may not have been groundbreaking or particularly revelatory, but it still offered a level of excitement and sports nostalgia that made the experience worthwhile. 

While episodes 9 and 10 didn’t have the same emotional weight as episodes 5 through 8, the end of “The Last Dance” still featured Jordan at his height, performing on the court and remaining larger than life when off it. When the focus was off Jordan, the episodes also delivered, particularly in an emotional excerpt about the life of former Bull and current coach of the Golden State Warriors, Steve Kerr. Kerr’s father, Malcolm, was murdered while serving as the president of American University of Beirut, and “The Last Dance” manages to explore Kerr’s relationship to this tragedy and his relationship to Jordan with remarkable efficiency while maintaining a level of emotional depth.

Ultimately, the storytelling style and commitment to professionalism by director Jason Hehir is likely the reason for the documentary’s success, and his aptitude as a filmmaker is on full displays in moments like the one reflecting on Kerr’s life. Hehir was the perfect choice for “The Last Dance” given his role in the sports documentary world, previously having directed “The Fab Five,” “The ’85 Bears” and “Andre the Giant.”

By moving up the release of “The Last Dance” and speeding through the post-production of the series’ final episodes, Hehir and his team have provided an invaluable service, filling the void left in the sports landscape with a story of competition, fame and obsession. The world may never be able to fully understand who Michael Jordan was or how he grew to be one of the most famous figures in the world, but “The Last Dance” managed to inch closer to the real Michael Jordan than any previous artistic or journalistic attempt.

Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and Jackson may not be on America’s televisions every Sunday night anymore, but their stories remain one of the most compelling in the history of American sports. Now, younger generations will always have a thorough document of what they meant to the culture and why they’ll never be forgotten.

Contact Chris Carr at carrtc@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.