Michael Jordan TLD

Michael Jordan reflected on his career during interviews for "The Last Dance."

Early in the first episode of the new ESPN documentary series “The Last Dance,” a man who needs no introduction introduces himself. With a lit cigar and a glass of brown liquor at his side, the most famous athlete in American history looks directly into the camera and says, “My name is Michael Jordan.”

The moment is clearly played for laughs, but also hints at the biggest question surrounding “The Last Dance”: how do you tell the story of one of the most famous figures in American sports? 

Michael Jordan’s biography has ingrained itself into the culture as its own form of American mythology. Every sports fan knows the tales of Jordan: being cut from his high school team, making the game-winner in the 1982 National Championship, the first three-peat with the Chicago Bulls, the retirement, the comeback and his shot against the Utah Jazz in 1998. With all of this information, it may feel like Jordan’s story has been told.

“The Last Dance” solves this problem by relying on an astonishing amount of footage and detail. Fans may know the story behind Jordan’s 63-point explosion against the Boston Celtics in the 1986 playoffs, but for generations too young to experience the event live, this is their first encounter with the man Larry Bird called, “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” 

The sports world understands the impact of Jordan’s final Chicago season, but “The Last Dance” guides viewers through a painstakingly precise account of how this dynasty ended and why. And viewers may have heard the stories of Jordan’s ruthless, angry persona behind closed doors, but “The Last Dance” offers the audience a never-before-seen window into his mythic dark side.

During the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls season, an NBA entertainment camera crew followed the team, capturing hundreds of hours of behind the scenes footage. For decades, Jordan’s reluctance thwarted multiple attempts to use the footage for an in-depth documentary, fearing he may be portrayed as a “horrible guy.” Now, 22 years later, “The Last Dance” has finally arrived, serving as a perfect remedy for sports fans who find themselves without sports to watch due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Part of the reason “The Last Dance” feels so perfect right now is its granular approach to understanding the 1998 Bulls. Due to the 10-hour runtime, “The Last Dance” can spend time unwinding the ins and outs of events like an early regular-season road game against the Clippers, serving as the greatest possible version of a SportsCenter highlights package. With access to almost every key member of the team and countless characters who participated in the rise and coronation of Jordan, “The Last Dance” leaves no stone unturned, coherently jumping across decades to paint a full portrait of one of the most interesting basketball teams of all time.

The one notable absence from “The Last Dance” interviews is former Bulls general manager and documentary villain, Jerry Krause. Krause, who passed away in 2017, is perhaps the most fascinating character in “The Last Dance,” as his talent as an NBA executive and his overwhelming desire for praise consistently clash, creating the best NBA team of all time only to inevitably destroy it. Some of the most compelling moments of “The Last Dance” feature behind the scenes footage and accounts of Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson verbally sparring with Krause in open displays of hostility. 

Over the course of the first two episodes, Jordan antagonizes Krause every time they appear on screen together, mocking the general manager for his height and weight. In these moments, fans understand that they’re witnessing the end of an era, as the documentary avoids portraying the smiling Jordan from Gatorade commercials and “Space Jam,” instead opting to show the brutal competitor behind closed doors.

Krause’s prominent role is further evidence that “The Last Dance” is completely fixated on the idiosyncrasies of the Bulls themselves. The documentary would rather spend extended periods unpacking the terms of Pippen’s contract and the Bulls ’98 trip to Paris than wax poetic about Jordan’s high school basketball origin story. Ultimately, this approach rewards fans for their fascination with who the real Michael Jordan is. When footage shows him berating Toni Kukoc or Ron Harper, fans feel completely immersed in Jordan’s character and story.

Over the course of the next few weeks, much will be made of Jordan as a public figure. From his gambling history to his notorious “Republicans buy sneakers, too” comment, Jordan’s off-court personality has always simmered under the surface of his immense fame. But, if the first two episodes are any indication, fans are in store for much more, as “The Last Dance” provides the exact blend of basketball, legend and precision to create an incredible sports experience.

For over a decade, Michael Jordan transcended the sport of basketball, becoming arguably the most famous person on the planet. Now, a younger generation of fans has the opportunity to understand why.

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