When ESPN teased us all with "The Last Dance" commercial last year, we all knew what we were in for. While we already knew Michael Jordan's career is a tale of perseverance, toughness and greatness, we could not have predicted the cultural impact this series would have on the entire sports world.
The original release date for "The Last Dance" was moved up to April 19 after the coronavirus pandemic put a halt on virtually every sporting event globally. As revealed in an article in the Los Angeles Times, the series was already under pressure to be completed in time for the original June release date to coincide with the NBA Finals, but it made sense on all aspects to push it up to give people something to watch while being stuck in quarantine. The producers got resourceful and allowed the pressure to create a diamond worthy of any of MJ's six championship rings. The series ended up shattering ESPN viewership records.
"The Last Dance" did an incredible job of reminding us all why we love sports in the first place. We want to see the best of humanity. We are fascinated by the extent of what we are physically and mentally capable of doing. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls are the perfect embodiment of that. He transformed his body early in his career to build muscle and stamina, to become a more physical player to stand up to the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys. He exhibited incredible mental strength after the death of his father, retiring from the game of basketball and pursuing his first love of baseball, to then accept that the hardwood floor was his destined environment.
The back-and-forth format between the Bulls' two threepeat runs allows for storylines to be woven together in an engaging way. We learn that basketball was more than a sport for Coach Phil Jackson, how it was about honing your zen and operating out of mental peace. We blink in shock at how Scottie Pippen was severely underpaid and had his own struggles with leadership when Jordan went to play baseball. We shake our heads in laughter as we remember the eccentric character that is Dennis Rodman and gain respect for how the team dynamic allowed his party boy side to fly free. We tear up as we hear about Steve Kerr's own father's tragic death and how he and Jordan gained a mutual respect for each other.
We watched wide-eyed in incredulity as Michael Jordan formulated heated rivalries in his head to motivate himself to a victory. One of the signature moments of the series is during Episode 8 when Gary Payton talks about putting Jordan against the ropes in the 1996 Finals, something so few people were able to do. Only to have Jordan laugh in his virtual face at how the Hall of Famer could possibly have been the reason for his stumbles when the series was right around Father's Day.
"The Last Dance" also reminded us how sports is an escape. As we scrolled past death toll numbers, stories of Black men and women being senselessly killed, swarms of locusts in the Middle East, we knew that we could settle in every Sunday night to relive our favorite Michael Jordan memories.
Among the best "bigger than basketball" moments was the story of how Michael Jordan didn't even want to meet with Nike, but his mother convinced him to at least hear what they had to say. He decided to sign with them and blew all sales goals out of the water. Jordan Brand is essential to this story and it was given its due shine, from recounting its origins to explaining the importance of MJ's feet bleeding because he insisted on wearing Air Jordan 1s in his presumed last game at Madison Square Garden.
Another pop culture moment that was key to Michael Jordan's superstardom is, of course, "Space Jam." The documentary reflects on how pickup games with NBA stars in the storied Jordan Dome after a full day of hooping with Bugs Bunny against the Monstars helped Jordan get back into shape after returning to basketball. This segment was sure to put a smile on every '90s kids face.
"The Last Dance" didn't shy away from bringing up the controversies that haunted Jordan's career. "The Jordan Rules" book written by Chicago Tribune reporter Sam Smith questioned 23's harsh leadership strategies early on in his career. His rumored gambling problem is addressed and the infamous clip of Jordan requesting an interview with Ahmad Rashad, complete with sunglasses. It's also questioned why he wasn't more political and outspoken about issues affecting the black community (a reason that for several strips him of the GOAT title). But we learn that Jordan doesn't have any regrets or feel a need to retroactively make up for his lack of public support for social justice issues.
It's important to remember that this all occurred without social media. Sports fans relied strictly on the media to tell the story unfolding before them — for better or for worse. What Michael Jordan did by becoming an international icon was unprecedented. Yes, Kobe Bryant (who Episode 5 is dedicated to), LeBron James (who is working on a "Space Jam" sequel) and possibly others have now achieved pop culture significance and overseas superstardom. But this would not be possible if Jordan didn't do it first.
Perhaps the most powerful clip of the entire series comes from Episode 7 when Jordan reveals that he doesn't care if he's remembered as a "nice guy." His sheer will to win and the fact that he brought others along for the journey to experience something so few people have in their lives makes him a true one-of-one.
"The Last Dance" isn't just great because it tells a story of greatness. It's great because it reminds us, in this dark, confusing time who we are — or who we aspire to be, living in our inherent purpose without regard for the approval of others, driven only by our deepest personal convictions.
It feels especially relatable witnessing Jordan reflect on his legacy and questioning if the team could have won one more. He even suggests signing everyone to 1-year contracts just to have that last push. But that's the point of the whole documentary. The series is called "The Last Dance" because Bulls GM Jerry Krause told Phil Jackson at the start of the 1997-1998 season that it would be his last. After they won the championship, the front office had second thoughts, but the line in the sand was already drawn.
It's so heavy to think that politics broke this team up. It's evident the burden plagues Jordan to this day. He did come out of a second retirement to play with the Washington Wizards for two seasons just to feel the parquet under his feet again. But he knows that the glory days ended.
As we sit at home mourning all the hopes and dreams of what should have been for 2020 and beyond, may we find some sort of solace watching the archetype of greatness come to terms with the fact that not everything is in our control.