In its scope and balance, Jason Hehir’s account of the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 run in basketball history transcends sports fandom.
Everyone in “The Last Dance” has a Michael story. Maybe it’s the one they’ve said often enough at dinner parties or family get-togethers that the timing was worked to perfection. In some cases, the story might have drifted so far from the truth that it exists as its own self-perpetuating myth. Over 10 episodes of “The Last Dance,” the ESPN documentary series examining Michael Jordan’s singular stardom through the lens of the Chicago Bulls’ storied 1997-98 title streak, the breadth of topics and timelines makes almost the veracity of those uninteresting stories.
Directed by Jason Hehir, whose previous projects include several editions of ESPN’s long-running “30 for 30” series, “The Last Dance” is less an investigation into the last flames of a sports dynasty and more a chronicle of the improbability of his survival. The goal seems to be to give a definitive account of what this season meant for everyone involved, regardless of how some of the empirical facts may have changed over the ensuing two decades.
Structurally, “The Last Dance” is a marvel, finding thematic parallels between the drama unfolding in the “present” of that 1997-98 season and the fundamental framework that made that final finale possible. From a swirling mess of personnel moves, family tragedies and international showcases, Hehir and a team of writers – led by Chad Beck, Devin Concannon, Abhay Sofsky and Ben Sozanski – manage to create a smooth and cohesive pair of stories. avant-garde of the tracks. “The Last Dance” shows how, by the fall of 1997, the Bulls had already established themselves as basketball royalty, amassing a showcase filled with championships and individual accolades. The promise of one more ring nevertheless takes on a mythical dimension. Even though some flashbacks leave the Last Dance season’s action at a tantalizing crossroads, there’s never a boost as the narrative shifts over the years.
In the process, “The Last Dance” is able to focus on the other key characters from the Bulls dynasties who didn’t also star in “Space Jam.” One episode traces future Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen’s Arkansas roots, while another overshadows Dennis Rodman in some of his headline-grabbing late-night antics. In many ways, the series consciously grapples with a question that the media of the time also pondered: While Jordan was at his undisputed peak, was the team’s success due to his prowess or was this causal arrow pointing in the other direction? The Bulls superstar is credited with transcending any measure of fame and attention, but ‘The Last Dance’ certainly doesn’t ignore the idea that it was a team effort.
Some of that shows up in practice and team travel footage, much of it filmed by a camera crew built into the Bulls for the season. (Filmed as part of a planned team documentary, much of this footage has been effectively hidden in league archives.) relayed from teammates like Tony Kukoc and Bill Wennington, all the way to coach -chef Phil Jackson. As much as those moments are often left to breathe, those behind-the-scenes hangouts are the one area where “The Last Dance” could afford to indulge even more.
Not simply relying on a 21st century perspective, “The Last Dance” also knows how to utilize the strengths of 80s and 90s announce teams across multiple networks. (In some cases, like with Magic Johnson and Bill Walton, it’s also a subtle way of showing how Jordan served as a bridge between two eras: his former competitors became first-hand witnesses to each new chapter in the game’s history. .)Marv Albert”spec-tack-ular movement” call, there are a handful of points where a play-by-play team can only sit back and be amazed by what this team has been able to achieve.
Beyond the sportswriters and reporters — local and national — and the entire team staff, some attendees feel a little redundant. Interviews with broader pop culture figures like Nas and Justin Timberlake feel less pivotal in describing this season’s specific beats (though they do manage to show how Jordan still exists as the quintessential celeb at the of the pantheon for people who can relate to the crushing weight of fame that Jordan is trying to portray here).
As “The Last Dance” often repeats, Jordan is one of the most chosen figures in recent history, with his moves, statements and choices analyzed on a global scale. The extent to which this document is directly inspired by Jordan depends mainly on the man himself. To his and the show’s credit, moments of reluctance manage to shine through. With time spent in conversation over several episodes, it becomes easier to spot the dots when Jordan seizes the opportunity to analyze details on the pitch or resolve decades-old feuds. It’s not always the case. Whether it’s a preemptive attack on a seething emotion or a desire to say nothing that could be misconstrued, there are many examples where a response of few words manages to convey much more.
To some degree, “The Last Dance” can’t be completely kaleidoscopic in a way that some viewers might hope. Whether it’s the guardrails of someone increasingly private like Jordan, or the post-career baggage brought by someone like Dennis Rodman, or the decades of revisionism that changed people’s perspectives on the disputes on the ground, there are truths and corners of this season that not even 10 episodes can answer.
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But those boundaries are certainly still wide enough to house not just a franchise’s years of growth, but the way the fortunes of an entire sports league can change on serendipitous convergences and generational talent. There are also simmering parallels to be drawn between the actions of the Bulls brass and an approach to management of any sort that discards value for control and success for appeasement of ego.
To say that “The Last Dance” is completely indifferent to separating myth, legend and other would be unfair. Some episodes grapple with Jordan’s notorious reluctance to get involved in national and state politics (and commentary that may have bolstered that reputation). Another examines his unlikely mid-career pivot to minor league baseball (and whether that move was a choice on his part).
At the same time, it also feels like “The Last Dance” is aware of what already exists and has been analyzed about every point in the Bulls/Jordan timeline. Sam Smith’s book “The Jordan Rules” is still there to read if viewers want more of this early championship history, just as Ron Shelton’s “30 for 30” episode “Jordan Rides the Bus” has a half hour more on the Birmingham Barons. If “The Last Dance” is definitive, it’s like an introduction to the bulldozer, moving as much dirt as possible across the surface, even as others with smaller shovels dug deeper.
“The Last Dance” essentially asks the audience to be Jordan’s teammate throughout this ride. You see how his overbearing competitive spirit leads to ticks in the win column and also strains individual relationships along the way. “The Last Dance” isn’t necessarily an evidence-gathering operation, but as the series goes on, comments from teammates, coaches, and members of Jordan’s inner circle all seem to question whether the June 1998 result was worth it. everyone torments her. For many viewers drawn to the way “The Last Dance” captures the sweep of history, the likely answer will be “yes.”
“The Last Dance” premieres Sunday, April 19 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. Two new episodes will air each following Sunday.