By TERRY LYONS, Editor-in-Chief
BOSTON – The sun rose and the sunset on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The same can now be said of the 10-part, 10-hour documentary series, The Last Dance, which was broadcast by ESPN the last five weekends.
In the history of the NBA, the same thing happened to Bill Russell and the legendary Boston Celtics teams of the 1960s. Then, the other so-called dynasties rose and fell and the proverbial torch of NBA dominance was passed. Except, there were no ESPNs nor NBA Entertainment crews to capture every minute of Russell’s last dance with the Celtics.
Trying not to short-change any deserving champion, over the near 75 years of NBA action, pro basketball glory was passed from Joe Fulks to George Mikan to Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Then, from Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the incredible “Doctor J,” with a touch-pass to the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson era of the 1980s.
Many believe Magic and Bird “saved” the NBA. That might be true, but I believe they simply ushered in a new and incredible era as the game evolved and the good Doctor, Julius Erving, become the first, true, ABA-NBA global basketball ambassador.
As Magic and Bird brought the NBA to new heights, it was certainly Jordan who stepped-up and willed the very existence of the league into his own hands. He did it with a work ethic and competitiveness that is unrivaled. Jordan’s sheer determination and willingness to “pay a price” for winning was well documented in The Last Dance. The documentary series will always be remembered as an incredible dive into Jordan’s psyche. It will forever chronicle his NBA life and times as a player.
Now, with Episodes IX and X in the record books and the Bulls’ 1998 NBA season recorded for posterity, the documentary brought back MJ and his team to the forefront of our minds. It was fun to look back with amazement.
But, we must do so with the NBA history books and the circle of life resting side-by-side. Jordan’s Chicago Bulls begot the era of the San Antonio Spurs who passed the torch onward. Yes, David Robinson and Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs stepped up in 1999, then it was time for Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal of the Lakers.
Later on, the sun rose for LeBron James, in both Cleveland and Miami. LeBron gave way to Steph Curry,the Golden State Warriors and a cast that later includedKevin Durant and one of the most well-rounded and game-changing teams of the decade.
Along this quick stroll through NBA championships and the talented players who earned their glory with a ring, none were more charismatic, intriguing, forceful and dominant than Michael Jordan. Remember, MJ soared with Nike and billions of dollars promoting his Air Jordan shoes right by at his side. As compared to all the others listed here, Jordan’s timing was impeccable.
He came along as the NBA itself was finally ready to explode on the world stage of sports. The NBA Commissioner, the late David Stern, had laid a foundation for success. From global satellite television – which rose from small deals in a handful of outposts to wide-spread acceptance in 215 countries and territories around the world – Jordan took off with the USA Basketball Dream Team and the ’92 Barcelona Olympics as a springboard.
Here are the overall take-aways from the documentary series:
Generally – I think the documentary series was very well done and well received by a large portion of viewers. That is a very difficult goal to accomplish. I’m glad the producers and ESPN moved the air dates from the originally planned June (off-days of NBA Finals) to air on Sunday nights during the Stay-At-Home period of fighting against this terrible pandemic.
Secondly, I was happy to see credit given to the many former NBA colleagues I worked with while the documentary was filmed.
Circus Atmosphere – The behind the scenes footage of Bulls games at Chicago Stadium, the United Center and at the opposing arenas across America reminded us that fame – like winning – comes with a price.
Rodman – The Bulls’ risky addition of Dennis Rodman – now a Hall of Famer recognized for his defense and rebounding – added such an element of uncertainty and mayhem to the circus-like existence of the club. Rodman’s antics were on full display in the documentary. His skipping out on practice between Games 3 and 4 of the ’98 Finals was ridiculous and very few teams could’ve dealt with the self-inflicted craziness which resulted as Rodman returned. Of course, his rebounding and a few clutch baskets to contribute to the next big win was duly noted with the HD footage shot from courtside.
Kerr – The documentary’s most compelling storytelling was on display when the producers examined Steve Kerr‘s role with the Chicago Bulls. Kerr, a would-be journeyman type of NBA player with stops in Phoenix and Cleveland in his past, found the perfect fit in Chicago as he replaced guard John Paxson. Kerr studied for the opportunity – both as an opponent and teammate of Paxson’s – and then gradually gained the trust of Jordan. The look-back at the assassination of Kerr’s father, Malcolm, while working at the American University in Beirut in 1984 was compelling and very well done in the doc.
Other “tid-bits” of information: Whether it was underlining the fact Michael Jordan was suffering from food poisoning and dehydration in the epic Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, or hearing Jordan speak of the Bulls’ toughest match-up in the East – Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers – the final two episodes of the documentary added more to a story from so long ago. (Note: Jordan also made mention of how tough of an opponent the Detroit Pistons were to overcome).
Episodes IX and X relied more on traditional sports documentary tactics, following the action on the court from reels and reels of “never seen before” footage from the vault of NBA ENTERTAINMENT. That was great and it reminded us of things like Scottie Pippen‘s bad back injury in the Finals and Jordan’s career of super-human efforts.
Lastly, it was Rare Air‘s Mark Vancil‘s words which rang true throughout the 10-episode series – hitting it right – over and over again – as he tried his best to explain to viewers how the mind of Michael Jordan functioned. “Staying in the moment” or “his gift was that he was completely present” was one aspect of Jordan’s mindset Vancil explained.
“Michael Jordan is a mystic,” said Vancil.