Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 May 2020

'The Last Dance': Why even those with zero interest in basketball should watch Netflix's Michael Jordan documentary

The 10-part series centres around the Chicago Bulls’ climactic 1997-98 NBA season and has all the hallmarks of a great drama

Michael Jordan's career is chronicled in the 10-part Netflix docu-series, 'The Last Dance'. AFP
Michael Jordan's career is chronicled in the 10-part Netflix docu-series, 'The Last Dance'. AFP

It’s been at least a decade since I experienced the anticipation of having to wait for the next episode of my favourite TV programme to air.

In an age of streaming and televisual excess, when entire seasons of world-class series are made available in one fell swoop for you to binge on at will, waiting for Tuesday to arrive so I can catch the next instalment of The Last Dance, Netflix’s documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, feels as much like a 1990s throwback as the Bulls themselves.

Even more remarkable is the fact that I am semi-addicted to a programme about basketball when I have close to zero interest in the actual game. But these are exceptional times and, having watched an estimated 98 per cent of all the other content currently available on Netflix, I decided to give the The Last Dance a go.

Michael Jordan has all the complexity and flaws of a Shakespearean hero

The 10-part series centres around the Chicago Bulls’ climactic 1997-98 NBA season, while going back to chart Jordan’s meteoric rise to fame. It features never-released interviews and footage, as well as feedback from the man himself. Netflix has been releasing two episodes a week, with the final ones due on Tuesday, May 19.

It has all the makings of a great drama: intrigue; tragedy; unbreakable alliances; a magnetic lead; strong supporting characters, including the quietly charismatic Scottie Pippen and ever-colourful Dennis Rodman, not to mention Barack Obama; and a narrator who isn’t afraid to push (hats off to any man brave enough to ask a belligerent Jordan if he thinks his success came at the cost of being perceived as a nice guy).

That inevitably emerges as one of the show’s as-yet unanswered questions. Is Michael Jordan a nice guy? Possibly not. But does it matter?

Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan pictured on June 14, 1998. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File
Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan pictured on June 14, 1998. AP Photo

Because this isn’t really a documentary about basketball. It is a probe into greatness – and how one achieves Jordan’s once-in-a-generation kind of greatness.

He has all the complexity and flaws of a Shakespearean hero: a much-loved and murdered father; a single-minded need to not only win at all costs, but to obliterate his competition; an incredible amount of ego and a fair amount of pettiness (even the most innocuous of slights is taken, stewed over and transformed into the fuel that Jordan uses to power himself to ever-greater heights).

We hear from former team mates and on-court foes about his singular drive, aggressive competitiveness, work ethic and unprecedented skills. In the words of Magic Johnson: “His balance, his footwork. Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm.” But one does not need to understand the technicalities of Jordan’s signature cradle dunk to appreciate his tendency to defy gravity.

Anyone who lived through the 1990s, will recall how Jordan transcended basketball to become a global cultural icon.

From his role in Space Jam (who didn’t secretly love that film?) to his lucrative deals with Nike, he shaped popular culture, kick-starting the sportswear and sneaker trends that continue to flourish.

It is fitting that a pair of his autographed, game-worn Air Jordan 1 trainers fetched a record $560,000 (Dh2.05 million) in a Sotheby’s auction this week.

But if you were anything like me, you perhaps didn't fully appreciate at the time just how groundbreaking and exceptional Michael Jordan and his band of Bulls truly were.

The Last Dance combines compulsive viewing with a dose of 1990s nostalgia, and is likely to appeal even if you have zero interest in basketball.

Bring on Tuesday.

Updated: May 18, 2020 04:44 PM

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