'The Last Dance' only adds to the Michael Jordan myth

Courtesy PhotoMichael Jordan appears in documentary series 'The Last Dance.'

I considered writing something about the allure of “The Last Dance,” the fascinating ten-part Michael Jordan miniseries, just as it was starting its run on ESPN a little more than a month ago. At the time, though, I decide to defer, to wait to see what kind of conclusions the documentary would draw about Jordan, the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, and how the legends behind that team’s incredible run see things now. 

“The Last Dance” has ended its run on ESPN, but if you missed it the first time all 10 episodes are about to rebroadcast on ABC, where they will no doubt find an entirely new audience to pull in. With that in mind, it seems like a good time to look at the documentary series as a whole, and explore how despite its unprecedented access and sense of openness, it only added to the myth of Michael Jordan all these years later.

Jason Hehir’s docuseries is built on an impressive and often surprising foundation: Hundreds of hours of footage a camera crew captured when they were granted an all-access pass to follow Jordan through the entire 1997-1998 NBA Season, which would eventually grant him his sixth and final NBA Championship during his last season with the Bulls. Using that footage and its many facets as a catalyst, Hehir then works backwards through Jordan’s life, jumping through time in a precise nonlinear way to show the legend’s basketball roots, college career, professional rise, and time in the spotlight as the most famous athlete in the world throughout the 1990s. Along the way, the series’ length allows it to pivot the spotlight at times to focus on Jordan’s most high-profile collaborators, from coach Phil Jackson to court-mates Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.

With that framework in place, the film also relies heavily on Jordan himself, who granted permission to use the 97-98 footage and appears frequently in present-day interviews, parked in a chair in a mansion, often with a glass of whiskey or a cigar at his side. Jordan’s present-day voice and his often unfiltered opinions of his friends and opponents, are there for every major moment of “The Last Dance,” adding context and commentary, but often adding mystery as well.

It’s in that last element, the mystery, that “The Last Dance” hits upon its most compelling recurring theme, the thing that keeps us coming back to it week after week. For all of his apparent candor, his humor, and his often bold assertions about the people around him through one of the greatest periods of athletic achievement in the history of American sports, we still come away from “The Last Dance” feeling like we can perhaps never really know Michael Jordan.

On a minute-by-minute level, Hehir has made a great, engaging, and even thrilling documentary about one of the most heavily-covered teams in all of sports. It’s remarkable how well he’s able to stitch moments together to make them feel fresh, and while that all-access footage from 97-98 certainly helps with that, there’s also simply a lot of great craft on display here. Of course, it helps that because it’s Jordan, everyone wanted to come in for an interview, whether they played with him, covered him in the media, or even just plain hated him.

That means that, despite its 10-hour runtime, “The Last Dance” never grows stale despite sticking to a pretty traditional “here’s what happened” format. There are times when it branches into a bit more dissection of who Jordan is and why reacted to a certain situation a certain way, but this is largely a straightforward biographical series, and yet it doesn’t ever feel predictable. That’s an achievement in itself, particularly since anyone paying attention to sports in the 1990s can tell you just how much Michael Jordan news there was out in the world any given week.

At the center of all of this, once again, is Jordan himself, and it’s clear that, despite the exhaustive media coverage and the years of speculation about his personal motives, His Airness is still deeply invested in his own mythmaking. He frequently detours into explaining his own decisions as part of a simple drive to win at all costs, and the footage juxtaposed with those interviews clearly demonstrates that he was able to back that talk up time and time again. But the man behind the drive, the one who somehow summoned that will to win from his childhood through to his college years and even into the NBA, where he stared down some of the greatest to ever play the game, is still somewhere back there behind the trophies and the cigar smoke. “The real Michael Jordan” is a ghost, and at times in the course of “The Last Dance” the man himself suggests you wouldn’t know him in the first place, or if you did you’d find him unremarkable.

Still, for all of Jordan’s commitment to his own legend, for all his jokes and his musings on the drive to be a champion, the real bright spots in “The Last Dance” are the moments of vulnerability, the moments when the curtain slips and we do see what we can perhaps think is the real him. 

In one particularly telling moment, after winning yet another NBA title, an exhausted Jordan turns to the various handles surrounding him and asks if, after all of his interviews and celebrations, he can just be alone for a bit. These days Jordan has learned that kind of solitude is nearly impossible in the public eye, but he’s at least built a legend around himself to exist as a smokescreen. It’s there, somewhere in between the vulnerable man and the legend he’s cultivated, that the really compelling part of “The Last Dance” lies.

‘The Last Dance’ premieres on ABC at 7 p.m. Central on May 23.