Right now, 10 hours of old playoff basketball should probably be broadcast with a trigger warning. Ten hours of Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls playoff basketball should probably come with a chaplain. For “The Last Dance” is 10 hours of all-time postseason sports. The documentary is ostensibly about the season that culminated in the team’s historic sixth and final N.B.A. championship title, in 1998, led by Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, the coach. That’s a story that may not require a show that runs about as long as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Ten Commandments parable, “The Decalogue.” But what else are you doing?
Moreover, this is a team whose personalities, personal dramas and feats warrant just this sort of excess. It’s a team that inspired its own commandments: Thou shall not doubt. Jordan’s 15 seasons of brilliance, cunning, ruthlessness, volition, perfectionism and artistry render him impervious to overstatement. He essentialized the sneaker as casual wear and luxury item. He made cause-free celebrity — cause-free black celebrity, no less — seem viable, preferable to having to mean all things to all people. One size had to fit all. Few team players had ever became as rock-star, movie-star famous and with nary a scandal the way Jordan had — almost exclusively through athletic supremacy. There was basketball Jordan and Air Jordan. No athlete anywhere will ever have a mid-motion logo as triumphantly hieroglyphic as his, the silhouette as sentence.
In Pippen, Jordan had the greatest wingman ever; in Rodman, the most mercurial, most formidable Dennis. In Jackson, among the least likely of masterminds. How did the team’s core last so long? How’d it keep winning so big, bigger, biggest? Over and over, the series reminds you how many times things came yea close to falling apart. And, remarkably, even then, the pieces were reassembled and reconfigured for further dominance.
You could call these 10 hours a walk down memory lane. But that’d be like calling Mardi Gras a parade.
The series is this ocean of archival game clips, dunk montages, smack talk, mea culpas, cigar smoking, backstabbing, frontstabbing, manfully restrained tears, endorsements of the triangle offense, interviews with anybody who even blinked at the N.B.A. from 1984 to 1998, including with Jordan’s mother, Deloris, whose serenity creates the flabbergasting illusion that she’s younger than her 57-year-old son. I can think of maybe four living athletes important enough to lure the participation of two living ex-presidents (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama), but only one whose team could necessitate appearances by both of those guys plus Carmen Electra. This thing is absurdly, almost comically, exhaustive.
ESPN Films, which produced the series with Netflix, had planned to air it during the finals. But we’re all a little desperate. Traffic to the network’s site is down. Its handful of cable channels are either going archival and morphing into the Sportsonian or impersonating Twitch, the all-day live-stream gaming site. Quarantined current stars are playing HORSE against their quarantined retired elders — people are placing bets! The thirsty need a slaking. So “The Last Dance,” which debuts Sunday, is a company opening up that case of good, special-occasion Château Margaux for crisis drinking.
The show’s sprawl — two episodes per night for five Sundays — is more about vastness than depth. The filmmakers have access to unseen off-court footage from 1997 and ’98. When a title card announced that, I got chills: We’re going all the way back there?
But the old footage doesn’t feel entirely tamed. It turns up a few locker-room eyepoppers, like a clip from one evening before the ’98 All-Star Game. A retired Magic Johnson drops by to say hi to Jordan, and Jordan’s All-Star coach, Larry Bird, asks Jordan about Magic, “Wouldn’t you like to have some of his ass today?” You really have to hear it with Bird’s Indiana twang. It’s the “picture your parents having sex” of sports-legend vulgarity. Johnson’s response is even less printable. (Picture your parents making porn.)
The first four episodes loosely concern the personal stories of the team’s four main stars: Jordan, Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Coach Jackson. The structure is irritating. A visual timeline slides us back and forth between the 1997-1998 season and just about every pertinent year before it. That strategy leaves us in no single place for terribly long. Just as you’re about to settle into, say, Jackson’s Montana upbringing, his career as a gangly Knick or his spirituality and adventures with psychedelics, it’s onward to add those biographical chips to the team mosaic.
Once in a while, the to-and-fro produces a comedic masterstroke. Episode 3 ends with Jordan recalling the time Rodman requested a Las Vegas vacation, and Episode 4 opens with a title screen that says, “Dennis Rodman has been absent with permission from the Chicago Bulls for 24 hours.” The sentence then updates itself — “with” expands to “without” and “24 hours” reddens and ticks up to 88. And just like that, we’re looking at Electra, in the present, who goes on to conclude that “it was definitely an occupational hazard to be Dennis’s girlfriend.” Watching her interlude, it hit me: Electra, a pop singer, model and muse, was a Kardashian trial balloon.
There’s no overarching big idea in this series, which Jason Hehir directed. It doesn’t have a big question to ask. No grand thought emerges about the league after Jordan, or about how he changed the sport. Nobody, for instance, scores the way Jordan did, from midcourt. It’s raining threes now. His 10 scoring titles aren’t likely to get a toppling anytime soon — seven of those were in a row. (And: Is the pregame headphones craze his doing? What was he listening to?)
You’d welcome any thoughts on his Bulls being the last dynasty before the N.B.A.’s hip-hop and Instagram eras. The shorts were short back then and the suits hideous (baggy, endless, with too many buttons and too many breaks; its wearers looked like deacons at a car-salesman church). But they were standard before Allen Iverson, the Sixers phenomenon, who in the late 1990s and 2000s, brought swagger, bravado and cornrows to the league and with those a different kind of racism that pried “thug” from traditionalists’ lips and crested with a brawl between players and fans one night outside Detroit in 2004.
The roundabout consequence was the institution of an official dress code that, on the one hand, inspired pre- and postgame sartorial inspiration and, on the other, served to remind the players of their places as employees. ESPN shared only the first eight episodes with critics. Maybe some of this is up for consideration during the dismount.
As a whole, though, “The Last Dance” doesn’t hunger to be a work about the cultural psyche or the country’s racial history. It’s not Ken Burns or “O.J.: Made in America,” the current yardstick for redwood-size nonfiction storytelling. And that’s all right. Jordan has never felt quite comparable to Muhammad Ali, O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson or Barack Obama, these towering figures who double naturally as Rorschachs of a roiling national consciousness. Jordan is as important but less transcendent, less polarizing, less political, therefore less politicized.
It’s quite something witnessing Obama practice cultural criticism in an expression of empathy for and disappointment in Jordan’s refusal, in 1990, to endorse the futile Senate candidacy of Harvey Gantt (the first of two tries); Gantt was a black architect and former Mayor of Charlotte, N.C., running to unseat the super-racist Jesse Helms in Jordan’s home state. Obama wasn’t the only person who wished Jordan had spoken out. When the series digs up Helms’s victory speech (“There’s no joy in Mudville tonight!”), it’s tempting to be mad at Jordan all over again. But his remaining apolitical was by design. The ambition was to achieve unimpeachable, unparalleled excellence in his chosen career. Everything else was a potential distraction.
A more-than-casual basketball person, such as myself, might know all of this about Jordan and think, as I actually, did: This seems like a lot of stone for such a little bit of blood. But here’s the achievement of this series: Jordan isn’t boring. At all. He’s thicker now, handsome in a seasoned way, that dark-brown dome of his having eased more into “rotunda”; his buttonhole eyes retain a mild haze of puddled rheum; that tiny hoop remains affixed to his left ear, birthmark-stubborn. To his right, there often sits a whiskey glass; my gaze would occasionally drift its way for status checks — full, half full, more empty. Regardless, he’s wonderful throughout this thing, more than he needed to be, more than I would have guessed: present, open, ruminative, so funny.
Hehir has this trick where any time someone says something debatable or controversial or simply worthy of running by Jordan, he hands him an iPad and makes him watch what was said. And every time Hehir does it, Jordan turns the reaction into gold. He’s an incredulous Zeus in these moments, lightning bolts falling from his toga as he laughs, zapping lesser gods. To Gary Payton, his momentarily wily foe in the 1996 finals, I say: Ouch. (It could have been worse. Jordan drops a house on Isiah Thomas.)
Payton pops up in Part 8 and is also fantastic. All the talking heads here bring good stuff. The coach Pat Riley, remembering Jordan’s arrival in the league: “As a rookie, he wasn’t a rookie.” Magic Johnson, shaking his head at Jordan’s dethroning him: “That dude was just … Mmm mmm mmm.” Some of the joy in spending all this time with “The Last Dance” comes from who the series has gathered to sing Jordan’s praises and tell the truth on him — broadcast journalists like Hannah Storm, Willow Bay, Bob Costas, Andrea Kremer, Ahmad Rashad and Michael Wilbon; former teammates like Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong.
Jordan’s evasion of zeitgeist sizzle simply takes some of the pressure off Hehir. He could’ve leaned on all those clips of Jordan’s electric breakaways and all-court modern dance. He is determined, instead, to leaven deification with intimacy and humor. The series feels unafraid to broach the tricky stuff about Jordan’s life, personality and career, like his gambling, his father James’s murder, the sour aspects of his ambition and those fascinating 18 months, in 1994 and 1995, when he quit the N.B.A. to play baseball for a White Sox farm club. (Imagine Superman auditioning to play Wolverine.) Jordan seems ready to go there for all of it, into the valleys and darkness. This show is among the most fascinating examinations of greatness I’ve seen.
People who missed the Jordan era might receive his totalizing prowess as myth. They know him as a brand, as the baldheaded middle-aged meme who leaks courtside tears for their tweets, as one of the worst-dressed men in sports retirement. “The Last Dance” is an invitation to meet the legend who sparked the memes, to witness a newly human — or perhaps simply also human — figure who, in his prime, loved his sport above all else. We learn nothing about Jordan’s marriages or children.
But more than once, the series shows us the child in him. It tends to surface after he has won, as in the heartbreaking sight of him minutes after taking title No. 4 in 1996, still mourning his father. A camera catches him sprawled on the locker room floor, still in his uniform and crying convulsively, onto no one’s shoulder — a sudden metaphor of himself. Alone, weeping into a basketball.