Published on May 8th, 2020 | by Dave Scaddan


Can ‘The Last Dance’ Win It The Right Way?

Jason Hehir’s new docu-series from Netflix and ESPN is a riveting, candid portrait of the cult of Jordan. But Dave asks “what about his supporting cast?”

As The Last Dance gets trotted out week-by-week on Netflix, I find myself enjoying the nostalgia with a few reservations. My main worry about this series is that it might miss what incredibly great teams the Bulls were during their dynasty. One can miss a key part of Jordan’s greatness by focusing mostly on the highly competitive, individually dominant character we’re coming to know better in The Last Dance. This character belongs in the story, but so does the progressively more selfless, team-oriented player that Jordan became as the winning continued.

A very important part of the Bulls’ extended success that this series mostly misses so far is the “me to we” philosophy that Phil Jackson believed in and espoused through the NBA’s most selfish, dominant scorer-minded era. The Last Dance only touches on this with the most famous anecdotes, ones that b’ball fans know well. We get the “who’s open, Michael?” story that led to John Paxson’s threepeat-sealing shot in 1993, we see some footage of the Bulls doing yoga in a big circle at practice, but the series mostly presents the Bulls’ saga as the story of Jordan’s scoring dominance and the six rings Chicago drew from that dominance.

This way of seeing the Bulls as a Jordan-helmed chariot smashing through competitors does not capture how amazing their run really was. The Jordan-helmed chariot was the vehicle that slammed into the Detroit Pistons over and over, losing games and learning lessons. The Jackson-helmed chariot was the one that left earth and sailed through the sky with a mindset that valued every player on the floor as a potential contributor. Here’s a way of seeing the “Who’s open, Michael?” story that’s much more efficient. Jalen Rose’s breakdown gives appropriate praise to a combo like Jordan and Pippen exploring the opportunities they could create for others and having the mindset to resist hogging the ball in dire situations.

If you watch the actual broadcast of the game, you’ll see a pre-HD Phil Jackson rising slowly from the bench in celebration with a look of pure serenity on his face (Phil is also keenly focused on the four seconds remaining in the game after Pax’s “dagger” that history–and The Last Dance–have erased from collective consciousness). Jackson barely cracks a smile, but looks happier than anyone there. He knows how much his men have learned and can see them elated in what their oneness has allowed them to do. The Last Dance gives us a champagne-soaked taste of the weight of this “we-ing” with the clip of Phil telling Michael, “you did it the right way,” but it misses the chance to spin the coolest yarn about the Bulls: that their rings were links in a chain that got stronger the less Jordan scored.

Of course, this story didn’t just happen from 1991-98. It also happened from 2008-10 with Kobe Bryant playing the role of the unstoppable scorer who had to learn – from Phil—that “taking over” was not the way to build a chain (the role of John Paxson would be played by Ron Artest).  Maybe it’s not classy to say this about Kobe at this particular point in time, but he might not have been capable of learning that lesson without the “who’s open?” phase of Michael’s legacy to draw from. Certainly, being led by Phil Jackson provided a link between chains that gave Kobe more reason to “see the we” than he would’ve had otherwise.

I’m going to get statistical up in this piece. To emphasize how important the collective attitude was for the Bulls’ longevity—and why it’s really unfortunate that The Last Dance doesn’t break its Jordan-as-dominator conceit often enough – consider this: the league-leader in NBA scoring for the regular season has won the championship eleven times. Eleven. There have been 73 championships and eleven of them have been won by the team with the top scorer for that year (that’s only 15% of the time). Three of those eleven championships were between 1946 and 1950 (scoring leaders with rings: Joe Fulks once and George Mikan twice) when the game was as similar to the 90s game as a horse is to a car. Then, the NBA had twenty championships without the top scorer getting a ring before Kareem did it in ’71 with the Bucks. Fast forward another 19 years without a “best scorer goes all the way” season and MJ does it six times. There have now been another nineteen years without the scoring title/ring-thing happening again (Shaq did it in 2000, again with Phil as coach). Not James Harden, not Russell Westbrook, not Steph Curry, not Kevin Durant, not Kobe Bryant, not Dwyane Wade, not Lebron James. None of these guys (nor Gervin, McAdoo, Iverson) have done it – why?

Winning the scoring title takes a certain amount of ball-hogging that doesn’t translate to the kinds of team-focused greatness that the Bulls needed to win three in a row twice. We see this in basketball all the time. The media hypes the scoring numbers of the stars before a game and then one team wins because of hustle, strategy and cooperation, leaving the big scorers looking selfish in defeat. This could’ve happened to the Bulls the same way it happened to 62 out of 73 teams in NBA history who’ve ended their seasons with the “best” scorer and then gone home without the trophy, but it didn’t. Phil Jackson, with his sweet-grass Zen collectedness, made sure it didn’t happen, and that’s why Michael wouldn’t play for anyone else, even going so far as to refuse the notion of another coach when Jerry Krause pushed the prospect in ’97-’98. As competitive as Jordan was with the “little wins”, the bet on an eight-foot putt, the humiliation of a player Krause liked, (Kukoc, Majerle) the dunking on someone, Jackson got him to see the season another way, at least partially. Michael’s die-hard devotion to Phil, even though Phil wanted him to do the thing he did best—score—less, is an amazing thing, and any doc series that risks missing this phenomenon in its storytelling is getting it wrong.

Some more numbers – these ones less obscure. Jordan’s scoring averages (as per during the regular season of the six Bulls’ championship seasons look like this:

1990-1991 – 31.5ppg – 5.5apg

1991-1992 – 30.1ppg – 6.1apg

1992-1993 – 32.5ppg – 5.5apg

1995-1996 – 30.4ppg – 4.3apg

1996-1997 – 29.6ppg – 4.3apg

1997-1998 – 28.7ppg – 3.5apg

The downward trend is gradual, but it’s there, and the fact that Jordan’s assist numbers follow a similar slight slide says that as he and the Bulls got better, the ball was in his hands less over time (and remember, he still scored more than anyone else in the league every season). To ignore that it happened this way without investigating why—especially when the scoring-most-and-still-winning feat is such a rarity—would be a mistake for anyone wanting to tell the Bulls’ story. Where are the glimpses into how the relationship between Jackson and Jordan managed these profound realizations? We have both of these figures in front of the camera. Maybe we’ll still get to hear about how they harnessed the crux between competitive individuality and selfless communal-ism so much better than anyone else in basketball who ever tried.

Hopefully The Last Dance will get the more interesting and meaningful message in there somehow as it winds to a close. Maybe this has something to do with Michael Jordan’s role as a producer on the series (a role Ken Burns has challenged as anti-journalist). Maybe it’s just that the filmmakers know the public will love a series about individual domination more than they will love a story of togetherness in the face of many motives to the contrary. But telling this story “the right way” as Phil has done in Sacred Hoops and several other books he’s written that deal with dynasty, should matter more in a TV series that’s as legacy-shaping as this one. Missing the most important point begs the question, when it comes time for your last dance to be remembered, do you want to be dancing alone, or with others?

Here are a few more things that shouldn’t be left out of the stories The Last Dance is telling . . .

Why does this series pretend to be about the final championship when it’s clearly (so far) about all of MJ’s 13 seasons as a Bull? The Last Dance, my ass–there are more jumpy time cuts in this thing than an episode of Rick and Morty.

Where did Jordan’s unflappable sense of cool come from? No other dominant NBA player (until maybe Kobe, who was definitely just doing a Jordan impression) was this cool all the time. On the court, at the microphone, in commercials, on the bus, the man is very cool. I’d like to hear him talk about this for two minutes. Was it just a matter of knowing he was the best? Then why wasn’t Kareem that cool? Why wasn’t Shaq that cool? Why do Lebron’s celebrations and statements look cool by today’s standard, but totally rehearsed and contrived compared to Mike’s? Jordan would have something to say about this, I think, and it would be cool.

Will this show gloss over the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals like Bulls lore tends to do?  The Orlando Magic beat the Bulls that year in six, and the legend has basically become that Jordan was still “rusty” after returning from baseball to play just the last seventeen games with a Bulls team that figured they were trying it without him. But the Bulls were 13-4 in those games, and 34-31 before MJ returned, so Jordan really wasn’t rusty. Hopefully the series will find time to dig into the gap between three-peats and give the only Jordan/Bulls playoff loss after 1990 some air.

What would Jordan’s battle with fame have looked like if the “dirt” had come in tweets and memes instead of in books and interviews? No one thought to ask him this?

Even though he’s already on the record about it, isn’t there some way we could get to hear Michael’s take on the modern star mindset of teaming up with other stars? This couldn’t be woven into the narrative of The Last Dance somehow?

Why was the story of the ’92 finals focused on the old, tired Jordan versus Drexler narrative that was a media-made thing from the start anyway with no mention of Cliff Robinson? Jordan was in direct competition with Robinson as much as he was with Drexler, and Cliffy is not even mentioned in this series, even though the famous “shrug shot” that sealed the series was a parody of a move Robinson liked to use after a made three. A series like this should get these nuggets right, gaddamitt.

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is a teacher who enjoys writing and talking about movies, music, and books.

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