Earlier this week ESPN and Netflix announced a joint effort to produce a 10 hour documentary about Michael Jordan. Titled “The Last Dance”, the announcement caught most of the sports world by surprise. After all, when was the last time an individual athlete was the focus of 600 minutes of interviews, archived footage, untold stories, and deep introspection? At least regarding an athlete not tied to various criminal activities, like armed robbery, kidnapping and murder?
The most important news, however, was that Michael Jordan has signed off on the production and will participate. While Jordan has never shunned a public that remains infatuated by his accomplishments, he also doesn’t seek the spotlight that a man of his stature easily commands. That attitude, combined with a cautious skepticism of the media, has always left his fans (and detractors) yearning for more.
For example, after Sports Illustrated ran a less than flattering headline about his baseball exploits in 1994, he refused to grant the publication another interview. That was when Sports Illustrated was the dominant sports publication. The internet, 24/7 news cycles, blogs, and instant video were only abstract dreams in New York boardrooms and a young Silicon Valley. It is now 2018. That right of refusal continues to this day.
Though this documentary runs the risk of being a little glossy (MJ does always control his narrative), it will hopefully give viewers a more complete look into MJ’s career. Acknowledging that the series is expected to mainly focus on his final championship season in 1997-98, here are five other topics that would be interesting to explore.
Jordan is notoriously protective of his image. His impeccable style of dress and carefully crafted public statements aren’t an accident. It’s been part of a conscious effort to project an image that can be enjoyed and respected by the vast majority of fans, while keeping everyone at an arm’s length away. Fans know who he is, but they don’t know who he is. Jordan prefers it that way. It’s helped him land in Forbes billionaires’ club.
So, while his participation is exciting, just how much creative control is he going to exercise? How much sandpaper and lacquer will be used to smooth out rough edges and add a glossy exterior? Nobody should reasonably expect insight and drama similar to Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules, but people aren’t going to be overwhelmed by a longer version of Michael Jordan to the Max.
Nostalgia and time can heal most pain and alter historical memories. Will it definitively address any of the urban legends related to his gambling activities? Is he willing to explore the Washington Wizard years, both on the court and in the front office? Those years, by any normal person’s standards, ranged from mediocre to abysmal. His stint with the Charlotte Hornets, where he is the first former player to be a majority owner of a NBA franchise, hasn’t exactly set the league on fire. What about the criticism, rightly or wrongly, he has received for avoiding political and social activism?
Are any of those topics, or other similar events, worth a meaningful conversation during 10 hours of our viewing pleasure?
Relationships and Rivalries
Jordan’s competitiveness is legendary. There’s a reason he never played in a Game 7 in the NBA Finals, on his way to defeating Hall of Famers Johnson, Worthy, Drexler, Barkley, Payton, Stockton, and Malone. He allegedly ruined Muggsy Bogues career (both in real life AND in Space Jam). He definitely verbally accosted and physically assaulted teammates. However, most of what we’ve heard about his relationships with his contemporaries have come from secondhand or unconfirmed sources and not directly from Jordan himself.
NBA TV’s The Dream Team and HBO’s Magic and Larry provided some context to that era. ESPN’s 30 for 30 Bad Boys also showed Jordan’s struggles from the Detroit Pistons’ point of view. A Pistons team that ironically featured future teammate Dennis Rodman as one of his main antagonists. How did that relationship evolve, heal, or grow?
Over the years, other stories have become public and different angles have been explored. ESPN’s SportsCentury series in 2000 and the 2010’s ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Jordan Rides the Bus come to mind. By no means has Jordan been ignored or overlooked. But rarely, if ever, has Michael Jordan openly and candidly commented on his relationships with other players or how he viewed those rivalries.
Jordan wasn’t an unemotional creature who only existed to eat souls and crush championship dreams. He was a highly emotional player who channeled that energy to be an unparalleled basketball talent. In doing so, he promptly ate souls and crushed championship dreams.
The only time the public has “recently” received a glimpse of Jordan’s mindset was in his 2009 Hall of Fame speech. Hopefully that kind of refreshing honesty will be featured throughout the 10 hours.
(Note: every link in the previous four paragraphs takes you to the videos that are referenced. Take some time and stroll down memory lane. If you were born after 2000, try and learn a few things.)
Give Context to Different Era’s
There is little doubt in my narrowly focused, highly uneducated mind that this announcement is related to the recent groundswell of support to consider Lebron James as the greatest player of all time. There’s no need to go down that rabbit hole here, but skepticism about the purpose and timing of the documentary is warranted. I just mentioned the Hall of Fame speech, where Jordan literally recalls that he harbored revenge against Byron Russell for three years because of comments Russell made when Jordan was playing baseball. What I call inspiring, you may call petty. Tomato. Tomahto.
However, we all know the game today does not resemble the game of the 80’s and 90’s. I don’t know if it’s “evolved”, but it has changed. Social media wasn’t a ticking time bomb the older generation had to navigate. A 28-foot three point attempt used to be saved for desperation buzzer beaters, but now they are a regular occurrence. Defensive rule changes have led to more complex schemes. “Illegal” defense doesn’t exist anymore. Neither does hand-checking. A play that would be a continuation or no-call early in Jordan’s career, may now be grounds for a Flagrant 2, a 20 game suspension, a court arraignment, and community service.
The talent pool is also deeper, thanks to the grassroots developmental leagues, the G-League and international pipelines. Is that depth offset by the fact that that the league has 30 teams compared to 23 when Jordan was drafted? Free agency now allows players to more easily shun the pressure of leading a team so they can chase a title. Front offices have more freedom to creating super teams, compared to just drafting or trading for key pieces. Advanced stats and analytics allow for more data on a nightly basis than a team used to compile in an entire season. Tanking is an openly discussed reality in 2018.
I don’t know which era was “better”, but they are different. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Providing that context to a generation of basketball fans that never saw Jordan play would be beneficial for all.
MJ’s connection to UNC
Michael helped deliver Dean Smith’s first NCAA title. A legend was born. Got it.
However, more background about Jordan’s growth and development at UNC would be fascinating. He played for two more years after that title, earning Player of the Year honors in 1984. How did that prepare him for his future success? Other than not being on Sports Illustrated as a freshman, what memories does he still carry with him from college?
We assume that Jordan’s affection for the university is only matched by his love of competition and winning. In recent years, those assumptions have been rewarded with an increasing number of public outings. Most noticeably, he has been more visible by showing up for the 2016 National Championship game, bringing the Jumpman logo to Chapel Hill, or telling us all that the ceiling is the roof.
As graduates and/or fans of UNC, the Carolina Family is a reality and not some cheap branding slogan created for social media. Jordan is a living, breathing testament to it’s existence. He has called Dean Smith a second father and still employs his college roommate, Buzz Peterson, in the Charlotte Hornets organization. Curiously, since Jordan joined the Hornets, they have continued to sign a pipeline of UNC products. Exploring his relationship with UNC in a deeper way than just saying only Dean Smith could hold Michael Jordan under 20 points would be an interesting spin.
However, since the film is likely to focus on his time with Bulls, this is wishful thinking. At the very least, maybe MJ could confirm foul trouble is to blame for ending his career against Indiana in the 1984 Sweet 16 and debunk the myth that it was stellar defense by a current television personality.
Give me 60 minutes of nothing but MJ’s commercials. The man revolutionized the meanings of “endorsement” and “branding”. Whether he inspired the most ridiculous games of H-O-R-S-E, encouraged you to buy new underwear, or you caught yourself wanting to be like Mike, Jordan’s commercials set a standard for athlete endorsements and advertising that’s been often imitated but never duplicated.
At a time when commercials weren’t something you fast forwarded through, his advertisements were must-see television. Anything he sold turned to gold. His ability to build an empire away from the basketball court is a major reason he is still revered by today’s players.
That may seem obvious to any of us who grew up watching him dominate opponents, but many fans don’t know or have forgotten how much Michael Jordan impacted style, culture, and consumerism. In 2017, four of the top ten athletic shoes were branded with Jordan’s name. That’s insane when you consider that Michael Jordan has not played basketball since 2003.
He didn't just change the NBA. Jordan impacted society in ways that most of us just take for granted. Revisiting that phenomenon would be quite the educational experience.
And with that, I’m headed to over YouTube to watch a little MJ vs MJ action.
Before you join me, take a couple of minutes and check out the first trailer for The Last Dance.