The ‘Last Dance’ Transcends The Typical Sports Story

I went to college in Michael Jordan’s hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s an affluent tourist mecca, boasting some of the best beaches on the Outer Banks, filled with liberal-leaning Southerners from good families, dedicated to preserving the tradition and history that comes with it. My dad grew up here, literally on the wrong side of the tracks, before some of the poorer corners in the city’s historic district were transformed into overpriced apartment complexes with lap pools and private movie theaters – the hollow monuments to gentrification. A good friend of mine even coaches basketball at the same high school Jordan attended. Each player on the team is outfitted with new Air Jordans and Nike training gear every year, courtesy of the icon who makes a point of maintaining his roots in the community.

The only reason I’m treating you to this quick geography lesson is that it makes my initial disinterest in reliving Jordan’s glory days on the court all the more remarkable. I was a child of the ’90s, not even into my double-digit years when Jordan and his famous Chicago Bulls squad permanently etched their names into the history books. I didn’t experience the mania that surrounded that team firsthand, but I heard enough stories, saw enough merch, and knew who Jordan was on a superficial level — enough to understand why he was a cultural icon and the magnitude of what he’d accomplished during those early days.

At least, I thought I did.

Admittedly, I wasn’t a basketball fan before ESPN’s limited docuseries The Last Dance became an unexpected cultural mile-marker earlier this year. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m one post-viewing either, but then again, the success of the show doesn’t really have anything to do with the sport itself. And the legacy of a mythic team like the Bulls — with its Scottie Pippens and Dennis Rodmans, its Jordans and its Phil Jacksons — doesn’t live or die on the court in the same way the team’s championship dreams did. If anything, The Last Dance proves that sports have the power to transcend the invisible bullpens we use to corral and catalog our own pop culture; that it can reach far beyond the stands to have a bigger impact and leave a lasting impression on people, no matter who they are.

You didn’t have to be a basketball fan, hell, even a Jordan fan, to see how the show’s captivating human-interest stories could make for must-watch TV. Did it benefit in some ways because of the vacuum left by league cancellations and suspended play during the pandemic? Of course. Sports have a unifying power we were collectively desperate for, especially earlier in the year. Anyone who was used to tuning into a college basketball game on the weekend or looking forward to Olympics coverage over the summer felt that void and The Last Dance provided a way to fill it. With tales of greatness, but also by humanizing a figure younger generations know mainly because of a logo on a shoe.

That’s what it feels like the series, and its director Jason Hehir, really set out to do. After all, the glory days can speak for themselves. By combining hundreds of hours of archival footage on the court with locker-room chat, post-game interviews, and commentary from NBA insiders who covered it all back then, Hehir doesn’t have to play up who the Bulls were and what Jordan did for them. His athletic prowess is proven with every sprint to the rim, his enviable talent sinks further into our psyche with every impossible jump shot. The gameplay sets its own tone and it’s exhilarating to watch. As much as we claim to love underdog stories, we crave proof of god-like abilities more and that’s what Jordan was on the court: a god.

It’s what he can feel like at times in the docuseries too. When presidents like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton marvel at his career, when his own teammates disbelievingly recall how he battled back from sickness and adversity, from devastating loss and overwhelming opposition to earn them more titles, more rings, more notoriety. At no point do you question the star’s G.O.A.T. status. Jordan doesn’t either, watching playbacks that have him cackling at opponents who imagined themselves as rivals; unapologetically owning his often-problematic competitive drive and how it compelled him to bully, even assault, his teammates. Whatever Jordan did, he did in the name of athletic greatness.

Maybe that makes you respect him more. Maybe it taints the unblemished legend you built him up to be. The Last Dance doesn’t seem to care either way. Its commitment, though clearly influenced by Jordan’s producing credit, is to pull back the curtain as much as possible and let us make sense of what we see.

What’s there, for me at least, is an example of how the true stories surrounding sports are often more compelling than the sport itself. Whether it was Rodman’s spiral into basketball’s resident bad boy — with his humorous eccentricities, his ever-changing hair color, his wild partying that threatened Jordan’s reign — or Pippen’s sympathetic plight to pull himself out of poverty and earn the recognition (and the paycheck) he deserved, the saga of the Bulls quickly outgrows its four-quartered fence.

Jordan is the entry ticket, a memeable pop-culture staple who emerges on social media, in film, and on TV often enough to make his name and face recognizable even to the woefully ignorant masses, but once you’ve settled into your seat, the show becomes something more than the unnatural abilities and overwhelming ambition and unparalleled drive of this sports deity. His on-court antics and league accomplishments shore up the timeline as the show flits between his early career and its bittersweet ending, framing everything that happens adjacent to it. We watch him trash talk Magic Johnson and dunk on Isiah Thomas with passing awe, but the moments that force you to sit a little straighter in your seat, to really invest in this handful of episodes, are the grittier, more complicated stories, most of which have little to do with what’s happening under the dome.

They’re Jordan’s memories of his father’s untimely death and its mysterious circumstances. They’re Rodman recalling how his teammate dragged him back from a Vegas binger and built up his confidence on the court. They’re flashbacks to Jackson as a long-haired hippie just starting out in the league. They’re Pippen’s memories of his rough upbringing and his fight to take care of his family. Basketball is the thread that ties these men together, but it’s not the whole of who they are and sometimes, it’s not even the most interesting thing about them.

The Last Dance recognizes that, delivering something more than just a retread of how a well-known sports dynasty was born. That’s why it reached so many people this year. And that’s why, like Jordan himself, it’ll live on past its momentary time in the spotlight.