A darkness falls over the arena, a spotlight flashes across the court, “Sirius” by the Alan Parsons Project emanates over the speakers with electric anticipation, and a growling, exaggerated voice announces, “From North Carolina…at guard…6’6″…Michael Jordan!”
The NBA’s greatest of all time needs no introduction, and yet he easily had the greatest introduction in “the game of basketball.” Even that phrase was lingo from a vernacular that he created for athletes giving interviews in a “Like Mike” pop culture of Nike and Gatorade.
Now, 36 years after first stepping on the court for the Chicago Bulls, His Airness remains the king as ESPN’s new 10-part documentary “The Last Dance” broke ratings records with its first two episodes on Sunday night, released two months earlier than initially planned.
Episode 1 averaged 6.3 million viewers, while Episode 2 averaged 5.8 million viewers, making them ESPN’s most-viewed original content ever. It was also the top Google search in the U.S. and the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter with up to 30 trending topics at its peak.
This is partly because sports fans are craving content while sheltered at home — it was the most-watched telecast for adults ages 18 to 49 on network and cable TV since sports were postponed in March — but it’s also because it’s a compelling story in its own right.
For better or worse, filmmaker Jason Hehir (“Andre the Giant”) juggles two parallel storylines: (A) chronologically moving through Jordan’s sixth and final title with the Bulls in 1998, and (B) chronologically moving through Jordan’s entire career from childhood to present. To do this, Hehir presents a timeline graphic to signal we’re moving through time.
Basketball fans will be able to follow along with no problem, most already familiar with the story, but newcomers might find all the jumping around confusing. If you want a more straightforward look, I highly recommend the four-part documentary series “Come Fly With Me,” “Air Time,” “Above & Beyond” and “To the Max,” which I wore out on VHS as a kid.
Either way, there is so much great stuff here that it’s impossible not to enjoy every second.
In the backstory timeline, we watch Jordan growing up in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his parents, James and Deloris, who charmingly reads a letter that Michael wrote from college asking for money and stamps, perhaps the best moment in the series so far.
We see him riding his bike around the University of North Carolina, growing under the tutelage of head coach Dean Smith and quickly eclipsing teammate James Worthy. We see his famous cradle dunk against the Terps at Cole Field House and his freshman game winner in the 1982 NCAA Championship to beat Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas.
You’ll enjoy interviews like Olympic Coach Bobby Knight calling him the best player he’s ever seen, as well as his decision to forego his senior year as the No. 3 pick in the NBA Draft behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie, beating both to win Rookie of the Year.
Most fascinating is Jordan’s sophomore season injury, causing General Manager Jerry Krause and Owner Jerry Reinsdorf to give him a time limit for each game upon his return, even yanking him from the lineup with 17 seconds left and a playoff berth at stake.
Thankfully, the Bulls win and the shackles come off in the playoffs, as Jordan goes on a tear against the Boston Celtics to score 49 points in Game 1 and a record 63 points in Game 2. As Larry Bird famously says, “God was disguised as Michael Jordan that night.”
In the present storyline of the 1998 season, we see Scottie Pippen’s frustration as the NBA’s most underpaid No. 2 player, having locked in a contract too early at $18 million over seven years, ranking just 128th in the NBA despite leading the league in stats.
It’s here that the documentary stirs some controversy with an interview by Jordan, saying Pippen was selfish for sitting out the beginning of his final season instead of getting surgery during the offseason. Teammate Steve Kerr, future coach of the Golden State Warriors, responded to say that the rest of the team never questioned Pippen’s decision.
Such moments paint Jordan as competitive to a fault, even addicted to the rush of golfing and gambling, while cracking short jokes at the expense of Krause. Still, it’s Krause who emerges as the insecure villain with a height complex undervaluing his star players.
Why would you dismantle a dynasty? Why would you insist that it’s Coach Phil Jackson’s last season? Why would you trade Pippen? Why would you force Jordan into retirement?
It’s a baffling question of ego that fuels “The Last Dance,” as fans wonder what could have been if this weren’t indeed the last dance. If banks can be deemed “too big to fail,” surely Jordan was too big to retire. As Chicago sportswriter and “Pardon the Interruption” host Michael Wilbon says, “Jordan was on par with Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali. That’s it.”
It’s quite funny how the documentary uses unique lower-third chyron graphics for its famous talking heads, listing former President Barack Obama as “former Chicago resident” and former President Bill Clinton as “former Arkansas governor,” clearly tongue-in-cheek.
There’s also a gaffe of a standings graphic showing the Washington Wizards instead of the Washington Bullets, which didn’t change its team name until after Jordan’s career with the Bulls (you’ll recall he came out of retirement for a third, forgettable stint with the Wizards).
These minor flaws aren’t enough to ruin an overall engrossing piece of work. It continues Sunday with Episodes 3 and 4, as the Bulls wage war with the “Bad Boys” of the Detroit Pistons, led by Isaiah Thomas. Expect to hear more from Dennis Rodman, who was on those great Pistons teams before jumping to the Bulls for their second three-peat.
If the timeline holds true, we should also get to see Jordan’s dunk contest victories in 1987 and 1988, leaping from the free-throw line; his iconic first-pumping playoff shot over Craig Ehlo of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1989; and his Olympic “Dream Team” heroics in 1992.
Beyond that, future episodes should cover his first title over Magic Johnson’s Lakers with his “spectacular move” changing hands at the rim in 1991; his second title over Clyde Drexler’s Blazers with his sideline shrug after draining countless three pointers in 1992; and his third title over Charles Barkley’s Suns to complete the first three-peat in 1993.
I’m also curious to see how the documentary covers his temporary retirement after the murder of his father, his unlikely pursuit of a career in baseball, his itch to return wearing No. 45, and his switch back to No. 23 to win three more titles, first over Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton’s Super Sonics, then twice over Karl Malone and John Stockton’s Jazz.
It’s here that the parallel timelines should gloriously collide, as the career chronology intersects with the final season chronology for Jordan’s game-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, posing with his hand in the air, triumphantly frozen forever in time.
It’s impossible to assign a grade just two episodes into a 10-episode series. So far, “The Last Dance” is a little too scattered to rival the Oscar-winning “O.J. Made in America,” but as a fan relishing any chance to relive these nostalgic memories, I’m all in, nothing but net.