I felt precisely such a dissonance last month with The Last Dance, ESPN’S 10-part documentary series chronicling Michael Jordan’s final fraught — and ultimately triumphant — season with the Chicago Bulls, one that culminated in a championship and was followed by the dissolution of the greatest basketball dynasty of the modern era. Over the five weeks the series ran this spring (ESPN bumped up its release date from June to give a confined sports public something to watch during quarantine), I felt peculiar pangs whenever I acknowledged my own mixed reactions. Was I, in the parlance of Bill Simmons, shamelessly “zagging” in the interest of being different? Perhaps. But, inundated by media exalting Jordan’s athletic achievements, I couldn’t help feeling as though something was … off about the series.
When trailers for The Last Dance first aired last year, I alternated between eager anticipation and what I can only describe as a disconcerting skepticism. As a basketball lifer, who as a kid devoured Sam Smith’s 1992 book The Jordan Rules (and, later, Michael Leahy’s searing account of Jordan’s tenure with the Washington Wizards, When Nothing Else Matters ), along with every Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan documentary special in existence, I hungered for any scraps from the fallout of the 1998 championship team. But soon the cynic in me took hold, and I began to wonder what The Last Dance could offer that hasn’t already been uncovered and exhaustively analyzed. We all know by now that Jordan was hypercompetitive, Scottie Pippen underappreciated and insecure, Dennis Rodman enigmatic, the Bulls ownership stingy, the team dysfunctional, and the end result a championship.
Of course, it isn’t quite that simple. One clip for The Last Dance highlighted Jordan hissing at a teammate for dropping a pass during practice. Anyone remotely versed in Jordan’s aura has heard tell of his legendary ire — such as when he mercilessly taunted a 19-year-old Kwame Brown on the Wizards — but to actually see him seething on film prompts a sinking feeling in your gut.
Most fans’ “awakening” to Jordan’s toxic competitiveness came courtesy of Smith’s The Jordan Rules, which chronicled the star’s first championship season. The conditions under which Smith wrote The Jordan Rules sound absurd today: he had total access to the team, played cards with Jordan in his hotel room, shot the shit with players, sat next to the coaches on the team plane (where assistant coach Tex Winter gave him a personal tutorial on the famed “Triangle Offense”). Long before games, Jordan was so readily available for — and loquacious during — extended media sessions that, Smith notes, “we’d get tired of listening and move on to others.”
The questions that motivated The Jordan Rules aren’t so different from those animating The Last Dance. “The daily and magazine media could tell you in clever ways what you were seeing, but people really wanted to get behind that curtain, inside the locker room, on the bus with the fellas,” Smith writes. “What was it like to play with a star like Jordan? What made up the team dynamic? Who was Phil Jackson?” The Jordan Rules was so effective (and unintentionally damning) in answering those questions that Jordan reportedly stopped talking to Smith for a couple of years after the book was published. Still, Smith never backed down from his account, maintaining that he’d treated Jordan and the rest of the team fairly by omitting personal details and off-the-record conversations that weren’t pertinent to the season. “That’s why I’m proud of The Jordan Rules,” Smith writes. “It was no hit and run. I didn’t parachute in to write something with the luxury of being able to leave and never face everyone again.”
ESPN billed The Last Dance as the “untold story of Michael Jordan and the Bulls,” highlighting in particular how a “film crew was granted unprecedented access all season long.” And, to be sure, there are plenty of revelatory moments: Jordan sitting on a massage table in the training room after a game, wearing a suit and sipping a Miller Lite before heading to a media session, or smoking a cigar while playfully swinging a bat in the locker room and talking about an upcoming opponent, or in repose on a hotel room couch confessing how solitary and largely boring his life is amid all this fame.
But these unique moments are so muddled by recycled story lines and footage from past seasons that I had trouble extracting an overall “argument.” More bluntly, I found the series to be a narrative mess: just as we start plugging along in the 1997–’98 season, the documentary jumps back to Jordan’s origins. The series follows a similar path each episode, slowly creeping forward in that final season while racing through the previous 14 years Jordan had been with the Bulls (or away, playing baseball). If one were to draw the series’s narrative structure, it would look a lot like an accordion.
I clearly wasn’t the audience for this show, considering that, during the month it ran, I received texts from friends who appeared to be learning things about Jordan I’d long ago gleaned from basketball lore and previous documentaries, books, and YouTube highlight mixes. On the other hand, I had consumed every piece of Jordan’s story I could find, going so far as to commit his season scoring averages to memory (including his classic fourth season, when he scored 35 points per game and won Defensive Player of the Year — for me, cementing the argument for Jordan as the greatest of all time). Maybe it was just my own neuroses, but I had come to feel that criticizing anything Jordan-related amounted almost to blasphemy. Yet, in my text exchanges with friends, The Last Dance didn’t inspire any meaningful conversation beyond what had already been established or debated into the ground: “MJ was such a winner!” or “So who’s really the greatest of all time? MJ or LeBron?”
Prompting such renewed debates is, I suppose, fine, but it hardly seems to justify 10 hours of programming (by comparison, O.J.: Made in America  ran about eight hours, while When We Were Kings, the Academy Award–winning 1996 documentary about Ali and Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle,” ran a mere 90 minutes). The extended runtime nagged at me because there did seem to be plenty to dive into that hadn’t been covered before: deeper glimpses into the utter loneliness of Jordan’s celebrity, for example, or sharper analyses of the paradoxical dysfunction of the Bulls organization. But, while watching, I always found myself wanting something more, or something different, or both.
In his 1994 essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” David Foster Wallace deconstructs his disappointment with tennis star Tracy Austin’s autobiography, which he finds “breathtakingly insipid.” Wallace is puzzled about why he keeps consuming vapid sports autobiographies, forever hoping that the next one will offer deeper insights than the last. Perhaps, he speculates, people gobble these stories up because
[e]xplicitly or not, [they] make a promise — to let us penetrate the indefinable mystery of what makes some persons geniuses, semidivine, to share with us the secret and so both to reveal the difference between us and them and to erase it, a little, that difference … to give us the (we want, expect, only one, the master narrative, the key) Story.
In short, athletes signify “profundity in motion” and we, the average reader, “want to get intimate with all that profundity.”
Wallace claims, however, that our thirst for deeper access to top athletes will always be unquenched, and not because of some calculated deception on the part of the memoir makers. Rather, the problem is us, the consumers, and our “deep compulsion both to experience genius in the concrete and to universalize genius in the abstract.” Maybe, he suggests, the promise any book (or documentary, web series, article, etc.) makes to provide a fresh understanding beyond the usual media clichés is an impossible task:
The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. […] Maybe it’s because, for top athletes, clichés present themselves not as trite but simply as true, or perhaps not even as declarative expressions with qualities like depth or trueness or falsehood or truth but as simple imperatives that are either useful or not and, if useful, to be invoked and obeyed and that’s all there is to it.
To be clear, Jordan, who appears extensively in exclusive interviews in The Last Dance, doesn’t merely spout clichés. It’s just that so many of these unique moments are drowned out by old story lines. Unless, that is, these story lines aren’t merely recycled, but simply true. What Jordan and the documentary — and the media conversation surrounding the documentary — repeatedly harp on is Jordan’s obsession with winning, a pursuit so relentless that he is brought to tears just talking about it some 25 years later. It’s a moving moment to be sure, but, again, it isn’t wholly surprising (after all, in basketball circles it’s well known that he once lost at ping-pong to a teammate and then bought his own table and quickly became the best ping-pong player on the team).
After all these years, what did remain so elusive and unknowable about Jordan was his true reason for retiring (for the first time) in 1993, at the absolute apex of his game. He’d just finished playing his ninth season and had won his third straight championship. At his retirement press conference, he told the media, “I just feel at this particular time in my career, I’ve reached the pinnacle […], I have achieved a lot in that short amount of time if you want to call it short, but I just feel that I don’t have anything else for myself to prove.” That answer didn’t satisfy us, though. Some hardcore fans speculated that then-NBA commissioner David Stern had actually suspended Jordan for gambling, and the retirement was only a smokescreen. In The Last Dance, however, that conspiracy theory is repeatedly debunked, not only by Jordan but by Stern himself, in an interview conducted before his death.
It’s possible, then, that Jordan wasn’t as unknowable as we (maybe wanted) to believe. On the one hand, maybe Jordan repeating the same things in 2020 that he had said in 1993 is just media fluff. On the other hand, maybe he’s been telling the truth all along.
A few weeks before watching The Last Dance, I rented A Kid from Coney Island, a stirring 2019 documentary about Stephon Marbury. Marbury is among the most accomplished point guards ever to come out of New York City. Though he was named to two NBA All-Star teams, he was also labeled as selfish and uncoachable throughout his career. Marbury’s rock bottom, of sorts, occurred during his fraught tenure with the New York Knicks when, after the passing of his father, he livestreamed himself crying and eating Vaseline. Soon, he fled the NBA and signed a contract in China, where he rebuilt his career and became that country’s Michael Jordan (a statue of Marbury has been erected in Beijing). Among NBA fans, though, Marbury’s career has been deemed tragic. It’s telling that, if a young player is likened to Stephon Marbury, it’s usually not a compliment.
I also had viewed Marbury’s career as a failure, based largely on unfounded opinions I’d formulated from what was spewed out by sports talk shows. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever even watched a full game featuring Stephon Marbury in my entire life. For me, then, A Kid from Coney Island functioned as a sort of psychoanalytic exercise. What judgments had I formed about someone whom I actually knew nothing substantial about? And who was I to claim any ownership over the narrative of this man’s life?
As with Jordan and The Last Dance, Marbury helped produce A Kid from Coney Island, so it makes sense that the documentary presents him in a flattering light. Then again, many fans had never really witnessed the positive side of Marbury’s narrative. What’s more, the film still includes the Vaseline incident, the various conflicts Marbury had with former teammates, and his troubled relationship with his coaches. Marbury himself doesn’t begin speaking until the last third of the movie, as though he is giving the audience one final hour to entertain all their biases before he says his part.
What becomes apparent in the documentary’s last half hour is that Marbury didn’t just resurrect his basketball career in China, he reinvented himself through what must have been a deep exercise in self-accounting, reflection, and mindfulness practice. I’d grown up believing Marbury was selfish and cantankerous, but the person and player on display in the film is poised and deeply empathetic, as well as an impassioned advocate for mental health and wellness.
At the end of the documentary, the filmmakers follow Marbury around Coney Island, where he buys snacks for kids in a bodega. The kids don’t even know who he is. Then Marbury settles into a chair at a barbershop, where a young boy named Xavier is about to get his hair cut. Marbury shows him a short video of Bruce Lee (who has become Marbury’s idol), recounting his “Flow like Water” doctrine. Cradling the back of Xavier’s head, Marbury holds his phone so Xavier can see. “Empty your mind,” Lee says. “Be formless. Shapeless. Like water. […] Water can flow, or it can crash. […] Be water my friend.”
“So, what you going to be now?” Marbury asks.
“Water,” Xavier replies. He beams. “Now I feel…” Xavier struggles to find the words.
“You feel what?” Marbury asks, smiling back, his eyes fixed on Xavier the entire time. He never blinks.
“I feel … power.”
Marbury lets out a throaty laugh. “You like that feeling?”
Xavier looks away, bashful, but Marbury keeps his eyes on him. “You could live in this place, right here, that you’re in right now,” Marbury says.
Before the documentary ends, there is one more scene with Xavier in the barbershop that I’d feel awful describing if only because it would spoil what I found to be such a moving moment that it actually brought me to tears. To recount it here would be, in effect, to rob Marbury of his story.
Which I suppose, really, is my whole point. Like all celebrity figures, superstar athletes are voraciously consumed by fans and haters alike. While products like The Last Dance or A Kid from Coney Island might not be objective documentaries (insofar as any narrative can be “objective”), that doesn’t mean they don’t aspire to and ultimately deliver some sense of truth. Specifically, they show us how these individuals see themselves and what they deem essential to their story: they’re documents of self-perception. And though, too often, I find them unsatisfying, they’re really quite gutsy (try filming yourself for a minute talking about anything and see how it makes you feel). Most importantly, they empower the documentary subject, who likely has had little, if any, narrative control over their own lives from the time they became famous. Has any athlete had more people (and corporations) lay claim to their story than Michael Jordan?
In Marbury’s case, that agency dissipated well before he was old enough to have a learner’s permit. He’s a key figure in Darcy Frey’s iconic 1993 Harper’s feature, “The Last Shot” (later expanded into a stellar book by the same name). In the piece, Frey follows the star players of Coney Island’s Abraham Lincoln High School, hoping to demystify basketball’s standing as a “way out” of poverty. “The notion that basketball can liberate dedicated players like these from the grinding daily privations of the ghetto has become a cherished parable,” Frey writes, later wondering, “How often is basketball’s promise of a better life redeemed?”
Near the end of the piece, Marbury’s father threatens to cut off Frey’s access to his son unless he starts giving the family money. After all, why shouldn’t he? Marbury’s story will help Harper’s sell magazines, but will Marbury or his family see any of that benefit? It’ll be years before Marbury is allowed to legally profit off his likeness. Later, in a car ride with Marbury and his teammates, Russell and Corey, the subject of compensation comes up again. A 14-year-old Marbury, who maintains a jovial relationship with Frey, succinctly defends his father’s position, lamenting, “My father and Russell’s mother got nothing.”
Ultimately, The Last Dance doesn’t tell a narrative I find particularly interesting. Then again, Michael Jordan isn’t Stephon Marbury, or anyone else for that matter. But we can learn something about Jordan by scrutinizing what is contained in the documentary, what he deemed necessary and permissible. And maybe that is the argument buried in The Last Dance — that, just this once, Jordan believed this was no one’s story but his to tell.
Hal Sundt is a writer from Minnesota. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Ringer, The American Scholar, The Bitter Southerner, and elsewhere.
Banner image: "Michael Jordan's clothes" by Marcin Wichary is licensed under CC BY 2.0.