One of the few good things we were promised about the pandemic was that it would be a good time for art. All this uninterrupted alone time would make art inevitable. If not making it, then immersing yourself in the best of it.
You would read all the books you’ve spent years lying about having already read, and swear to only watch films with subtitles.
Two months later – as you lie pole-axed on the couch thinking to yourself that Melville is hard, but Season 17 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit goes down just as easy en espanol – that hasn’t worked out.
This period will go down as the least artistically fruitful in recent history. Nothing new is coming out, and everyone’s frazzled quarantine brain is incapable of grappling with the stuff that’s already been made.
Perhaps it’s because of this nullity that ESPN/Netflix’s The Last Dance stood out so starkly. The Michael Jordan bio-doc masquerading as a précis of the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls season wrapped up this past weekend.
At the outset, it was greeted with hosannas. Midway through its five-week run – with nothing else sporty to argue about – people had begun turning on it. Too fawning. Willfully blind to Jordan’s faults. Refusing to dig down on the big issues.
It was pointed out that Jordan’s production company had a hand in the creation of the series, presumably giving him control over its content.
“That’s not the way you do good journalism,” documentarian Ken Burns told The Wall Street Journal. “… and it’s certainly not the way you do good history, my business.”
With all due respect, when I want to a 67-hour time suck on the invasion of Grenada, I’ll call Ken Burns. And when I want a deep look into the psychology of Michael Jordan, I’ll call Michael Jordan.
Yes, this is a vanity project. So's the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The Last Dance is a masterpiece in part because it doesn’t aspire to tell the full story. Though expansive in its detail, it answers one question – what made Michael tick?
As a general rule, truly great competitors don’t know why they are that way. More to the point, they don’t want to know.
Most are no bigger, stronger or faster than their closest peers, but they are still somehow better. What they do, they do out of some God-given instinct. If they sit around thinking too hard about that, they may find they can no longer do it. So they either can’t tell you or won’t.
Over the course of 10 episodes, Jordan – now 57 and still smouldering with resentments – does his best to tell us.
In the end, he comes off as a tragic figure. Isolated not just by his fame, but by his inability to understand why everyone around him was so damned average by comparison.
The key passage of the series arrives in Episode 7. Jordan’s former teammates are lined up to describe how frightened they were of him. Very, as it turns out.
Later, Jordan is asked if he thinks they thought of him as “a nice guy.”
At first, he finds the question amusing. But as he warms into his answer, he becomes increasingly angry.
It’s a cut-together soliloquy with the profane eloquence of great literature. It’s both Jordan’s explanation and defence of his body of work.
“When people see this, they’re gonna say, ‘He wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.’ …” – Jordan points into the camera at the viewer – “… Well, that’s you. Because you never won anything.”
By the end of this verbal run – “Look, I don’t have to do this. I’m only doing this because this is who I am” – he is near tears and calls a break. He may be explaining this out loud to himself for the first time. Maybe it surprised him.
Jordan was always a figure of our collective imagination – an impossibly gifted cipher who was less a man than a three-dimensional slide in a Nike PowerPoint presentation. Is it possible he felt that way to himself as well?
Now we understand something of the tortured artist underneath the human ad copy. Despite all the things Jordan had, he wasn’t happy or satisfied. It was that unhappiness and dissatisfaction that made him better than everyone else. And it is that unhappiness and dissatisfaction that weighs him down now.
Because new generations are discovering Jordan through this series, there’s been a lot of talk lately about how tall he stands on the list of basketball greats.
When I read that sort of stuff, I recall something Ferenc Puskas said when asked to judge who among his soccer-playing peers was best.
“The greatest player in history was [Alfredo] Di Stefano,” Puskas replied. “I refuse to classify Pele as a player. He was above that.”
The Last Dance re-proves that Jordan is above basketball. His peers aren’t LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They are Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol.
Jordan didn’t just change the game. He changed the culture. His individual gravity is so enormous that 20 years on, he’s still changing it.
The Last Dance may have skipped over some inconvenient history, but did so in service to its main goal – giving Jordan an unimpeded opportunity to lay out his worldview.
That view is ruthless and Manichean. It’s what the lion might say when asked about all the zebras he’s known.
However many filters it’s been put through, this is the furthest we’ve ever gotten inside the mind of a winner.
That isn’t a popular topic any more. We still hold winning up as our highest virtue, but it’s no longer polite to talk about it. Someone might get the hurtful impression they can’t be exactly who they want to be. We let life do the dirty work in that regard.
Jordan does his own dirty work here. You? What would you know? You never won anything.
Though Jordan is getting old, that sort of plain speaking makes him seem brand new.
Still, he is an unusual incarnation of victory – bitter, combative, still itching for a fight. Jordan wants you to see what it takes. And The Last Dance wants to show you what that costs.