WORDS BY MARY LUCIA
Hello NBA sports party, I’m late.
Watching a highlight reel of Michael Jordan’s greatest moments on the court is much like touring Europe and seeing a squillion cathedrals and churches: After maybe 10 breathtaking examples, I don’t even know what I’m looking at anymore. Greatness upon greatness. My brain turns to yogurt.
I am obsessed with ESPN’s Netflix miniseries The Last Dance, a documentary about the Chicago Bulls that was released in 2020. I’m on my sixth viewing, which means half of my animals have also watched it a half-dozen times. Sidenote: My senior cat, Muse, has seen Gimme Shelter probably 50 times, and she’s all the better for it.
Chronicling the majesty of a basketball team with so much pathos and charisma that a non-sports person like myself can rewatch all 800 hours and remain slack-jawed is a testament to how well-crafted the storytelling is, artfully jumping from year to year, playoff to playoff.
How can rewatching a game from 1992 be nailbiting when you ultimately know the outcome? In this case, it is.
If you haven’t seen it, The Last Dance is essentially is a 10-episode miniseries—a saga!—about Michael Jordan, starting with his beginnings growing up in North Carolina and extending through his last season with the Chicago Bulls. Don’t worry: I’m not capable of going inside basketball or writing 800 words about the triangle offense. I know when I’m out of my depth.
Upon my most recent viewing, I challenged myself to find one single attribute I might share in common with MJ.
That would be none.
I don’t smoke cigars, play golf, or gamble. I get easily winded carrying the laundry basket to the basement. I don’t know how to fly. Children have never wanted to be like me. I’m broke. Hotel showerheads pose no problem for me. I’ve cried in public more times than he has.
But perhaps the most glaring difference is that winning holds no interest for me, let alone drives everything I do in my life. When I was a kid and the neighborhood hooligans played flashlight tag, I was so noncompetitive that sometimes, instead of hiding, I would just go home for a while and resurface in a half hour.
Actually, maybe that makes me a cheater. Either way, I was never driven to win.
Unicorn-level talent aside, I’ve never seen someone with so much drive and quest for perfection—he makes all other genius types look like human sloths. His level of perfectionism and hardcore expectations of his talented teammates to be driven by the same incentive is truly remarkable.
Imagine a brain surgeon is preparing to drill a hole into a patient’s cranium and her colleague doctor starts trash talking and riding her ass, shoving her away from the table. Is this helping her be a better physician? Does the anesthesiologist demand she pass the scalpel to her to win the surgery? “I’m open, fer chrissakes!”
This is the first time in my adult life I’ve viewed a sport elevated to a level of theater, poetry, and art. One athlete changed the culture globally because of his super freaky talent—and made me watch a 10-part documentary six times.
Best I could compare Jordan’s contributions would be Muhammad Ali. The glaring difference between the two when it came to matters of politics: Ali wasn’t afraid to lose coin when standing up for his civil rights, refusing to go to Vietnam resulting in a ban from boxing at 25 years of age. Jordan’s refusal to publicly endorse North Carolina’s Harvey Gantt—who would’ve been the first Black senator from the south, only he lost to the reprehensible corpse Jesse Helms—was seen as a betrayal to Black Americans.
Didn’t help that he also made a careless comment: “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
Perfectionism, clearly, does not mean flawless.
Jordan took every perceived slight as fuel to his fire to make you pay the next time: He’ll see you on the court. Detroit Pistons Hall-of-Fame point guard Isiah Thomas and most of his Pistons teammates elected not to shake the Bulls players’ hands after losing the conference finals to the Bulls.
Big Fat Mistake. You are dealing with King Holda Grudgey.
Ultimately, it’s not really a series solely about basketball, much like The Godfather isn’t simply a movie about the mafia.
The supporting cast, if you will, shape this narrative and can’t be overlooked.
Coach Phil Jackson exudes a shaman-like energy and gives the individual players room to be who they are—most notably, Dennis Rodman. Rodzilla needs to blow off steam before the playoffs and dips to Las Vegas to exchange marriage vows with Carmen Electra. ’Til death do us part, or the next 9 days, whichever comes first.
Look past the spectacle and flash and you still have one of the NBA’s best defensive rebounders in history.
Steve Kerr, who is now head coach of the Golden State Warriors, had to earn MJ’s respect by assaulting him during a Bulls practice session. They both share an unthinkable commonality as both of their fathers were tragically murdered. Kerr’s father, Malcolm H. Kerr, served as president of the American University of Beirut until he was killed by gunmen in 1984. The mysterious 1993 death of Jordan’s father, James Jordan, is the subject of a new documentary, Moment of Truth. Add that to the queue.
Then there’s my all-time favorite, Scottie Pippen. Perhaps the one megastar we mere mortals can relate to on some tiny level. He didn’t see the payday of his teammates did, having signed a bad contract early in his career. Not without his own astonishing gifts, he’s probably the Fredo of this team story. Certainly overshadowed “Let Scottie take care of some Mickey Mouse nightclub somewhere.” “Send Pippen to pick somebody up at the airport.” “I’m your older brother Mike and I was stepped over!”
This series also comes with a bangin’ soundtrack: Kool Mo Dee, Beastie Boys, Stereo MC’s, Nas, Soul Coughing, and one exceptional Jordan montage set to Prince’s ‘Party Man.’
As far as relatability goes, let’s face it: We’re all peasants.
But Scottie Pippen perhaps comes closest when he says, “I’d play basketball for free, it’s all the bullshit you gotta pay me for.”
Rainbow, Robert Plant
Some Strange Reaction, Firewater
We Belong Together, Rickie Lee Jones
Good Days, SZA
I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll), Nick Lowe
Young Hearts Run Free, Candi Staton
Fame and Fortune, Elvis Presley
As Long As You Tell Him – single version, Faces
Black Moon Spell, King Tuff
Who Needs You, The Orwells