I’m a sport lover, born in 1975, so I knew I was going to enjoy a documentary about the Michael Jordan era.
His career highlights would’ve been enough to get me watching.
But as a journalist, I had questions about the storytelling.
Was it a puff piece to reject the argument LeBron James might be Jordan’s equal?
How deeply would it look into Jordan’s extraordinary life, for good or ill?
‘Not the way you do good history’
The Last Dance series hinges on never-seen footage of the magnificent Chicago Bulls from the 1997-98 NBA season.
Jordan gave permission for the decades-old film to be used.
This week, leading history filmmaker Ken Burns said he wouldn’t make a show about someone whose company was co-producer.
“I find it the opposite direction of where we need to be going,” Burns told the Wall Street Journal.
“And that’s not the way you do good journalism … and it’s certainly not the way you do good history, my business.”
Burns hadn’t seen the new series when he made those comments.
But it’s worth keeping his point in mind when issues arise in The Last Dance.
For example, ESPN journalist Michael Eaves tweeted after watching episodes five and six: “Where was the interview with [former Nike consultant] Sonny Vaccaro?”
The Last Dance director Jason Hehir responded: “We interviewed Sonny. His insistence that he was the reason Michael signed with Nike wasn’t consistent with others we spoke with, including Michael.”
Australian Luc Longley, one of Jordan’s former championship-winning Bulls teammates, wasn’t interviewed for the series.
Hehir told me it was because of documentary budget constraints, which was surprising.
Longley wrote in his 1996 book, Running with the Bulls: “I found him [Jordan] difficult to be around and he and I obviously didn’t see eye-to-eye.”
Obviously he also praised his champion team leader.
Does it matter that Longley’s insight is missing from The Last Dance or am I just being parochial?
The audience needed to hear from Jordan
Hundreds of brilliant sports books have been written without the main character’s oversight or permission.
As an investigative writer, sometimes it’s a blessing not to rely so much on a singular subject’s thoughts and memories; it makes you work harder to find more voices.
You dig and dig until you get much closer to the truth.
Think Golden Boy by Christian Ryan, or Mike Tyson: Money, Myth and Betrayal by Montieth Illingworth.
Golden Boy was about Kim Hughes, who had difficult relationships with teammates Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh.
The key characters didn’t want to talk to Ryan, who went on to write one of the best Australian sport books of all time.
But documentaries pose different challenges.
How do you make a Jordan film that everyone wants to watch without MJ?
The audience needs to hear from Jordan. You want Jordan.
Hehir said The Last Dance was only made with the fly-on-the-wall footage because Jordan gave it the green light.
“When you have a guy like Michael Jordan and it’s contingent upon his participation, that tends to carry a lot of weight,” he told me.
“So it took the better part of 20 years for Michael to finally say, ‘OK, let’s bring these upstairs from the basement and let’s put it together and let people see it in documentary form’.”
I think the timing is perfect; I’m getting more and more nostalgic about sport in the 1990s.
A better question is: why does it suit Jordan to relive the past?
The New York Times questioned whether Jordan was “playing defence” on LeBron comparisons.
Hehir rejected that, when I put it to him.
Having seen six of the 10 episodes (Netflix is rolling them out two-at-a-time), I don’t think it matters all that much.
The story is more compelling than ever.
When I’m watching the dunks and debunks I tend to forget about the possibility of this being a vanity project.
There are some characters I want to learn more about, including coach Phil Jackson, but I’m generally happy to go along for the ride.
The little moments are gifts
The most recent episodes show how much responsibility the champ carried while being the most famous person in the world.
His time was owned by corporate, public and press commitments; understanding this was also part of his successful business operations.
To win so many championships as the best player over such a long time was almost incredible.
Celebrating another NBA championship in 1993 after being 0-2 to the Knicks in the finals, while being hammered by questions about his casino visits, was astounding.
Few athletes have ever been under so much pressure.
To this point, Hehir is to be congratulated.
His use of those old scenes, music, on court highlights, and long interviews is masterful.
Little moments like Jordan playing a coin game with a security guard and spending time with sick children and giving one of his teammates extra game tickets (calling himself God!) are gifts.
Viewers are left to make up their own minds on the so-called controversies — even if Jordan does have the last say on it all.
The star looks mean hating his rival Isiah Thomas and playing a part in denying him a place on the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics.
But, as we learn, the man who could fly never wanted to be a saint.
In his interviews, Jordan doesn’t look particularly happy. When questioned about things that used to irk him, he still seems irked.
It’s a pity, but what would I know about being the most famous person in the world?
Maybe he’s always going to “play defence”.
All I know as a middle-aged sports barracker is Michael Jordan was unreal to watch.
And when the full weight of fame came to crush him, he was still best on the floor.
Can’t wait for the last four episodes.
Enjoy the show.