For the last five weeks, sports fans and fans of documentaries about enigmatic cultural figures have gathered every Sunday to watch The Last Dance, ESPN's 10-part docuseries tracking the story of the six-time championship-winning Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, and their unrelenting leader Michael Jordan. The series came to a close this week, capping off a series with major highs, a stellar soundtrack, and giant, baggy suits. It was mesmerizing, compelling, and gave us excellent meme fodder. As someone who doesn't know what a point guard does (I assume guard for points?), I found that it didn't even require in-depth knowledge of the game; it's just good storytelling.
So now, what do we do to fill the basketball-shaped hole in our Sunday nights? Thankfully, there are plenty of basketball-centered documentaries to replace the void left by The Last Dance.
ESPN's 30 for 30 series has done a ton of fantastic documentaries and docuseries on legendary players, stories, and teams in the game. The installment Rodman: For Better or Worse chronicles the fascinating, often bizarre life of the NBA's most notorious power forward, Dennis Rodman, with sometimes unsettling details that The Last Dance couldn't dive into and that will leave you thinking what the actual fuck. If The Last Dance also left you craving a deeper telling of the infamously ruthless Detroit Pistons Bad Boys squad that made life hell for the Bulls, 30 for 30: Bad Boys is definitely one to queue up. No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson is an in-depth look at how the former NBA MVP was sentenced to prison for 15 years over an altercation spurred by racist epithets thrown at him and his friends at a bowling alley, and what the incident reveals about racism in his hometown of Hampton, Virginia. There are plenty more in ESPN's doc vault, including Benji, The Fab Five, and Once Brothers.
There's also Basketball: A Love Story, another 10-part docuseries from ESPN featuring a CVS-receipt-long list of basketball's greatest players and coaches (including Kobe Bryant, Iverson, Phil Jackson, and LeBron James) sharing stories about their time on the court. Hoop Dreams, the iconic 1994 documentary directed by Steve James (who also directed No Crossover), is also worth a visit or revisit for its in-depth discussion of race, social class, and education through the lens of two Black teens basketball players recruited to play for a prestigious white high school in Chicago.
Finally, there's A Kid from Coney Island, which premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival and deserves major flowers. The film tracks the life of fiery NBA point guard Stephon Marbury, who played with the Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, and Phoenix Suns until deciding to leave the U.S. behind to play in China's professional basketball league. The documentary, directed by duo Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah (who helmed ESPN's Benji and videos for Pitbull, Kanye West, and Erykah Badu), highlights Marbury's life growing up in the housing projects of Coney Island, where he trained as a streetball player and found unwavering support from his family to achieve his NBA dreams. It also tackles the community that rallied around him, how the business side of professional basketball crushed Marbury's joy and self-worth, and how being embraced by a different country and culture finally gave him peace and three championship trophies. There are insightful discussions on race and class struggles, and often hilarious commentary on the indelible mark Marbury left on his community. With interviews from Fat Joe, Cam'ron, Ray Allen, God Shammgod, and many others, it's a sincere and thorough look at one of basketball's greatest (and the last scene will twist your heart).
What makes basketball documentaries so thought-provoking is that the dramatic and complex lives of the men and women at the center of these films can't be unmarried from the social issues of their era—how the NBA giveth and sometimes taketh from them, in ways that are equally inspiring, heartbreaking, and captivating. The Last Dance reignited my love for a good sports story, even if it didn't encourage me to learn what a triple-double is (though I assume it's a positive thing based on it being referenced in Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day"). The rules? Not interested! The compelling stories? Give them to me!
And while we're all unable to watch live sports or play a pick-up game with friends (not me, but, you know, others), watching the stories of those who've shaped the sport is the next best thing. Now blend it all in a NutriBullet and dump it into my brain!
'VICE VERSA: One Man and His Shoes' confronts consumer capitalism, celebrity culture, and conflict around Michael Jordan’s iconic Nike basketball shoe. Premiering on Monday, May 25 at 8PM ET/PT on VICE TV, the two hour-long special takes a deep dive into the social, cultural, and racial significance of the iconic Air Jordan sneaker.