Sports, the odd exceptions like Taiwanese baseball aside, have gone the way of drinking in bars and the memory of joy. No one knows when they'll return or whether watching, say, a version of the NBA Finals played on an improvised court in some Las Vegas hotel will be more a welcome distraction or a bleak reminder that it's being played during the apocalypse. Into the breach comes ESPN, wielding The Last Dance—a 10-hour documentary on Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, the greatest NBA team of all time—and employing a hype machine the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the World Wide Leader went all in for Disney+ cartoons a few months ago.
The funniest thing about the epic series so far, pretty much everyone seems to agree, is Jordan's bemused reaction to being told that the Bulls team he joined as a 21-year-old rookie in 1984 had once been described as a "travelling cocaine circus." The next funniest is probably just how committed ESPN appears to be to using this project to burnish and forward Jordan's, and ESPN's, brand positioning, which plays out in the pettiest ways. On Sunday, for instance, ahead of the airing of the first two installments, ESPN republished a 1998 ESPN The Magazine story by and about Jordan. In the story, an as-told-to told to Rick Telander, a veteran Chicago sportswriter who pops up in the documentary as a talking head, Jordan covers a collection of topics: business, being rich, fatherhood, his teammates, and also Indiana Pacers shooting guard Reggie Miller, of whom he was not a fan. He said this, per the republished story ESPN ran on Sunday:
“I don't really dislike anybody in the league, but playing Reggie Miller drives me nuts. … His game is all this flopping-type thing. He weighs only 185 pounds, so you have to be careful, don't touch him, or it's a foul. On offense I use all my 215 pounds and just move him out. But he has his hands on you all the time … I just want to beat his hands off because it's illegal. It irritates me.”
This differs significantly, thanks to some artful usage of ellipses, from what ran in the original 1998 version. That one read like this (emphasis ours):
“I don't really dislike anybody in the league, but playing Reggie Miller drives me nuts. It's like chicken-fighting with a woman. His game is all this flopping-type thing. He weighs only 185 pounds, so you have to be careful, don't touch him, or it's a foul. On offense I use all my 215 pounds and just move him out. But he has his hands on you all the time, like a woman holding your waist. I just want to beat his hands off because it's illegal. It irritates me.”
(This redaction was itself redacted after VICE asked ESPN about it. "This was a decision made independently by editors who felt that the language used in a quote from 1998 didn’t match today’s sensibilities," a flack wrote in an email. "The edits did not alter the themes expressed about Miller. In retrospect, athlete quotes already in the public record should remain so, and we have republished with the original full quote.")
That anyone at ESPN thought Jordan would need to be defended from a 22-year-old quote in which he compared Miller to a woman and implied he himself had "chicken-fought” with a woman—in which, that is, Michael Jordan said exactly what you would expect Michael Jordan to say—captures the spirit of ESPN’s project pretty well. And while trying to avert the least risk of Jordan being canceled by sanitizing a decades-old quote might be an especially craven example of ESPN’s efforts to forge and shore up the Jordan brand (and, by extension, ESPN's) by promising revelatory insight while keeping anything interesting out of view, it's hardly the only one.
As ESPN content used to generate ESPN content about ESPN content, something to roll around in the sort of perpetual content motion machine ESPN has long since perfected, The Last Dance has been given the full sponcon treatment. ESPN NBA reporter Ramona Shelburne, perhaps drawing the short stick again, wrote what amounted to a very thorough press release for the series, lauding the NBA and ESPN execs behind the project and detailing the process of getting Jordan’s buy-in. ESPN’s Bomani Jones live-tweeted the first two episodes from Jordan’s shoe company’s account. (An ESPN source said the World Wide Leader did not arrange the setup, but did approve of it.) On ESPN channels, both before and after it aired on Sunday, the documentary and its themes were major drivers of conversation; there was an entire clip, for instance, dedicated to talking head Michael Wilbon's decision to watch it at the same time everyone else did, rather than in advance.
If all of this was simply annoying hype, that would be one thing; the hype campaign, though, is indistinguishable from the actual documentary itself. (This is annoying in its own right given the performative reverence for it; the hype campaign has, it seems, worked.) In it, for instance, Wilbon appears as one of the first talking heads, offering the perspective of the ordinary Chicago fan. By the season addressed by The Last Dance, he had been covering sports for the Washington Post for nearly 20 years. His main qualification to offer up his takes would seemingly be that he works for ESPN—which would suggest that people who happen to work for ESPN are the authorities to listen to on such questions as whether Michael Jordan was good at playing basketball.
Everything about the documentary works this way, reflecting Jordan's power—and ESPN's. It was, notably, directed by the same guy who made a hagiographic Kevin Johnson documentary that ESPN eventually, finally killed when the bad press stemming from multiple women accusing the former NBA star and Sacramento mayor of sexual misconduct became too much to handle. It's as gauzy as you'd expect.
The Last Dance uncritically repeats decades-old arguments and narratives, and even offers new ones, such as the ludicrous claim that Jordan was an unloved underdog coming out of college, too short to be believed in as a franchise player. (In truth, Indiana coach Bobby Knight famously told an NBA pal who was considering drafting Jordan but needed a center to just play him at center.) It promises unrivalled behind-the-scenes access which has, mainly, so far, showed the Bulls and the press interacting. It makes a dead man, team general manager Jerry Krause, the villain, and casts Krause's boss, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, as a benevolent mediator between his employee and the team's coach and players. (Reinsdorf, of course, as an NBA owner, is a business partner of ESPN's—and so is Jordan, chairman of the Charlotte Hornets.) At no point do the directors ask anyone—not even Pippen, whose clashes with Krause were a major plot point in the second episode—if, with the benefit of more than 20 years of hindsight, Reinsdorf might have been the bad guy, or at least deserving of some of the blame that was heaped upon his minion for breaking up a legendary team. Owners are good, the narrative goes, and so are the players. That's convenient to the interests of owners, and people who do business with them.
More than anything, this is a sports documentary that is, so far, curiously devoid of sports. No one really offers any better explanation for Jordan's peerless dominance—his genius—than that he was a hard worker and wanted it more than the next guy. No one is called upon for real analysis of key games or plays. Jackson’s famous “triangle offense” has so far received no attention whatsoever. Former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama— the latter a serious basketball fan who could probably offer some real insight into why and how Jordan was so much better than his rivals—appear, cutely identified as a former Arkansas governor and a former Chicago resident, respectively, as part of an exhaustingly long line of old men offering weak platitudes. The message their appearance sends is, more than anything else, basically that ESPN and Jordan are powerful enough brands to summon presidents, and that the importance of thrilling feats is that they allow powerful people to talk about them.
This isn’t to say the documentary is devoid of entertainment: The old Scottie Pippen highlights were a delight, as were the montages of young Jordan looking cool as hell in gold chains and slamming dunks. If you can't watch any live sports, a glimpse of athletes doing amazing things is absolutely the next best way to spend your time. But while reliving Michael Jordan’s sheer indomitable talent is fun, it’s fun in basically the way that watching basketball highlights on YouTube is, without the benefit of it being uninterrupted footage of people doing impressive things. That those interruptions consist mostly of powerful people explaining that Jordan was good and fierce and the ultimate competitor—someone you could be like, if you wanted it enough or perhaps bought the right product—doesn’t really add a thing. That's perhaps the point.
Sam Smith, the longtime Chicago Tribune writer and Jordan-watcher and current team reporter for the Chicago Bulls, wrote this weekend that the film only exists because Jordan signed off on it. As he noted, Jordan's two “primary gatekeepers”—spokesperson Estee Portnoy and advisor Curtis Polk—are executive producers. "There'll be no news here,” Smith wrote, editorializing from his perch as an NBA employee. “That's good, actually."