'The Last Dance' Is the Best Thing We've Got Until Basketball Comes Back

The ESPN documentary turned its attention away from Michael Jordan to his Bulls cohorts Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson Sunday night. It's no substitute for the NBA playoffs, but we'll take it.
Chicago, US
'The Last Dance' Is the Best Thing We've Got Until Basketball Comes Back
Jeff Reinking

The NBA playoffs would ordinarily start this month, and though there won't be any sports for the foreseeable future thanks to coronavirus, at least there's The Last Dance, the 10-part documentary on the sixth and final Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls championship run in the 1997-98 NBA season. Last night's episodes, the third and fourth of the series, focused on Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson, and the brutal early 90s rivalry between the Bulls and Detroit Pistons. Like Phil Jackson’s team-based triangle offense approach, The Last Dance gets better as it moves the spotlight away from just Jordan.


An extensive look into the last season of the Bulls' second three-peat and the dissolution of one of the greatest sports dynasties ever would be appointment viewing, even under normal circumstances. But in the absence of real games, the documentary is now the event. The first two installments earned huge ratings (its average of 6.1 million viewers doubled the numbers for 2016's Oscar-winning OJ: Made In America and were well more than the average viewership of an ESPN NBA game ) and the series, with its dazzling montages of Bulls highlights and marquee interview talking heads (like "Former Chicago Resident" Barack Obama) is pretty much dominating the scant sports discourse. People would much rather watch footage of Michael Jordan's berets and big suits, Dennis Rodman's 1998 Bulls sabbatical and Vegas bender with Carmen Electra, and Horace Grant slinging profanities at the Detroit Pistons than awkwardly televised H-O-R-S-E competitions.

Rodman and "The Bad Boys" era of the Pistons were both the subjects of their own recent respective ESPN documentaries, so their rehashed stories are familiar to basketball fans. But Rodman's unlikely and tragic history doubled with his once-in-a-generation persona makes for great TV even though The Last Dance doesn't have any new revelations the 2019 doc Rodman: For Better or Worse didn't cover already. Despite that, it's still compelling to see Rodman in Vegas pounding a Miller Lite and riding off in a motorcycle while on vacation from the team during the middle of the season. Also just taking in Rodman's ahead-of-the-times celebrity in the pre-social media world of the '90s is fascinating, even if it could've been explored more deeply. Jackson's episode could've used more of an examination into the winning Triangle Offense he employed from assistant coach Tex Winter, but anecdotes about his turbulent time coaching in the Puerto Rican National Superior Basketball League and footage of Jackson making his team do yoga were entertaining, too.

While The Last Dance is fun, even a Chicago-based Bulls fan can admit it's basically a vessel for Jordan mythmaking. Plus, there were reports that "Jordan and Jump 23 advisers reportedly retain[ed] complete final editorial approval" over the documentary and Jordan only agreed to participate in the film when Lebron James seemed poised to overtake his legacy. To director Jason Hehir, there is nothing wrong with fully embracing the legend. There are scenes of the famously competitive and caustic Jordan cruelly berating teammates and mentions of practice fisticuffs with teammates Will Perdue and Steve Kerr. Some of the footage is so brutal that Jordan told Hehir that he was worried people would think he's "a horrible guy.” The documentary rightfully doesn't pull punches showcasing the fraught and often bullying relationship between Krause and the players but it feels weird to make Krause, who died in 2017, the unequivocal villain with no one to defend him.

The Last Dance is the best thing we have to fill the sports void for the time being. Unless you're a still-bitter fan of the Bulls' '90s playoff foes, the team is easy to root especially for Pippen, a pre-Kim Jong-Un friendship Rodman, and Scotty Burrell, a frequent target of Jordan's practice court ire. Watching Jordan, who was drafted by the Bulls third in 1984, take a losing team that was outsold by Chicago's indoor soccer team and had a reputation of "The Bulls Traveling Cocaine Circus" to a six-time champion is exhilarating. Until the NBA comes back, this documentary is all we have.