For a college student, ‘The Last Dance’ has been a fascinating history lesson about basketball’s greatest
When Michael Jordan crossed from his right to his left, pulled up from mid-range and nailed the game-winner in the 1998 NBA Finals, it marked the final incredible moment of Jordan’s career with the Chicago Bulls. Millions across the globe can tell you where they were when that shot swished through the net.
Although it has been just 22 years since the Last Dance season, the Jordan Era is in the same category for me as the Babe Ruth era in baseball, the Pele era in soccer and the Muhammad Ali era in boxing: before my time.
I was born about six months after the Bulls lifted their sixth Larry O’Brien trophy. I have never watched Jordan play a basketball game live, let alone shoot a jump shot.
But over the years, I’ve been exposed to a lot of MJ content. I’ve seen plenty of highlights: the game-winning jumper in the 1982 NCAA Championship, the free-throw line jam in the Dunk Contest, “The Shot,” the final jumper in the 1998 NBA Finals. I’ve read about him not making the high school varsity team as a sophomore, being selected behind Sam Bowie in the 1984 NBA Draft, the Dream Team practices, the first retirement.
But what I never had before was the context behind these events, the thread that links all these events together to tell a complete picture of Jordan’s career with Chicago.
The Last Dance is providing that context not just for me, but also for a whole generation of fans who never saw Jordan electrify crowds across the country.
It started with the first memorable moment of the documentary, when Jordan started laughing at the “cocaine circus” of the 1984-85 Bulls. It’s a hilarious and honest quip. But it also serves as a perfect way to illustrate to a younger generation the situation Jordan walked into when he joined Chicago.
And the context continued from there. Watching Jordan go off against the Celtics in the 1986 playoffs was something I’d never seen before and emphasized No. 23’s skills and passion on a basketball court. Seeing the vitriol on his face when talking about Isaiah Thomas and the Bad Boy Pistons explained how much those victories over Detroit really meant to him. Hearing the anecdotes on George Karl’s snub and Gary Payton claims illustrate Jordan’s innate desire to dominate.
Even the highlights I’ve seen before on Twitter I now appreciate more. “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo is a prime example. I didn’t know any of the backstory of the series. I didn’t know the play design. I didn’t know about the Ron Harper vs. Ehlo debate. But getting to hear these anecdotes and watch how the series got to that point made me understand why that moment is so important.
The most eye-opening experience has been with Jordan, Jerry Krause and Phil Jackson. I had no idea who Jerry Krause was before the documentary or how sharply the Bulls dynasty ended. But after four weeks, I feel like I could write a 10-page paper on Krause’s ego and the end of the Chicago dynasty.
The documentary is also allowing me to appreciate other players and storylines from the era. Scottie Pippen’s backstory from poverty in Arkansas to a lottery pick in the NBA Draft and Phil Jackson’s journey coaching in the minor leagues of basketball helped form a more cohesive comprehension of the many key parts that worked together to create the Team of the 1990s.
Before the documentary started, I firmly believed LeBron James was the best basketball player of all time. Part of why I believe this is because I’ve witnessed the great majority of his career. I started following basketball just as he was rising to the top of the Association in the mid-2000s. I’ve watched him play every Christmas for a decade. I remember where I was when he announced he was heading to South Beach and during Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
I never had that connection with Michael Jordan. I have no memories of watching Jordan win the NBA Finals. I can’t connect a Michael Jordan moment to a specific time in my life. But while watching The Last Dance, I am as close as I ever will get to gaining those memories.
For years, I’ve heard coaches, family members, teachers and more rave over Jordan. They’d say there was no one like him. But I never fully believed them.
Well, now I’ve seen what they were talking about. And I understand what they were saying.