Why ‘The Last Dance’ is a necessary reminder of Michael Jordan’s transcendent greatness

Let’s start here on “The Last Dance,” so far the gripping and introspective 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan and his 1997-98 Chicago Bulls team: It is fine entertainment at a time when we badly need it, and fine timing for His Airness now that he’s finally allowed the footage to be shown for his own purposes.

Jordan, as we know and will hear repeatedly as the documentary unspools eight more episodes in the weeks ahead, is fiercely competitive — to the point where his drive turns unhealthy, maniacal, obsessive and, in the end, historically effective. 

Already, the doc has had some fascinating tidbits, from Jordan’s talk about growing up black in North Carolina to the NBA’s drug culture when he entered the league to the raw way his and Pippen’s hatred for then-GM Jerry Krause manifested itself. We have all of this, and more surely to come, thanks to a camera crew embedded with those Bulls under the promise the footage would never be used without Jordan’s say-so.

That he did say-so is the result of that needless end to win.

Jordan is aiming to preserve his GOAT status, which he must have thought was safe when he finally retired in 2003. Then, he was the undisputed best player in NBA history, and his Bulls were the league’s best team.

But life is like sports. You earn what you earn, but that doesn’t mean things always end up the way you want. Life is neither fair nor predictable, and neither, it turns out, are the hopes for the legacies we build.

Take what General Douglas MacArthur once said: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” 

The same should be said for legacies. When they are built, the best of them — like Jordan’s — can seem indestructible. And they do not die off. But they certainly fade, with time, with the generations, with the next great thing, even within each of us who were there to see it with our own eyes as those crystal clear memories turn, inevitably, hazy.

So yes, Jordan is doing this to make sure the world remembers him and his team the right way. He has watched LeBron’s rise, he has surely stewed through talk of the Warriors greatness, and this is his answer: To manipulate you and me as we size up his place and his team’s place in the game. But that doesn’t make what we’re going to see any less true, or interesting, or worth our time.

In these bizarre days, nearly everything has changed. And it turns out being stuck at home can force a powerful dose of introspection. With our families, our health, the small moments (a movie or dining out!) we take for granted, and with our sports.

In our games, including the NBA, we focus so much on what’s in front of us, or what has just occurred. This makes sense. Sports are an emotional thing, and at their best, we connect with them in emotional ways. Tiger Woods claiming another green jacket after so much time without a major. LeBron James bringing a championship to Cleveland. The Chicago Cubs finally besting that curse. Patrick Mahomes transforming the Kansas City Chiefs into a Super Bowl champion. The Tom Brady-Bill Belichick divorce, in real-time, and question of who is truly better off without the other.

The more immediate something happens, the more important it feels. We want to feel connected, to feel that we, by watching, were part of the greatness and the drama.

It’s why LeBron James crafting his own legacy takes on a personal level of importance for so many sports fans who’ve never stepped foot in Cleveland or Miami or L.A. It’s why watching Stephen Curry burst into an all-time great was inspiring well beyond the Bay. It’s why, when Tiger emerged as the likely greatest golfer of all-time before his surprising decline, many of us, myself included, yearned for him to beat Jack Nicklaus’ record. Because to be part of history makes it that much more interesting and beautiful. 

I used to always say, and write, that I wanted Tiger Woods to be our version of Babe Ruth. Not because I know what it was like to watch Babe Ruth, but because I want to.

But the flip side of this coin is that as time moves on the greatness that we saw when we were younger, or never saw at all, gets obscured and feels less real.

I love the NBA, and fancy myself as someone who knows a lot about it, including historically. But I can’t pretend to have watched Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell or Jerry West with my own eyes when it mattered, to understand in the context of the moment their greatness, their foibles, their conquest, all the things that make the best athletes of all-time truly incredible.

And so, as we got ready for the last dance, something Adam Silver is reported to have said struck me. Silver was in charge of NBA Entertainment when he sold Jordan and the Bulls on recording the footage that has become “The Last Dance,” and he has since said part of the motivation was that he took seriously the need in that role to truly archive the game and its greats. To preserve for later what was magical then at that moment. 

This is the beauty of this documentary. I grew up between the suburbs of Chicago and in Northeast Iowa, back-and-forth, and I was lucky enough as a kid in high school and college to watch Jordan in all his glory.

And yet, “The Last Dance” reminds me, my memories have become hazy, too. The sureness of his shot, the killer instinct that defies even today’s greats, the will to win and feeling of awe we had in watching Jordan do his thing — all of that became clear again Sunday night as I watched the first two parts of the documentary.

I’ve covered LeBron James for much of my career, and when he retires I’ll surely be part of the Jordan-or-LeBron conversation that will only intensify. And, for me at least, it’ll be a close call.

But for now, this focus on Jordan and the Bulls has served two purposes. It has, as Jordan intended, brought me face to face again with just how remarkable an all-time great he was. But it’s also reminded me to hold equally clear in my mind, and appreciate just as much, LeBron’s current greatness.

Because LeBron, too, will have his last dance. And those of us lucky enough to have seen with our own eyes both him and Jordan need to avoid becoming so fixated on the eventual next Great One that a haziness obscures who came before.

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