The latest in ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary takes the next step in capturing Michael Jordan as an indelible icon and ferocious competitor.
Now three weeks in, it seems as though The Last Dance is beginning to truly come into its own. While Episodes 3 and 4 were entertaining well enough and gave us candid moments, the latest batch felt like it finally got into what makes this whole story so grand and important. The Last Dance is supposed to capture the brilliance of his playing career, for sure, but where it shines the most is in its depiction of Michael Jordan as an icon and person.
To that end, Episode 5 of The Last Dance may be the best yet, with its chronicling of both the Olympics Dream Team and the impact Jordan made on not just the sports world, but the entire world of pop culture. Oh, and literally just the world, too.
Getting background information on Phil Jackson and Dennis Rodman—including some rather amusing anecdotes of the latter—is all well and dandy, but there’s something more informative and “you had to be there to understand” notions of Jordan’s popularity during this time. In Episode 5, it’s more of the rise of his dominance thanks to the Air Jordan brand, which took off in a way that feels comparable to when, like, the Nintendo Wii first released. Hearing that Nike was a newcomer back in those days may feel odd now, but it only lends more credence to Jordan’s influence. The entire marketing scheme, the influx of celebrity attention, and his continued dominance turned into more than just a ballplayer.
It’s always fun for people to talk about, and capture, just why an athlete was more than just numbers on a stat sheet or highlight videos. While highlight videos are always great—the most notable instance this week being set to “The Choice is Yours” by Black Sheep, which was synced perfectly—there’s something fascinating about seeing simple commercials. While watching with my mom, she was nostalgic about seeing the famous “Be Like Mike” commercial, to which she remarked, “It’s true, we all, no matter the background, wanted to be like Mike.”
The episode also captured how Jordan’s influence became one of culture, which was something that legendary director Spike Lee, perhaps better than most, could channel the best. Celebrity cameos weren’t just limited to Spike, however, as there was footage of interactions to everyone ranging from John Cusack to Jerry Seinfeld. Fame is crazy, man.
Of course, there was still some good basketball chronicling as this week focused on the Dream Team. The entire ordeal helped further detail the sticky situation of general manager Jerry Krause, who The Last Dance has used as one of its main—and perhaps only—antagonistic, villainous character. The competition and rage towards Toni Kukoc, plus the general competitiveness of Jordan made the entire situation so irresistible to watch.
But with all the fame and success, the timing of the follow-up episode was even more effective. While Episode 5 of The Last Dance focused on the rise of Jordan’s global popularity, Episode 6 was a more sobering, down-to-earth perspective that showcases the consequences of fame. Jordan’s gambling “issues” and the controversy surrounding them are covered extensively, but the episode is more than just that. Plus, I loved seeing the little competition between Jordan and his bodyguard while playing the quarters game, or whatever it’s called; I don’t know the rules and don’t care to find out.
It’s hard to summarize every facet of The Last Dance up until this point. It’s certainly a basketball story, but it’s starting to show that, at its base, it’s about a perfectionist mastering their craft. The fame and adulation for accomplishing these feats can’t be understated, and the documentary doesn’t minimize their importance in the slightest. What it does do well, however, is contextualize them, and without feeling like an attempt at sugar-coating an athlete who, in many ways, was far from perfect (the whole “Republicans buy sneakers, too” bit was particularly interesting).
The Last Dance is also managing to deliver simple moments in which Jordan is living his life, whether it be escaping the court to go play golf, laying around in his hotel room, or drinking a beer with teammate Scottie Pippen. It’s both dramatic and informative in its journey.
The last paragraph or so of what I’ve written may sound pretentious, but it’s true: There’s simply nothing like him. If these episodes were able to capture the ethos of Jordan outside of NBA basketball so effectively, then one can only imagine what The Last Dance might have up its sleeves to bring the whole thing together and conclude its gargantuan journey.
Will it stick the landing? I honestly don’t know, especially since it’s a documentary, after all. But what’s so remarkable about The Last Dance—despite how much information is already out there about Jordan’s legacy and journey—is how much it makes care about finding out.
Episodes of The Last Dance continue every Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN2.