Like every Chicago Bulls fan, I’ve been enjoying ESPN’s documentary about the 1997-1998 team, called The Last Dance, at least in the early going.
But there are a few things this deep dive into Chicago Bulls history has left out.
Most of those things are true facts that paint Michael Jordan, a key subject in the documentary, the Bulls on-court leader, and, of course, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, in a less than flattering light.
I’m talking about the gambling, the cheating on his ex-wife, the over competitiveness (Jordan may have ruined Kwame Brown‘s career). None of these things are secret, but so far, the first two have gone unmentioned in The Last Dance, while the third has been positioned as a positive attribute – Jordan was so good not because he was blessed with unusual ability, but because he just wanted it (it being success) more than everyone else. As writer for The Root and VerySmartBrothas Damon Young points out, this is a problematic idea.
Vice even points out that the documentary’s suggestion that Jordan was deemed too short to be a dominant NBA player when he was coming out of college isn’t true.
On top of that, the late Jerry Krause is positioned as the villainous GM who broke up the Bulls for no good reason, at least in the first two episodes. The documentary seems to paint the players and head coach Phil Jackson as the good guys, and owner Jerry Reinsdorf as some benevolent mediator. As 670 AM WSCR’s Dan Bernstein writes, this is a bit unfair, and not just because Krause isn’t alive to give his side of the story.
As Bernstein notes, a lot the criticism of Krause is true – but the ravages of time may have also broken up the Bulls. Jordan was 35 and had logged heavy minutes over the years. Dennis Rodman was going on 37. Scottie Pippen would soon undergo shoulder fusion surgery the summer following the last championship and never again play at the same level. There was no guarantee that the Bulls of 1998-1999 would’ve been able to compete at a championship level, and the odds were likely against it.
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The biggest disappointment in the early going, however, is that all the footage that hasn’t been seen before hasn’t really shown much about Jordan or the Bulls that we didn’t already know. The Last Dance was so hyped, in part, because we expected to see footage that might paint the Bulls and their best player in a new light. Instead, we get visual confirmation of already known facts – that MJ and others were harsh towards Krause, and that Jordan wasn’t shy about ripping teammates at practice.
We do get a bunch of highlights – both well-known and less so – which is cool. But I didn’t sign up just to relive the glory days of my favorite NBA team. I wanted to learn more about what really happened behind the scenes, and see it presented in a visual way. Certainly, previous reporting has laid bare some facts that both Jordan and the organization would rather not be acknowledged, but it’s one thing to read about it in a book or a newspaper article, or to rely on someone’s fallible memory. Seeing it, in footage shot at the time, before history and faulty memories could warp the truth (however inadvertently), would’ve been great.
The lack of coverage of topics unflattering to Jordan (at least to this point – we have plenty of episodes to go), the oversimplification of Krause’s role in the breakup of the Bulls, and the narrative of Jordan simply wanting “it” more than anyone else – all of this comes about because ESPN sought, and was granted, permission to interview Jordan as part of the show.
This is because, in general, documentaries are different from works of journalism. Documentaries are often driven by an agenda, with the documentarian seeking to produce a work that backs said agenda. Furthermore, agenda-driven or not, documentarians are far more likely to agree to terms that kneecap them in terms of being able to cover all relevant facts.
Generally speaking, journalists would approach a profile of a person or event with an open mind, letting the facts guide the direction of the piece. Even when a journalist goes into the process with pre-conceived notions, he or she will adjust course as needed when new information comes to light. There are exceptions – some journalists are better at the job than others, and sometimes a journalist doesn’t respond appropriately to information that challenges the preconceived notions, and you get a piece that seems driven to fit a forethought narrative.
That’s not necessarily unethical, but it is intellectually lazy, and it tends to lead to weak stories that don’t give the full picture. Thankfully, most successful journalists avoid this most of the time. It’s also a net positive that today’s media-consumption environment makes it easy for critics to call out journalists and outlets when it does happen.
That’s not the case with documentaries, though. Sometimes the director has an agenda in mind and presents the story accordingly.
Similarly, the director of a documentary is more likely to approve of terms and conditions on how the story is presented. If a journalist was writing a long feature story on the ’97-’98 Bulls and wanted to interview Jordan, and Jordan said he’d only do it if certain unflattering facts were omitted, the journalist would almost certainly say no. He or she would instead work around Jordan’s non-participation, interviewing other people and using previously reported on-record Jordan quotes when necessary and appropriate. Jordan’s declining to participate would be noted in the story. This happens all the time in journalism.
But as the Vice piece notes, former Chicago Tribune reporter Sam Smith (also the author of The Jordan Rules) wrote a piece for NBA.com suggesting that one of Jordan’s two media gatekeepers likely approved his participation. He implies that it might be the work of Estee Portnoy, someone who often tells people requesting to interview Jordan that he won’t say yes.
All of this matters because if you’re raptly watching The Last Dance, as many of us are, you’re not getting the full story. You’re getting a story that paints Jordan in a flattering light, that paints Krause as a villain without context, and that also burnishes the ESPN brand – the company can hype the heck out of this thing, especially during a time when the world’s sporting events are shut down. Not to mention that many of the pundits who pop up either are currently employed by the so-called Worldwide Leader or were at one time. SportsCenter has been all about The Last Dance after each showing, as well.
ESPN has always struggled more than most mainstream media outlets with the tug of war between doing excellent journalism and bowing to corporate mandates. This is because the network has relationships (mostly revolving around broadcast rights) with sports leagues that complicate matters. Remember the show Playmakers, which ESPN killed after one season under rumors that the NFL, unhappy with a fictional show that painted the league in a bad light at times, pressured the network to do so? How about the frequent (but unproven) claims that ESPN gave less time to hockey highlights when it wasn’t carrying game broadcasts?
This isn’t to say that ESPN doesn’t do excellent, independent journalism or that ESPN can’t be trusted. However, it’s no surprise that ESPN and director Jason Hehir would possible be willing to abide by terms of coverage set by Jordan.
None of this is to stay The Last Dance is bad. It’s still pretty great, especially for Bulls fans, as flawed as it is. Jordan may be an imperfect person off the court, but he was never credibly accused of cheating or using PEDs, and seeing highlights of him in action during his prime is a reminder of just how talented he was. It’s certainly possible to believe Jordan was the greatest player of all time and to have rooted for him as a Bulls fan or basketball fan, while still acknowledging his faults.
As a Bulls fan, I’ve been paying rapt attention, reliving moments from my childhood and getting to see new footage or footage that’s new to me, at least. I’m enjoying the documentary series so far, and I think it’s well done through four episodes, despite mostly omitting Jordan’s blemishes to this point. It also needs to be acknowledged that The Last Dance hasn’t been shy about dredging up other parts of Bulls’ history that aren’t exactly glamourous.
Besides that, the behind-the-scenes clips are still interesting, even if they are less revelatory than expected.
All I’m saying is that the picture the documentary paints is incomplete, at least to this point. Perhaps the gambling and the infidelity and the competitiveness to the point of possible sociopathy will be addressed and addressed properly. But for now, the picture highlights the Jordan that has been marketed to us for decades, as opposed to the totality of the man – who is far more flawed than a Nike ad will admit.
This is a bit of a shame, in part because one of those flaws – the hyper-competitiveness – is often portrayed as one of Jordan’s best assets. It would be awesome to explore this dynamic further – did one of the most talented basketball players of all time need to be so damn driven? Could he have still been a success if he wasn’t? What’s the line between being hyper-focused on success and taking that desire to win too far? At what point does it become counterproductive?
The same goes for Krause’s involvement. The doc assumes his philosophies were wrong – but seeing more of a counterpoint would’ve been nice, even if the ultimate conclusions still showed Krause was incorrect.
Finally, I was certainly hoping that all this old, never-before-seen footage would show more than just a few pointed barbs from Jordan towards Krause or teammates like Scott Burrell. Jordan on a training table isn’t all that interesting. Jordan riffing on teammates at practice is more interesting, but the snippets we’ve seen so far have been tame.
None of the found footage really tells us anything we didn’t already know.
If The Last Dance piques your interest, that’s great. But if you want to delve deeper into the full picture of those Bulls teams, and especially Jordan himself, you’ll have to look elsewhere to fully complete the puzzle.