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Can Michael Jordan Fill the Huge Sports-Size Hole in Our Hearts?

A new 10-part documentary about the NBA legend is unexpectedly poignant now that sports are gone.

Beth A Keiser/AP/Shutterstock

The Last Dance, a new 10-part documentary about Michael Jordan’s sixth and final NBA championship season with the Chicago Bulls in 1998, is being released at a very strange moment. Live sports are dead. The Olympics were canceled for the first time since World War II. Wimbledon, too. The English Premier League came to a shuddering halt, as did the NBA. Originally slated for release in June, after the 2020 NBA Finals, The Last Dance was pushed up by ESPN to replenish the network’s lifeblood. The documentary was meant to start one kind of debate, about Jordan versus LeBron James, about basketball then and now. It has instead inadvertently sparked another, about why sports are important in the first place.

Sports networks have attempted to fashion a replacement. These efforts have not been successful. ESPN last week aired a three-part H-O-R-S-E tournament. Shot on cell phones, it had all the clarity of the Zapruder film and all the tension of a game of croquet. Still, it was a clear indication of the hunger for sports, any sports at all. So the airing of the first two parts of The Last Dance on Sunday was something close to salvation. It was not live sports, but it was the next best thing, a fire that invited sports fans to come out of the cold and gather around.

Featuring never-before-seen footage, The Last Dance is meant to give a new, intimate perspective on Jordan’s greatness. It turns out to be a contemporary bit of myth-making, an attempt at resolving the increasingly disparate sides of Jordan’s legacy: his status as the sport’s greatest player and its biggest jerk. Without the suspense that live sports delivers, the film attempts to solve a mystery: What makes Jordan tick?

Aired at another time, it might have read as yet another example of prestige sports journalism. Airing now, it is, at times, unexpectedly poignant. The Last Dance is a reminder not just of Jordan’s cultural gravity but also that there are things we can still share, a rare feeling in a very isolated moment.

For a long time, Jordan was more myth than man. “I think he’s God disguised as Michael Jordan,” Larry Bird famously said after a 23-year-old Jordan dropped 63 points on the Boston Celtics in 1986. The Bulls lost that game, one of Jordan’s many devastating early-career playoff defeats, but it didn’t matter—something bigger was happening.

Jordan, even then, was the greatest offensive player in league history. He could fly, hanging in the air just a split second longer than should be humanly possible. There are Jordan dunks where he seemed to rise three or four inches in the air at the precise moment he should have been falling, blocked shots where he literally hit his head on the backboard. Jordan’s competitiveness was also patently clear; he seemingly willed his team to victory. Here was a player who was not only the most talented in the world but also the most motivated. In Jordan, the God-given and the man-made were perfectly melded.

Jordan was the ideal pitchman for sneakers, hamburgers, and sports drinks: Put on some Air Jordans and take a swig of Gatorade and you, too, could be like Mike. The NBA, seeing that it had a once-in-a-lifetime talent, did everything it could to draw more attention to him. The league was reeling from a series of drug scandals (the 1984–’85 Bulls are referred to as a “traveling cocaine circus”), and here was a clean-cut workaholic superstar who could rehabilitate its image. Jordan didn’t flinch from the spotlight: His appetite for winning was matched only by his appetite for public affection.

The person behind the persona was a far cry from the smiling star of Space Jam. The public got its first glimpse of the real Jordan in 1992, when Sam Smith published The Jordan Rules, a behind-the-scenes account of the Bulls’ first NBA championship a year earlier. It turned out that Jordan was a bully and gambling addict who mercilessly terrorized (and occasionally assaulted) his own teammates. Over the subsequent years, Jordan’s ties to organized crime, disastrous baseball career, disastrous second NBA comeback, record-breaking divorce settlement, and ownership of the perennially mediocre (and, at times, historically bad) Charlotte Hornets have turned him into a shell of his godlike youth.

Jordan has tried to refocus his legacy, with disastrous consequences. His Hall of Fame induction speech in 2009 was a near-endless resuscitation of grievances—everyone who had ever wronged him was singled out—that birthed the “Crying Jordan” meme. It’s no small irony that the best basketball player in history has been immortalized by a meme celebrating failure.

Though it only focuses on one season, The Last Dance is also an attempt to burnish Jordan’s entire legacy. The 1997–’98 season was Jordan’s third full campaign since returning from his first retirement, and the Bulls were poised to capture a third consecutive championship for the second time in the decade. But as the documentary begins, we see that the team is riven with dysfunction.

Jordan is aging. The team’s second-best player, the underappreciated Scottie Pippen, is furious about being stuck in a contract that has left him the league’s 122nd-highest-paid player. Phil Jackson, the team’s coach, is feuding with the team’s chief executive, Jerry Krause, who is seemingly hated by everyone. Their season gets off to a spotty start. The future of the dynasty is in doubt.

The outcome isn’t, of course. We all know how the story ends, with Jordan leaving the Utah Jazz’s Bryon Russell on the floor as he hit a jump shot with five seconds left to win his sixth title, completing the final labor of Hercules.

The Last Dance is, like Jordan himself, haunted by The Jordan Rules. That book was revelatory, stripping the pretensions out of long-form sportswriting and daring to present the Chicago Bulls as just another workplace. In this organization, Jordan was a terrible colleague. A preening prima donna, he would lash out at anyone he deemed unworthy of being his teammate. The oafish center Will Perdue was a favored target, with Jordan once punching him in the head. In another account, Jordan referred to the team’s three centers as “21 feet of shit.”

The Last Dance presents Jordan’s near-sociopathic dickishness as a kind of superpower. Jordan is only Jordan because he cares about winning more than anyone else. His teammates still marvel at it. Jordan is an expert self-motivator with no patience for those who don’t share the same will to win. So his bullying is recast as a positive force: The only way to achieve true greatness is to be as tough as Michael. Even Steve Kerr (who also came to blows with Jordan) praises his attitude, saying that they wouldn’t have won as much as they did without it.

As with most superpowers, Jordan’s relentless drive is a blessing and a curse. It gives Jordan everything he wants but gnaws at him constantly. The only times he seems to really gel with his teammates are when they have a shared enemy—as he and Pippen did during the 1992 Olympics, when they humiliated Croatian forward Toni Kukoc, who was coveted by Krause.

His need to compete all the time feeds a gambling addiction that he still denies. Pressed on whether he has a problem in a 1992 interview, Jordan is adamant: “I have a competition problem.”

As for his awful treatment of his teammates, he presents himself as General Patton on the basketball court: “Winning has a price, and leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled, challenged people when they don’t want to be challenged. I earned that right because the teammates that came after me didn’t endure all the things that I endured,” he says, holding back tears.

Jordan himself describes his own motivations in downright Freudian terms. “I always felt like I was fighting [my brother] Larry for my father’s attention,” Jordan says. “It’s traumatic.… I want that approval, I want that type of confidence so my determination became even greater to become as good as, if not better than, my brother.” Jordan’s ability to self-motivate is best understood as a kind of hypersensitivity. He never forgets a single slight, and in The Last Dance he alternates between thinly disguised rage and manic laughter when recalling feuds with Isiah Thomas and Gary Payton, among many, many others.

The Jordan that emerges in The Last Dance is a typical bully: A hard exterior attempting to obscure a mushy center. When Jordan broke down after winning his first title, holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy like a newborn and weeping, Perdue was shocked. “The only emotion we had seen out of him was anger and frustration,” he says. “We were literally stunned to see those emotions.” There is a strong sense that Jordan can only release his emotions after winning.

Watching old Jordan games in full can bring on heretical thoughts. For all the discussion of the rough-and-tumble, physical 1990s, it’s shocking how much respect Jordan was given from both opponents and referees, particularly during his first comeback. The Lakers and the Pistons, teams that Jordan’s Bulls cut through like hot butter in 1991, were, on closer inspection, aging husks, nothing like their formidable, championship-winning predecessors. The teams that the Bulls would go on to beat were respectable but hardly comparable to the Celtics and Lakers of the 1980s or the dynasties of the 2010s. Jordan was as lucky as he was driven.

But his timing was fortuitous in more than just basketball terms. The Last Dance underscores that Jordan was one of the last truly monocultural figures of the pre-internet era, totemic and inscrutable. He was not universally beloved, but he was impossible to ignore. It’s that aspect of Jordan—the larger-than-life myth that still overshadows the petty and fractured man—that makes The Last Dance moving at this moment. The sheer number of universally remembered moments about Jordan—he has at least three shots that could be described as “The Shot”—captures what we’re missing now without sports and sports fandom.

The Last Dance is not quite the reclamation of Jordan’s legacy that it aspires to be, nor is it a cautionary tale, let alone a tragedy. But it is a reminder of the immense size of Jordan’s shadow and the fact that everyone, even Jordan himself, lives in it.