There may not be live sport on our screens right now, but devotees of basketball – along with those fascinated by the limits of athletic genius and anyone who likes bad 1990s suits or telling insults – can still get toey around 6.30pm on Monday nights. That’s when Netflix has been putting up the week’s dual episodes from The Last Dance, an exhaustive and juicily entertaining docuseries about basketball’s greatest player, Michael Jordan, and the outrageous circumstances that went into his final 1998 NBA season with the Chicago Bulls.
Brought forward to fill a pandemic-sized hole in programming schedules (the 10-part show airs on cable sports giant ESPN in the United States), The Last Dance has become an object of fascination – in terms of basketball, American culture, and hardnosed personality – on its own terms, but also a headliner for the rise of the sports documentary. Elite sports receive vast amounts of coverage, to the point where it feels the games themselves will be asphyxiated by the endless commentary, but little cuts through like Jason Hehir’s series has.
The Last Dance has the advantage of history. It feels like long ago and looks that way, too. The Jordan who sat for the lengthy contemporary interviews has a glass of liquor and cigars at hand: he may no longer float in the air, per the branding of his signature Air Jordan sneakers range, but he can still cut opponents down to size. At the age of 57, Jordan has nothing to prove and – suddenly and surprisingly – plenty to say. The ultra-competitive grandmaster, who let his game define him, would like to amend the record.
While The Last Dance traverses Jordan’s career over two decades, one constant is how he deliberately says very little to the media. Whether out of fear or obedience to team culture, most top sportspeople are happy to stick to “one game at a time” soundbites. We’re not used to elite athletes who speak for effect, or with fierce honesty. Wayne Carey, the AFL great and now Seven expert commentator, gave one unvarnished interview to Andrew Denton in 2008, as his post-game life tottered. He’s stuck by the (unspoken) rules ever since.