The ESPN 10-part docuseries “The Last Dance” was originally set to release this summer. However, amid the coronavirus pandemic, ESPN decided to release the documentary earlier to aid a sports world currently starving for content.
On April 19, the first two episodes were released, sending sports fans and the Twitter world alike into a frenzy. The combination of never-before-seen interviews mixed with nostalgic Bulls highlights from the mid-1990s captivated audiences on a multitude of levels.
Under the current sports climate, “The Last Dance” already broke viewership records for ESPN in its first week. According to CNN, the premiere amassed over six million in viewership.
The story focuses majorly on Michael Jordan himself, but from a perspective revolving around the Chicago Bulls 1997-98 season. It was during this season the already-established dynasty was looking to win their sixth championship in an eight-year period — a dynasty that showcased perennial stars such as Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Horace Grant
During the 1997-98 season, the Chicago Bulls granted unlimited access to an NBA entertainment crew to film the entirety of a season now known as the end of a dynasty.
Episode 1 of the docuseries set the scene for the 97-98 season, which was filled with numerous controversies including aging superstars, mishandled injuries and front office politics.
The majority of content in Episode 1 is never-before-seen and goes deep inside the Bulls organization. It makes you feel like a part of the daily operations, and hopefully only scratches the surface of what else is to come in the remainder of the series.
Supplemented through Episode 1, is a series of flashback chronicles of Michael Jordan’s early playing years, beginning with him failing to make his high school basketball team his sophomore year. It follows his journey to becoming a household name at the University of North Carolina, which led him to stardom during his early years with a struggling Bulls team.
These flashbacks are the bread and butter of what people want to see throughout the docuseries — the story of MJ told through both his eyes and those who were around him.
The authenticity of interviews used throughout the flashbacks built most of the memorable moments from Episode 1. For instance, when UNC basketball coach Roy Williams said, “Michael was the only guy that could turn it on and off, and he never freakin’ turned it off.”
Another key building block of Episode 1 was the establishment of primary antagonist to the dynasty: general manager Jerry Krause. Krause was looking to rebuild the team of aging stars at the time, which created heavy tensions between Bulls players and the front office.
Krause makes for an interesting villain. He’s described as a “short man who liked to be the center of attention,” and was certainly disrespected by players in the organization. Although the docuseries makes it easy to not like Krause, one thing is consistent: Krause is arguably willing to do whatever it takes to win more than anybody who was a part of the Bulls dynasty, second to Jordan, of course.
Episode 2 of the docuseries focused more on the early parts of Scottie Pippen's career. Pippen, who was thought by many to be Robin to MJ’s Batman, was arguably the best No. 2 in NBA history.
The majority of the episode focuses on Pippen’s path to the NBA, where he would become one of the Bulls’ most crucial pieces during their stretch of NBA championships.
Despite the importance of his role to the team, Pippen had originally signed a seven-year deal with the team for only $18 million, making him one of the most underpaid players in the NBA during the mid-90s. This made for an unhealthy relationship with the team’s ownership, who was already facing scrutiny going into the ‘97-98 season.
The first two episodes of “The Last Dance” were full of nostalgic basketball clips that added the first bits of new footage captured during the historic final season of the Bulls’ dynasty. The story takes a unique perspective, jumping back and forth on timelines that help visualize events that set up the ‘97-98 season. Supplemented with authentic, uncensored interviews with basketball figures from every angle of the hoops world, the first two episodes make for a real treat.
Some mistakes were pointed out by critics in the first two episodes. The most notable was a graphic from the 1986 playoff standings. The sixth seed in the graphic was the Washington Wizards, who were actually the Washington Bullets until the team changed it in 1997.
Although there are some minor mistakes that have been pointed out, the magnitude of the first two episodes far outweighs these and perfectly lays the groundwork for the remainder of the series. The series’ first two installments are on par with the best sport documentaries I have come across and are deserving of a 9.5/10 rating.
On April 26, we were dished two more servings of the 10-course ESPN documentary.
Installments three and four in the series continued on with the theme of side-story spotlights of Jordan’s “supporting cast,” focusing on Phil Jackson's playing career and pre-Bulls coaching days. Although interesting, this was outshined by the spotlight on Dennis “The Worm” Rodman and his mid-season Vegas vacation he took in January of the 1998 season.
Rodman is a once-in-a-lifetime character in the NBA whose chronicle overlapped the two episodes. It concluded with Jordan going to Vegas to wake Rodman out of bed in order to get him to rejoin the team.
Episodes 3 and 4 stay true to what was successful in the first two installments with a plethora of highlight reels and nostalgic sports commentaries.
Episodes 3 and 4 succeed most in the more memorable moments they highlight. These include the Bad Boy Pistons rivalry, the Bulls’ first title in 1991 and a close look at “the shot,” Jordan’s historic buzzer beater against the Cavaliers in the 1989 playoffs. Combine this with the backstories of Jackson and Rodman, and the pair of episodes make for an entertaining two hours of television.
Parts of the docuseries also resonated well with die-hard basketball fans, as there was an emphasis on the strategic side of the game, which included a diagnosis of the game-changing “triangle offense” focused on ball movement as opposed to isolation opportunities primarily for Jordan.
The docuseries builds on a lot of aspects from its first week, but there are a few negatives that weigh Episodes 3 and 4 down.
Many viewers are upset with the limited voices showcased in interviews. The series has taken us to a lot of different places through backstories, but took four hours to introduce Horace Grant, who was arguably one of the most crucial players during the Bulls’ dynasty.
A strong point in the series has been its use of timelines to lay out the story leading up to the ‘97-98 season. However, in this installment, the timeline was skewed, jumping back and forth unpredictably. For instance, in Episode 3 Rodman’s path to becoming a Bull was laid out, only for Episode 4 to backtrack to the Bulls’ rivalry with Detroit during the early-90s when Rodman was a member of the Pistons.
Along with this, the latest installments left us with cringe-worthy moments. Perhaps the most unforgettable was the horrific dance Krause did on the plane following the Bulls’ title win in 1991. This is an image I would rather not have ingrained in my head.
The documentary is also beginning to show a theme of not straying too far away from Jordan. During Rodman’s journey from innocent NBA rookie to the Bulls’ “Dennis the Menace,” the doc took a 90-second MJ highlight sidetrack.
Going forward, the documentary needs to find interesting ways to dive deeper into the Bulls’ story and not rely solely on the “Jordan effect.” Aside from these flaws, as mentioned earlier the two newest episodes in the series do make for entertaining television, particularly under the current circumstances. I give Episodes 3 and 4 a 7.5/10.