Deeper into âThe Last Danceâ
The Last Dance
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images/Netflix
Deeper into ‘The Last Dance’
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - May 23, 2020 - 12:00am

The documentary series “The Last Dance” was a powerful trip down memory lane for basketball fans of all persuasions. For Chicago Bulls fans, it stirred a lot of memories and emotions, particularly when the team broke up after the second three-peat in 1998. The unprecedented access was remarkable. Even the people who had unpleasant experiences playing with or against Michael Jordan agreed to be interviewed. In that sense, it helped round out the story.

For this writer, as a documentary film producer, what was most impressive was the use of backpack (loose camera) footage and behind the scenes material. Very little broadcast footage was used, and none of it was restored. This gave texture and grit to the entire series. But the producers were able to use the actual broadcast audio all throughout, which added a layer of authenticity. It could have been a cost consideration; it could have been a creative decision. But it impressed upon the viewer that this was a different perspective on familiar events. The acquisition, use of footage and editing was simple and well-executed. You really need to capture the moment. If you don’t, it is irretrievably lost for all time. This was filmed in the age before people got so busy recording moments on their phones that they were no longer living them. Like now.

The research was very thorough, capturing not just the atmosphere, but also private moments within the team, and how gracefully Phil Jackson orchestrated and navigated all those intense personalities.

The film also used non-linear storytelling, bouncing back and forth to flashbacks when they seemed relevant, though some instances felt forced. To some extent, credit was given to those who deserved it, but not to all who did. At the risk of upsetting myopic Jordan fans, there were things that bothered me, which became more glaring with each episode.

Several people were cast as villains in one way or another: Isiah Thomas, Jerry Krause, Karl Malone (whose only crime was being named MVP), Horace Grant, Clyde Drexler, Scottie Pippen, even Ron Harper. But the false accusation of arrogance against 1991 Washington Bullets rookie LaBradford Smith crossed a line. It appeared that Jordan lied to manufacture his motivation using an innocent newcomer, and tried to damage the youngster’s career. It showed that Jordan never really needed extra motivation, but enjoyed his measure of cruelty when he wanted it.

In the entire 10 hours, not one line or phrase came directly from the late, respected Tex Winter, not even any archrival interviews. Tex Winter, who created the triangle offense in 1955. Tex Winter, the architect of the Bulls’ success, who mentored Phil Jackson, who proved Jordan’s one-man act ineffective in the spectacular guard’s first seven years. Did Jordan not want Winter to have credit? It is unfathomable that the triangle itself, the source of their teamwork that produced their dynasty, would be barely mentioned, and in just one episode. Well, Jordan openly hated the triangle. And when he finally learned to pass the ball to an open Steve Kerr in game-winning situations, he apparently preferred to take credit instead of acknowledging Tex Winter’s system. That system led Jackson and Winter to six championships with the Bulls and another five with the Los Angeles Lakers. Without it, Jordan did not win in seven years prior, or two with the Washington Wizards after. That was the most troubling, that he didn’t even give a dead man his credit due. More airtime was given Jordan’s favorite security person in the last episode.

Granted, Jerry Krause was abrasive, insensitive and wanted credit for himself and the organization more than the team. But the level of disrespect shown him – even his lack of height and excess weight – more than two decades later, and even after his death, felt petty already.

Jordan apparently only respected those who would physically fight him. In that context, respect smells a lot like fear. But the film never mentioned that Bill Cartwright was the first to fight back so Jordan would back off from being disrespectful.

 Of course, the story is compelling. It was a fan’s dream. At first blush, it is an impressive aggregation of indelible moments. What is bothersome is that the voices were muted or limited. Is it a documentary, or is it propaganda? Up to now, Jordan is still busy parrying, deflecting and criticizing for slights – real or imagined – committed well over two decades ago. It is a great piece of documentary filmmaking that is progressively unmasked as another brick in the monument to His Airness. I, me, mine. This meanness of spirit watered down the champagne of celebration we all toasted when the opening credits of Episode 1 rolled.

There was no looking back with rose-colored glasses. Granted, Jordan had every right to say whatever he wanted. It’s his film, his production company. It couldn’t have been made without his consent and cooperation. But unfortunately, that appears to be the only way he can operate. The only exception was his being a willing part of the constellation known as the Dream Team.

You’re the greatest, MJ, hands down. You’ve already won. Don’t cry that you can’t be called a nice guy. No need to take shots at everybody you didn’t like back then. You didn’t have to dig up all the bodies and shoot them dead again. You could have worn your magnanimity and come out sparkling and smelling better. But anyway, it’s your film. We just happened to be watching it. Sorry, but some of the aged bile was too hard to swallow. After a while, it started to feel like a series of rebukes. A great piece of filmmaking with a glaring personal agenda. Jordan was allowed to answer everyone whom he disagreed with, or who had anything unflattering to say. Perhaps the title of the series should have been “The Last Word.”

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