So, “The Last Dance” is over, leaving us all with some inexact opinions — and one irrefutable truth.
The opinions are ours, personal to each viewer, proof that we were deeply invested in what played out over five Sundays’ worth of televisual double-headers.
Michael Jordan’s last shot as a member of the @chicagobulls was ICONIC 🐐 pic.twitter.com/r5BhAIED36
— The Association on FOX (@TheAssociation) May 18, 2020
Mine, for what they are worth, are that the 1990s were a crazy, quirky and magical time. That Michael Jordan is the greatest athlete in basketball history, and that it’s not close. That Jerry Krause was unfairly demonized, and that having no one to speak for him was a travesty. That Steve Kerr is somehow an even better man than I thought. That I’d rather have heard from Luc Longley than Justin Timberlake, and that Dennis Rodman will never again fail to make the cut when someone asks me for my three dream dinner party guests.
The ironclad truth to come out of it? That one is easy. It is that documentary drama centered around compelling, iconic and all-history athletes is better entertainment than even the grandest of Hollywood blockbusters.
All of which turned my mind to the following question: What if, heaven forbid, something like the current situation happens again, 22 years from now? Something that leaves us stuck at home, without games to fixate on, craving a sports-themed epic with a brilliant yet complex central figure?
Who, out of all the current and recent stars in sports, would be the perfect subject?
6th NBA Title. 6th NBA Finals MVP.
Michael Jordan’s Last Dance had the perfect ending 🙌 pic.twitter.com/Kd7U0GCXMW
— The Association on FOX (@TheAssociation) May 18, 2020
For the sake of fairness and simplicity, let’s hypothetically assume that for a portion of the closing period of the athlete’s career, there is (or was) a similar sort of behind-the-scenes access granted. As remarkable as Jordan’s list of accolades was, The Last Dance would have had a very different look without those peeks behind the curtain.
We live in a different era to the late 90s, and there are different outlets through which an athlete’s personality can shine. Jordan became one of the most famous men alive without the benefit of social media, elevating to that position through his skill, ability and the craft of Nike’s advertising department.
We do get to feel up close and personal with sporting heroes in an altered sense these days, which might make raw, genuine behind-the-scenes footage feel less necessary. But if there is one thing you can guarantee, it is that life will have changed again, in some way, a couple of decades from now. And no matter how ubiquitous cameras are these days, candid video has a quality Instagram can’t quite match.
Yes, future audiences would definitely get a kick out of witnessing all of our foibles, like our strange and limited iPhone 11s operating on “only” 5G, before getting into cars that are actually driven by people and tapping away on something called Twitter.
“Every single person that’s saying you would love to play with a guy like Michael Jordan, you’re so full of st” 😅@clubtrillion and @tatefrazier drop some truth on what it would’ve been like to play with MJ pic.twitter.com/Gxg9jleHzX
— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) May 14, 2020
That would be the paraphernalia that marked the time and epoch in which this hypothetical documentary took place; the key to the story, though, would be in how deep and timeless the athlete’s story was. And there is no shortage of worthy candidates, as proven when I reached out to a number of friends in the sports industry to see who they would most want to watch.
“Kobe Bryant would be an ideal selection, given his adoration of M.J.,” Lance Pugmire, boxing writer for The Athletic, told me. “His challenging road from high school draft pick, the Colorado criminal case, his split with (Shaquille O’Neal) and his elevation to becoming his own man before his untimely death.”
Bryant was a popular choice, and his legend will live on into American sporting history, undimmed and maybe even enhanced by the utter tragedy of his premature passing.
Yahoo Sports national columnist Dan Wetzel plumped for another modern icon, also instantly recognizable by just one name.
“Tiger,” Wetzel texted. “Has to be the raw truth, and very broad in scope, though.”
1. Tiger 2. Bird 3. Gretzky 4. Favre 5. Montana https://t.co/YLgVH1K7i0
— Doug Gottlieb (@GottliebShow) May 18, 2020
“I could make a pretty good argument for (Woods), (Cristiano) Ronaldo, (Usain) Bolt and Alex Rodriguez,” Matthew Futterman, New York Times senior writer and bestselling author of Running to the Edge, said, “Because there are layers of fascination with their lives off the field of competition.
“But if form holds and Serena Williams remains stuck on 23 Grand Slam titles, one away from the record? Looking back on all her missed chances, often through self-destruction, combined with her simmering stridency off the court? That will make her story as compelling as it gets.”
Gripping storylines thrive on the intoxicating blend of triumph and disaster, and characters whose career arc has been laced with both make for outstanding, edge-of-the-seat stuff. Yet there’s also something that draws us to the rare breed who can somehow sustain ongoing success.
“For me, the ideal choice would be Lionel Messi,” FOX Sports’ college hoops expert Michael DeCourcy told me. “To be the dominant figure in the world’s most popular sport while lacking the obvious physical advantages that so many other superstars enjoy — how did he make that happen? How did he sustain it, and how much did the rivalry with Ronaldo push him? And how much has it hurt that he never carried his country to the top of the mountain in the way he did with his club so often?”
Five years ago today, this Leo #Messi strike gave Barça the 2014-15 @LaLigaEN title, the first of the @LUISENRIQUE21 era.#OnThisDay | May 17, 2015 pic.twitter.com/zYNkdaQEpr
— FC Barcelona (from 🏠) (@FCBarcelona) May 17, 2020
For Craig Harrington, head coach of the Utah Royals in the National Women’s Soccer League, it is a celebrity from American football who got the nod.
“It has got to be Tom Brady,” Harrington said, via telephone. “In a way, it is kind of perfect in that he was almost opposite to Jordan, coming into the NFL without any fanfare, and being not a great natural athlete, yet having the same success — six titles. Then you also have a chance for an amazing last chapter with Tampa Bay — a last dance, if you like.”
Ryan Nguyen, an oncology fellow based in Chicago, has managed to squeeze in the episodes of “The Last Dance” amid his hectic schedule during the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally from the L.A. area, Nguyen was in no doubt as to who would be the ideal topic:
“Kobe Bryant. No brainer. He was the closest thing to Jordan, and his death actually makes his story more compelling, in a very sad way. The post-retirement storyline about empowering women’s basketball and winning an Oscar are a better story than MJ, too.”
The five-most mentioned people during #TheLastDance per @Twitter:
1. Michael Jordan2. LeBron James3. Kobe Bryant4. Dennis Rodman5. Scottie Pippen pic.twitter.com/zbCpSxz9cO
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 18, 2020
Chances are that we will soon see more and more sporting documentaries, with the market popularity of the concept having been proven beyond doubt. Bryant’s final season was indeed shadowed by a camera crew … just sayin’.
Whoever the focal point, the energy, thought process and gravitas that is required to become one of the eternal greats is something most of us can only imagine, and being able to take a closer look gives us an appreciation for it.
There were reasons why the Jordan series took so long to come out, and it added to the anticipation. Combine that with these oddest of times and all that vacant space in the calendar and it generated a perfect storm for such a show.
But the truth is when it comes to seeing a deeper look at athletic brilliance and enjoying it immensely, we don’t need to wait 22 years. And we don’t need to be in lockdown. We just need to love sports.