The Early Lead: The Last Dance builds like a slow vacation, but eventually captivates during a time of need
By BRANDON HURLEY
The best part of most vacations is before the tires even peel off the driveway. The final moments leading up to and during departure are intoxicating. All our worries have evaporated. Yard work is temporarily suspended. No chores, no more sales calls or writing for at least a few days. The anticipation ignites your mood, the packing is finally done and it’s time to hit the road for a few hours of windshield karaoke interspersed by predictions of how it’ll all pan out.
In a sense, The ‘Last Dance’ 10-part docuseries on ESPN possess the same aura of the first day of vacation. You could feel the excitement and sense the anticipation. This was the documentary to end all sports debates. The piece that would change our lives, offering a captivating glimpse into a world we actually knew little about.
Once the vacation finally begins, the quicker-than-we’d-like return to realty clock begins to tick. That’s not to say vacations aren’t fun, of course they are, many of them are legendary, but with each activity and passing moment, it signifies how much closer we are to returning to normalcy.
The documentary detailing the rise and fall of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls strikes a shocking resemblance to a family vacation long in the works. And just like our long-awaited escape, we had to navigate our way through a few things to get to the best parts. At first, I was extremely underwhelmed by the first few episodes, but then the pace really picked up, paving the way for some legendary trash talk. When MJ told Reggie Miller to not talk trash to “Black Jesus” in episode nine, the wait was well worth it. Similar to the way things go on ventures to new destinations, it perhaps isn’t what we expected once we arrive, but as we settle in, the picture becomes clearer.
Before we descend any further, allow me to offer up a simple suggestion for those captivated by ESPN’s most recent blockbuster.
Sam Smith’s book on the early 1990s Bulls “The Jordan Rules” is a perfect complement to the Last Dance. It’s referenced in the documentary itself, but that doesn’t do the masterpiece justice. The hypnotizing sub-stories the author pens such a beautiful cocktail of stories while reading it alongside the docuseries. “The Jordan Rules” paints a more complete and vivid picture. Smith tells of how Jordan badly wanted to continue winning scoring titles when Jackson came along, and rebelled constantly, ignoring his new triangle offense. If only ESPN would have dove deeper into that.
His Airness is perhaps the most interesting athlete for many reasons, but what I find most riveting is how much of a diva and a fierce competitor he was. He wasn’t just a pain to deal with, but a complete asshole and often, a success-starved maniac. And you didn’t want to piss him off or he’d personally make you pay, whether you were an opponent or even a teammate.
A disappointing feeling crept through my mind as I watched the opening four episodes. It seemed like we were witnessing a feel-good documentary with various episodes diving into the lives of Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson, MJ and Scottie Pippen. While those segments were interesting and shed light on the varying team relationships, it wasn’t exactly what I expected. This is where Smith’s book forms a perfect companion. He explains the fractured relationship Jordan had with most of his teammates and how he alienated most of them. These same coworkers often spoke out against MJ in the press. This omission was sorely disappointing. I wanted MJ’s reactions. We needed the details of Jordan and Jackson’s early relationship struggles. More of MJ and his teammates hate for Jerry Krause.
It felt like a tease, and rightfully so. We needed something we could really sink our teeth into, and we got it from those final four episodes. That’s when things really caught fire. We found out the Jordan “Flu Game” in the 1997 Finals wasn’t an illness or a hangover at all, but intentional food poisoning from a pizza joint. Those 38 points in 44 minutes are still difficult to process, even now. We found out about the time Air Jordan lit up some dude named LaBradford Smith just because he was mad. This is what I craved and they gave it to me. Overall, the Last Dance was a welcomed vacation from life. It wasn’t the best trip ever, but it was certainly worth our time. There was nothing groundbreaking about how it was either filmed or produced, but it kept my attention. Kind of like a trip to a place you’ve visited many times before, only to find a new restaurant, shop or park to explore. The Last Dance had that familiar, but occasionally new feel to it, and it’s definitely something us sports nuts needed in a time like this. I learned enough for my liking, and I’ll never tire hearing stories from dudes that can back up the trash talk. That’s just plain bad ass, and the Chicago Bulls dynasty was exactly that.