Kieran Shannon: 'The Last Dance' missing a significant step or two

Kieran Shannon: 'The Last Dance' missing a significant step or two
Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls celebrates 14 June after winning game six of the NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, UT. (ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP via Getty Images)

For something that people wondered and worried if it could stretch out to a full 10 hours, The Last Dance is leaving quite a bit out.

For the most part, there is no harm in that. It can’t cover everything, nor should it try to cover everything.

Want to find even more about Dennis Rodman’s troubled upbringing? ESPN already have done a 30 for 30 on him, as recently as last year, or go order his 1997 autobiography Bad As I Wanna Be from the Book Depository.

Curious to learn even more about Phil Jackson’s backstory and his days coaching in the cockroach leagues? Again, read and enjoy any of his many collaborations with his Boswell, Charlie Rosen, or the masterly Sacred Hoops with Hugh Delehanty. The Last Dance is merely the course’s main text book. There’s a whole library of additional recommended reading and viewing to explore, the Jordan canon only outsized by that devoted to the other great post-war icon of American sport, Muhammad Ali.

Some omissions though are more careless and less forgivable than others.

Four episodes in to the viewing and broadcasting of Jason Hehir’s 10-episode documentary and it is already clearly a triumph of filmmaking. The montages and soundtrack, like choosing LL’s — as opposed to the other MJ’s — declaration of I’m Bad to go with the 63-point Jesus-disguised-as-Jordan statement game against the Celtics in ’86, or Prince’s Partyman accompanying the aerial acrobatics of the real human highlight film of the late ‘80s (sorry, Dominique). The overview camera shot and Beautiful-Mind-like graphics to illustrate the workings of the Triangle Offence and the brilliance of that other chalkboard genius, Tex Winter. Rodman breaking down the science of rebounding, something his own documentary didn’t go near. The new yarns and nuggets for even the most veteran and forensic of Jordan scholars to delight in, like Ron Harper throwing Lenny Wilkens under the bus for not assigning him to guard Jordan for The Shot in Cleveland in ’89.

As for its journalism though, the jury on The Last Dance is still out. While it’s not even half-time in about the nearest thing we have now to live sport and Hehir and his team are probably a few points up on that score, they have already conceded a bad goal which would give you concern about their defence for the second half.

So far, the biggest flashpoint, the storyline with the greatest tension — more than the on-running impasse between Jerry Krause and the Jordan-Pippen-Jackson triumvirate — has been the Bulls-Piston rivalry, climaxing in the Walk Off.

As you will now know from this revisiting — and sometimes revisionism — of NBA history, the Bulls for three consecutive seasons were knocked out of the NBA playoffs by the particularly physical Detroit Pistons before sweeping their nemesis, 4-0, in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals. In the closing seconds of Game Four, with the outcome already long decided, the Pistons’ leading players, such as Bill Laimbeer and most notably Isiah Thomas, filed past the Chicago Bulls bench, failing to stop and congratulate Jordan and the rest of the Bulls starters.

It created an outcry at the time, had serious ramifications the following season with Thomas’s omission from the Dream Team, and as was clear from Jordan in Episode Four, still rankles and resonates now, almost 30 years on.

After he was shown on an iPad a clip from a fellow interviewee for this docuseries — a device that worked beautifully in episode one with Jordan laughing affectionately at his mother reading aloud a letter he sent her as a cash-strapped college student — Jordan surmised this from Isiah Thomas’s testimony on the Walkout. “I know it’s all bullshit. You can show me anything you want. There’s no way you can convince me he [Thomas] wasn’t an asshole.” 

In the clip we saw and Jordan would have seen, Thomas noted that the Boston Celtics of Larry Bird & Co had walked past Detroit’s bench without a handshake when the torch had previously been passed from one Eastern conference champion to another. There was no outrage then. In hindsight Thomas says he’d have shaken hands for sure with Jordan but as the Celtics had shown, it just wasn’t the done thing back then.

To be fair to Hehir, he did resurrect footage of Bird walking past the Pistons’ bench in the dying moments of their 1988 series while Adrian Dantley was still taking a free-throw.

And to be fair to Jordan, we also got to see how dignified he was at the end of the 1990 Eastern conference finals, shaking hands with the Pistons straight after the game and conducting a remarkably gracious on-court interview in which he expressed his congrats to the victors and also his optimism for the Bulls’ future.

And to be fair to everyone, what Thomas and most of his fellow Pistons did was unacceptable (some Detroit players, like Joe Dumars and John Salley did stop to congratulate the Bulls). There’s no getting away from that.

But given the context, it was also understandable. Still unacceptable, but understandable.

We do not know if Thomas made this point again in his sitdown interview with Hehir for this documentary, but in ESPN’s 30 for 30 on the Pistons, Bad Boys, Thomas and a couple of his former teammates reminded us that Jordan and Jackson had been hardly sporting in their comments on the eve of that Game Four.

At that point it was clear to everyone that there was no way back for the Pistons. It was just a matter if they were swept or not. Either way it was going to be their last dance in Detroit. And as the clock ticked down in that game, the Pistons’ veterans turned it more into a retirement party than a funeral, embracing each other as one by one they were taken out of the game by coach Chuck Daly in front of their adoring fans. “What we were doing was giving respect to one another,” Thomas would say in Bad Boys. “As a brother who had been down with me in this struggle, in this battle — thank you.” More than that, Laimbeer in a conclave with Thomas and others on that bench reminded them that if it was a funeral, Jordan in the press the previous day had been dancing on their prepared grave.

“The Pistons dirtied up the game,” he had told the media converged around him. “Outside of Detroit, I think most people will be happy the Pistons are gone.” In Bad Boys, Thomas said, “I had never seen a team speak about a champion they were getting to dethrone that way.” 

This column does not known if Thomas made that same point to Hehir as he did to Bad Boys’ director Zak Levitt. Regardless, Hehir should have posed it to Jordan, either by showing him on his IPad that Bad Boys clip or just in the form of a question. Can you see why a proud group of champions took exception to your comments on the eve of their dethroning? In retrospect was that sportsmanlike behaviour from you?

We know that The Last Dance ultimately only proceeded on Jordan’s say-so and that thus he must have some editorial influence. But we have also been assured in its pre-publicity that he is asked the hard questions about aspects of his life he has previously circumvented. The aforementioned omission raises doubts about whether we’ll get this in the remaining episodes.

There’ll likely be more from Thomas in the next episode dealing with the 1992 Dream Team but it’s not as if they’ll be delving more into what led to the Walk Off, only its consequences. In episodes three and four there wasn’t a single clip of his extraordinary skill. And while it can be said that he already has told his side of the story in a 30 for 30 with Bad Boys, Hehir can hardly reach for that excuse here. The Last Dance may not be the last word or final word on the Walk Off, but as the biggest word and audience on it, it will be the loudest and therefore the longest in Thomas’s lifetime. He deserved a better and fairer depiction than the portrayal of him in episode four the other night.

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