Demanding NBA legend Michael Jordan continues to walk on air

Demanding NBA legend Michael Jordan continues to walk on air
Photo by Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

In the absence of live sports, the appearance of a Michael Jordan flick on Netflix caused quite the stir over the last couple of days.

What was a surprise was how eerily prescient it was: Who else remembered that Space Jam featured sportspeople nervous of changing together in the same dressing-room for fear of mysterious infection?

Just kidding. The Last Dance is a 10-part documentary series on Jordan’s career which was due to screen in the summer but appeared on Netflix last Monday in part because of the thirst for sports content.

Is it any good? It’s very good, though it’s worth pointing out that we’ve only seen two episodes out of 10 so far, and nobody calls a game a classic based on the opening exchanges.

Still, the signs are very promising. The dramatis personae from the time covered by the documentary’s exclusive footage, the 1997-8 NBA season, all seem to be present, as are plenty of supporting characters, including two former Presidents of the US. On that note, Barack Obama — who was a community organiser in Chicago as Jordan was starring for the local NBA team — seems a natural inclusion. Bill Clinton — so far — just pipes up with a random observation about one of Jordan’s team-mates, Scottie Pippen, who starred for an obscure college in his constituency.

(Before complaining about this, a confession: Having done a bit of ringing up people to cajole them to appear in documentaries in my time, and quite a bit of waiting for a response, if one of those responses began with ‘please hold the line for Bill Clinton’ I’m sure I’d find some pretext to include him in the film.)

The heart of the documentary, however, is Jordan himself. Older, heavier, oddly red-eyed, he offers most of his observations from a comfortable vantage point, tilted backwards in an armchair at the centre of a vast, white, sun-splashed room.

Often his right hand has a tumbler (of whiskey?) nearby, and more than one observer has pointed out that the level of liquid in the glass sometimes seems out of sequence with Jordan’s contributions.

Famously — or notoriously — challenging with team-mates, Jordan dispenses judgement in best Michael Corleone style, one characteristic example a description of Pippen as “selfish” for having an operation so late in the off-season he missed the team’s opening games when play restarted.

Jordan’s reclining indolence is offset by one of the documentary’s selling points: A vivid account of his on-court brilliance. When he burst on the scene in the early 80s he was a meteor of speed and grace, and the players who encountered him then pay due tribute.

Here the prize either goes to Larry Bird, describing Jordan’s 63 points against the Boston Celtics in 1986 (“That wasn’t Michael Jordan out there, that was God disguised as Michael Jordan.”) or James Worthy on Jordan’s arrival to play college basketball for North Carolina (“I was better than he was. For about two weeks.”).

There are plenty of talking points to mine from the episodes, but their effect is already being felt in the wider world.

Broadcast on ESPN last Sunday, the episodes are already the two most-viewed original content broadcasts on ESPN Networks since 2004 as well as the most-watched telecast among adults 18-34 and 18-49 since sports halted across broadcast and cable networks.

In addition, Nike launched the new Air Jordan 5 “Fire Red” on the Nike SNKRS app... at the same time as the episodes were broadcast.

They sold out in minutes.

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