Where have you gone, Michael Jordan? A nation and the world turns its lonely eyes to you, writes
In the hours and even minutes before those planes torpedoed into the World Trade Center, the lead story on every news as well as sports bulletin had been the imminent return of Michael Jordan at 38 to the NBA; while he had stopped just short of repeating his famous line that announced his 1995 return — ‘I’m back’ — he had hinted just as much to reporters after a daily workout game in Chicago the previous evening.
By the time he did confirm his return after a three-year hiatus, now in the uniform of the Washington Wizards, the world had changed but its fascination with him had not.
In a quirk of the fixtures schedule, his first game back was in New York itself and the world’s most iconic indoor arena, Madison Square Garden.
Jordan’s performance was underwhelming that night, as was the match itself, but the sense of occasion was not.
In advance of the game, Jordan had announced that he would be donating his entire season’s salary to recovery
effort and the victims of the attacks.
While it was just a fraction of his income and worth at the time, it was a thought and gesture that counted in a sensitive moment.
The day of the game he met children left fatherless in the wake of the attacks. Then at the game itself there was a sense of appreciation among all in attendance and watching on TV — there was no streaming back then — that went beyond basketball.
As a writer with Basketball Forever would put it: “Jordan may only have been a diversion, but a necessary and welcome one.
"Sport is all about escapism, a simple detour for society to take before returning to the real world. In that context, then, who better to provide a distraction than Jordan?”
Almost 20 years on and ESPN, Netflix — boy, is there streaming now — and the world all over seems to have come to a similar conclusion in the midst of another world-stopping crisis.
The day before yesterday, ESPN — itself one of many institutions, as David Halberstam’s 2000 opus Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made explains, that the phenomenal popularity of Jordan and his league had transformed — released a statement.
“As society navigates this time without live sports,” it began, “viewers are still looking to the sports world to escape and enjoy a collective experience.”
And so, due to popular demand, their forthcoming 10-part documentary The Last Dance, featuring never-seen-before all-access footage of the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls’ successful bid to win a second three-peat, was being brought forward.
What had been scheduled to premiere in June following the NBA finals is now being moved up to April 19 in America, and available to the rest of the world the following day on Netflix.
Every Monday two episodes will be premiered, all the way through to May 17-18.
The sports documentary genre has elevated itself to art over the last 30 years, starting in earnest with Hoop Dreams, a ground-breaking longitudinal masterpiece about two teenagers from the same city in thrall to Jordan at the time — he was the hoop dream, to play in the NBA like Mike.
In 1996, the same summer Jordan was on the big screen alongside Bugs Bunny, film festivals were showcasing the wonderful When We Were Kings, which, like The Last Dance, featured footage from 22 years previous of another American and global cultural icon at his mercurial and charismatic height.
Another milestone then was ESPN’s remarkable 30 for 30 series, which featured Jordan Rides The Bus, Ron Sheldon’s lookback at when Jordan opted to play minor league baseball in the wake of his father’s murder.
Yet as acclaimed as they all were, and as ambitious and magnificent as something like the five-part OJ: Made in America was, it is safe to say The Last Dance, ever since its first trailer was aired last Christmas, has been the most anticipated sports documentary ever.
Recent trailers have further whetted the appetite.
One issued this past week begins with the opening notes of the Alan Parson Project’s Sarius, probably the most evocative piece of music in sports since Bill Conti’s theme track for Rocky.
Another showcased the talking heads that feature in it, with the strap: Now Everyone Has Something To Say.
All the big hitters are there. Obama — who knows, possibly to note that he probably would never have been president had Jordan not made the black face more acceptable to white America, with his posters featuring on so many suburban kids’ bedroom walls. A middle-aged Magic Johnson. The league’s godfather, Pat Riley. Its commissioner Adam Silver. And tragically, a tracksuit-hooded and so alive Kobe, water bottle in hand.
It has quite a lot to live up to as well as to cover. It can’t just be a reheat of old yarns thrown in with the new footage; it has to tell as well as show old Jordan scholars and fans something new.
His broader impact on the culture, as Obama’s presence suggests, has to be explored. So too the backstory of the remarkable cast of supporting actors: Phil Jackson, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen.
But though the project only commenced and the 1997-98 archive was only resurrected on Jordan’s say-so and go-ahead — possibly, in the wake of LeBron James being mentioned in the same orbit as him, to remind multiple generations who the real GOAT always will be — it cannot airbrush the complexities of Jordan and some of the less flattering aspects of his character and legacy: The gambling, the goading, and how he declined to use his Ali-like status to champion black and even human rights.
But to reduce him as just as some vacuous baller and corporate shill who influenced an impressionable Tiger Woods would also be an inaccurate portrayal.
Unlike Ali, Jordan, by surrounding himself with a David Falk instead of a Don King, was never played in the boardroom; there he commanded the respect of white corporate America and advanced the cause of the black athlete and thus black America; even now, as the only black owner of an NBA franchise, he is a trailblazer.
No athlete of such standing had been more eloquent or open and thus more quoted about the mindset of high and peak performance.
The reason he was so marketable wasn’t simply because he was so dominant, skilful and spectacularly athletic but because he was so charismatic, intelligent and when the occasion required it, charming.
Justice has been done to Jordan before in book form: Halberstam’s Playing for Keeps, which begins with the preseason of that tumultuous last season and dance with the Bulls, is a magnificent study of his story and influence, following other fine works such as Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules and Rebound, Jordan’s moving collaboration with Bob Greene on his season-and-a-bit playing baseball to honour his murdered father.
This project looks to be in good hands. Jason Hehir has previously directed a film about another fascinating 1980s icon in Andre the Giant, as well as The Fab Five, a pulsating two-hour piece about another early 1990s basketball phenomenon.
Three years he’s been working on this.
In his concluding words on Jordan 20 years ago, Halberstam wrote: “Jordan seemed sometimes to be as much an explorer as an athlete, explorer in terms of going beyond previously accepted limits of what was humanly possible, and sometimes by dint of physical excellence and unmatched willpower, pushing those limits forward that much more.
"That, for the millions who watched him over the years, was no small gift.”
Now, all these years on with The Last Dance, he’ll again be a gift to millions more.