Kieran Shannon: There will never be better than Michael Jordan - 23 takeaways from The Last Dance

Just like the season it captured for posterity, The Last Dance was a marathon that still left you wanting more - but gave so much. Here are 23 takeaways from revisiting the career of an athlete and the season of a team like no other.
Kieran Shannon: There will never be better than Michael Jordan - 23 takeaways from The Last Dance
In his breathtaking career, Michael Jordan was always mindful that somewhere in the crowd someone was seeing him for the first time. Picture: Nuccio Dinuzzo/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Just like the season it captured for posterity, The Last Dance was a marathon that still left you wanting more – but gave so much.

Here are 23 takeaways from revisiting the career of an athlete and the season of a team like no other.

1.

Thank whatever god – Jehovah, Jesus, Jordan – you pray to that this was made – and that it was made in Michael Jordan’s lifetime and in ours.

A little over four years ago, I got a call from my brother, who I’d watched so many 1990s eastern conference and NBA finals with me into the late hours on either Channel Four or a German channel on our Sky dish; indeed those broadcasts are so ingrained in his memory, he can still recite in perfect German the number of one of the ‘dating’ phone lines that was advertised.

Prince had just died, and so was all over the radio and TV, same as Michael Jackson seven years earlier. Both deaths had devastated us, prompting us to ponder: who else that we’ve never personally known could trigger such a sense of mourning from us?

There was only one other: Michael Jordan. He was the other great soundtrack – and what a soundtrack his career compelled Jason Hehir’s team to compile – of our teens and twenties.

Since then Kobe Bryant has died. Maybe his imminent induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame would have provoked a grand re-appreciation of his greatness, but not on the scale that his passing did.

Thankfully over the last month we’ve been able to again watch and celebrate Jordan without an intervention from the Grim Reaper – albeit it took a pandemic for so many to enjoy it.

We’ve some quibbles about the independence and journalism of The Last Dance, but that’s all they are.

Like the season and central character it covered, it was imperfect but ultimately a triumph, even masterful. Ken Burns might disagree but we disagree with Ken. If the choice was between this being made and not being made, then it was no choice.

2.

Ultimately the depiction of Jerry Krause is a fair and rounded one.

From its opening, TLD establishes the source of tension in this story is between the franchise’s general manager and its top two players and coach.

While the behind-the-scenes access didn’t quit show as much as we had hoped or anticipated, it did capture Jordan’s incessant, demeaning jibes about Krause’s height and weight more devastatingly than even the best books on Jordan have.

It also captured Krause’s essence: the Napoleon complex and because he didn’t get enough credit, he sought too much credit. He gets his props here. That only for him Phil Jackson probably never coaches in the NBA.

Even Scottie Pippen, who long despised him, in the end hails him as among “the greatest GMs” in NBA history. Not Jordan though. In a book upon his 1998 retirement, Jordan admitted, “I was wrong about the Bill Cartwright-Charles Oakley trade.” In TLD he won’t even give poor Krause that.

3.

Look out for the late developers.

Pippen was only a walk-on with an NAIA team. Dennis Rodman was also playing for an unfashionable NAIA college at 24 years of age. Like Steph Curry who he’d coach, Steve Kerr was offered only one D1 college scholarship.

Even Jordan didn’t make his varsity high school team as a sophomore.

4.

The genius of Phil Jackson.

His reputation was slightly tarnished in recent years, between his comments about LeBron’s “posse” and his failed stint in the New York Knicks front office. But this restores him to his proper place in the public memory and NBA pantheon.

5.

The great minds he had around him – placed by Krause.

Tex Winter devised the triangle offence. Jim Stack identified Rodman was only acting out in San Antonio, that a Jackson could handle him.

6.

The myth-busting, as well as myth-making Michael Jordan, did.

Upon Jordan being drafted by the Bulls, Jackson’s old Knicks championship teammate Walt Frazier opined that “Michael’s gotta realise he’s not seven foot so he’s not going to carry a team in the NBA.” Then he had to put up with claims he wasn’t a winner like a Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. That one has aged as well as Walt’s take.

7.

“Winning has a price. Leadership has a price.”

As discussed in last week’s column, this issue is much more complex than those who sent that segment viral, but it was arguably the most compelling segment of the whole show for being pure Jordan.

8.

The 1984-1997 footage is almost as good as that from ’97-98.

Hehir put together a serious team around him, including the archivist from the OJ: Made in America series, Nina Kristic. She duly dug up gold. Krause and Pippen dancing on the plane after vanquishing the Pistons in ’91; Jordan in the car in Barcelona confiding that whoever insists he has to showcase Reebok on the podium is “in for a f***ing surprise”.

But the most affecting is from Father’s Day, 1996. From one of those late Sunday nights with my brother, I had seen Jordan collapse onto the floor with the Larry O’Brien trophy. But until TLD, we had never heard him on that floor – bellowing tears for his absent father.

9.

Just how exhausting the 1992-93 season was for him – combined with the murder – not mere death – of his father.

10.

The understated but vital role of mentorship.

Watching the other outstanding documentary of a sporting icon of the last 12 months – Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona – it was striking how there was no support structure or person to guide and protect the little Argentinian from all the chaos that surrounded him.

He might have had a Tim Glover in trainer Fernando Signorini but tragically he hadn’t a David Falk. He didn’t have a Dean Smith.

11.

Jordan’s remarkable sense of obligation to the fans. A friend caught Shaquille O’Neal during his stint with the Phoenix Suns. He was unimpressed. Shaq was “just clocking it in.” Jordan never did. As Glover and Ahmad Rashad noted, Jordan was very mindful that somewhere in the crowd someone was seeing him for the first time.

Like April Fool’s Day, 1997, when me, my German-speaking brother and our other brother caught him go 8 for 11 in just 27 minutes in a blowout against the Boston Celtics.

12.

The perceived slights to sustain that competitive fire.

13.

Isiah Thomas deserved a fairer portrayal, as explained here after episode four on the Walkoff. Even Jordan later in episode five hailing him as the best point guard ever after Magic Johnson doesn’t atone for his omission from the Dream Team.

Or Hehir not putting it to Jordan that he’s on the record to Jack McCallum that he did seek Thomas’s non-selection.

14.

How Teflon is Chuck Daly? There was serious cognitive dissonance on the part of both Daly and Jordan in Barcelona, that the man who okayed the Jordan Rules was okay to coach the Dream Team but Isiah wasn’t fine to play for it.

15.

Who got fired from Adidas?

16.

Jordan hated losing but he didn’t fear it.

Although Jordan’s 6-0 record in the finals is often cited as why he is the GOAT over LeBron, Jordan himself made it clear after the 1997 finals that he and his teammates had won the right to defend the title until they lost.

Which meant, essentially, he wanted his Bulls career to finish on a loss. He was hell-bent on making the 1986 playoffs and facing the Boston Celtics, even though his team had no chance of winning.

As he’d famously say in an ad, his willingness to fail was the reason he’d succeed. Baseball, the mythical 1999 season – he could accept ‘failing’; it was the not trying he found “maddening”.

17.

It’s disappointing Jordan wasn’t more of an activist but he advanced the struggle in his own way.

Although it was an off-the-cuff – even witty – remark that Republicans buy sneakers too, TLD reminded us Jessie Helms wasn’t just any kind of Republican.

He was the outwardly racist kind, and in part because of Jordan’s passivity, could remark upon his re-election as senator for North Carolina that there would be “no joy in Mudville”. Overall, Hehir dealt with the issue in a balanced way.

Jordan wasn’t an activist like previous black athletes but he also wasn’t played in the boardroom like they were.

18.

How grinding an NBA season is – and how durable Jordan was.

Did you already forget Paris was where this season started? That the Bulls lost their first four games on the road? Yet Jordan never missed any of the Bulls’ 82 regular season games.

19.

The toughness and brilliance of Jordan – and Pippen – in Game Six in Utah.

The ultimate Refuse To Lose performance from two proud champions. Pippen’s back was out. Jordan’s legs were gone. But their pride was still intact. Five championships hadn’t sated them.

20.

No athlete was more charismatic or cooler than Michael Jordan.

21.

No basketball player has ever been better – or ever will.

It is to LeBron’s credit that he has even made it a conversation again. Basketball is better now but it will never have a better – or at least a greater – player.

22.

It was over.

In TLD, we learn near the end Jerry Reinsdorf offered Jackson to coach the 1998-99 season. Jordan still wishes they got the band back together for another last dance.

But Jackson knew better. He had enough, the same way Jordan had in ’93. It was “a good time to go”.

They’d squeezed every last drop to win that title in ’98; Jordan calculated he had to take and nail that shot over Bryon Russell or they’d have likely lost Game Seven as well. Rodman had gone AWOL after Game Three!

They barely held it together with him for that third season; there was no chance they’d have got it away with it once more.

Just as the Celtics and Pistons realised against a hungrier opponent they had suddenly got old, the Bulls would have too. Jackson would discover that twice in LA with Kobe. His nemesis, Pat Riley, learned that there as well.

On stepping away from Magic Johnson & Co in 1990, he’d write, “It was simply time for us to sit in the same room, look each other in the eye, and say, ‘We had a great run. All of us. Now, instead of wounding each other, let’s say thanks and goodbye.’”

Jackson felt the same about the Bulls. And though it’s a tragedy of sorts that the sport’s GOAT didn’t get to play the sport for another year, in an odd way it was better for the history of the sport and his legacy that it ended up when and how it did.

If Jackson doesn’t take a sabbatical for that 1998-99 season, he doesn’t come back refreshed to lead Shaq and Kobe to their three-peat. And Jordan’s last shot in a Bulls’ uniform isn’t that perfect follow, frozen in time forever. Maybe they did split up prematurely, like The Beatles, but it saved them and us from them making a no Line On the Horizon.

They finished with a Let It Be. So Let It Be. Even you, Michael.

23.

‘It started with hope.’

The series ends just like it begins; a camera on a middle-aged man, and voice of a young man just drafted to the NBA, speaking about his hope that the Chicago Bulls someday will be respected the way a Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers are.

Well, he saw to that. Some man.

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