Michael, Scottie, Dennis, Phil and Steve. Like the members of a new, wildly popular boyband, these names are permanently etched in my mind after viewing the Netflix sports docuseries The Last Dance. Despite complete ignorance of anything remotely to do with sports and only newly sentient at the age of three when the events of the series take place, the Michael Jordan-produced show has proved to be one of the most addictive viewing experiences of the year, channelling the fast-paced unpredictability of basketball, launching a thousand memes and provoking high-profile backlash from some of those featured – as well as a spate of new fashion inspirations.
Telling the story of Jordan’s final season with the seemingly unbeatable Chicago Bulls from 1997 to 98, intercut with footage of his rapid ascension to become one of the greatest players of the American sport in the across the previous decade, the show’s premise is deceptively simple. With Jordan granted editorial control, it initially seems an egocentric hagiography on his part, a retelling of the well-trodden story of a lone hero, battling against all odds to become the champion of his chosen pursuit.
Yet, from the very first shot – of present-day Jordan looking like a much-loved sofa cushion slumped in an armchair, red-eyed and permanently flanked by a tumbler of whisky – The Last Dance gives away far more than its producer had perhaps hoped. The kinetic editing – cutting back and forth between the 97/98 season, Jordan’s early career and contemporary analysis – soon highlights his own contradictions. Here is a man who fashioned himself into one of the archetypal sporting leaders, and yet he is also so fiercely competitive as to pursue rivalries to the potential detriment of his team – punching teammate Steve Kerr in practice, for instance, or refusing to intercede when key player Scottie Pippen leaves in protest at his comparatively pitiful pay.
What soon becomes apparent is that Jordan might be sociopathically bent on winning at any cost, but it is a price his team is willing to pay to be able to bask in his success. It is a revealing exposition of the competitive psyche. And it isn’t as if his teammates aren’t obscenely talented too, but Jordan is so gifted and relentless that no one can hope to compare – they are the mere firmament to his central, blazing sun.
The joy of The Last Dance lies in the fact that an entire follow-up could be made about Jordan’s teammates: kindly, determined Kerr, enduring baritone Pippen, heartfelt eccentric Dennis Rodman and shamanic coach Phil Jackson. Not to mention, reams of sartorial analysis on Jordan’s constantly ballooning square suits and gold hoops, Rodman’s mercurial hair and under-appreciated haute couture dressing, even Jackson’s painfully high-waisted trousers.
Despite cracks in Jordan’s self-presentation allowing the fraught realities of his leadership to shine through, there are still omissions. His personal life, including a worrying fixation on gambling and a highly publicised divorce, are scrupulously avoided. And this is clearly a man’s world; leaving Jordan to feel compelled to play immediately after the murder of his father and Kerr’s inability to emotionally connect with his captain when his own father was killed.
In a year full of soapy sports docuseries, such as All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur and The Test, serving as advertising as much as anything else, the distance of hindsight allows The Last Dance to be more about its people than its brands. As the thousands of hours of edited-down court-side footage shows, this is an unrelenting, adrenalised sport and in The Last Dance we witness its intoxicating effect on the players, as well as its lasting consequences after the glamour of victory has faded. Then we are left with Michael, Scottie, Dennis, Phil and Steve, older now, all chuckling at their bygone antics but still revealing their deep-seated need for recognition, to be considered the greatest.
• The Last Dance is on Netflix.