Los Angeles was on a hair-trigger when, on June 2 1991, the Chicago Bulls rolled into town. They were there to play the LA Lakers in game one of the NBA finals. As ever, the Bulls were led by the mercurial Michael Jordan, an alchemist on the court and one of the most famous athletes in the world.
But three-pointers and rebounds were far from the minds of many Los Angelenos. Always on a trip-wire, racial tensions in the city had ratcheted up following the vicious beating of innocent African-American Rodney King. Twelve months later, after four LAPD officers were found innocent of assaulting King, riots would sweep LA.
Against this roiling backdrop, Bulls shooting guard Craig Hodges came to Jordan with a proposal. They should, on behalf of the African-American community, take a stand and boycott the game. Jordan looked Hodges in the eye and told him he was crazy.
Hodges doesn’t feature in The Last Dance, the ESPN/Netflix documentary that has dethroned Tiger King as the binge-watch sensation of the lockdown era. He isn’t even mentioned in the 10-part series that has drawn praise and criticism in equal measure.
The Last Dance is undeniably gripping. It chronicles Jordan’s final season with the Bulls in 1997 and 1998, as they strove to complete their second three-in-a row of NBA championships. They did so even as the club’s owners made plans to break up an ageing team.
But like all the best sports documentaries The Last Dance isn’t really about sport. The series is a portrait of Jordan as a flawed American icon, an inquiry into the fast-changing nature of celebrity in the Nineties and a forensic look at the thin line between success and failure. It’s heartbreaking, thrilling, hilarious. And, even if you can’t tell a point guard from a pint of milk, completely addictive, too.
Much of the credit must obviously go to director Jason Hehir, whose previous credits include HBO’s film about Andre the Giant and, ahem, Michael Bublé Meets Madison Square Garden. He brings all the rigour of a seasoned documentarian to the subject, using the 97/98 season as a device through which to explore the wider phenomenon of Michael Jordan.
But he was fortunate to be presented with one of the most compelling stories in modern sport. As the 1997 run of games began Jordan, his team-mates, and coach Phil Jackson were about to be shipped out by Bulls “general manager”– the equivalent of a director of football – Jerry Krause.
That year’s push for the title was their final hurrah. “The Last Dance”, Jackson billed it. And with two new episodes released each week, the series has benefitted from a Game of Thrones-style slow burn. Could Jordan rally his team-mates with his combative, take-no-prisoners style? Would bad-boy power forward Dennis Rodman – a sort of rebounding Gazza and future best friend of Kim Jong -un – keep it together? Would Krause topple this sporting empire from within?
But there are more troubling questions, too. Did Hehir tell the tale warts and all? Or has he merely delivered a gritty hagiography of Jordan? The absence of Craig Hodges, dismissed by the Bulls after publicly criticising the team’s star, is regarded by some as a damning indictment.
To be fair to Hehir, his hands were tied. In addition to being the subject of The Last Dance, Jordan is also a producer, via his Jump 23 production company – a fact not revealed in the credits. This has drawn flack from, among others, the doyen of American documentary, Ken Burns.
“If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made, it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “And that’s not the way you do good journalism…and it’s certainly not the way you do good history, my business.”
The problem is that without Jordan The Last Dance could never have seen daylight. Hehir makes extensive use of the more than 500 hours of footage filmed by the NBA of the Bulls and Jordan through the final season. Shot on 16mm over 100 days with unprecedented access, the film has been locked in a vault ever since. Now it's the heart and soul of The Last Dance.
We see the ferociously competitive Jordan stressing out during a coin throwing competition with security guards backstage at the Bulls’s 21,000 capacity United Centre arena. There’s close-up footage of him getting in the faces of his less naturally aggressive team-mates during training.
And when Rodman skips town to party with Hulk Hogan, coach Jackson’s disbelief registers as the camera zooms in. Later the NBA crew follow Rodman as, having returned to Chicago, he tries outrun the media by sneaking out a side-door. Remove all that and there is no documentary.
The reason it has taken 22 years for the footage to come to light is because the NBA, the Chicago Bulls and Jordan himself all had veto over it. The hold-out was Jordan, enjoying living out his retirement in relative obscurity. He had already blocked the release of the footage on several occasions.
But he was finally persuaded by ESPN. The American sports broadcaster had been struck by the positive reception given to Ezra Edelman’s 2016 OJ Simpson documentary, OJ: Made In America. With Jordan and the Bulls it was felt there was potential for an equally gripping yarn to be spun. And yet, even when he finally came on board after two years of discussions, Jordan was not especially gung-ho.
“Why do you want to do this?” Hehir asked Jordan at their first meeting at one of several houses rented for the interviews (Jordan didn’t want to be filmed in his own home).
“I don’t,” Jordan answered.
“When people see some of this footage they're not going to understand why I behaved the way that I behaved,” Jordan replied.
He was referring to the fierce – almost pathological – drive that led him to clash with team-mates. He got in a fight with Steve Kerr, today coach of the all-conquering Golden State Warriors, and constantly harangued players he felt weren’t pulling their weight. Jordan was aware that to some he might come across not so much as a driven leader but a bully.
Hehir told Jordan there would be plenty of opportunity to get across his side of the story during the 10 hours of interviews to which Jordan had agreed. However, the complaint since levelled is that Jordan’s side of events is prioritised over other accounts. That Hehir has essentially delivered a paean to Jordan, acknowledging flaws such as his gambling habit but only to a point.
One of Jordan’s worries was that his words would be twisted. So he insisted on final say on any contentious topic. This is why, whenever rival players such as Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons or Gary Payton from the Seattle SuperSonics, push back against Jordan’s version of events, he is shown the footage on a tablet and given the last word. This isn’t a filming-making device. It’s a contractual stipulation insisted upon by Jordan.
Jordan was also shown the series before it aired – a concession many documentarians would refuse, as Ken Burns points out. Hehir, however, appears grateful for the feedback. “Oftentimes, his notes were just as good if not better than the other partners because he knew what the truth was,” he told Insider.
That isn’t to suggest The Last Dance is a white-wash. Jordan discusses his problems with gambling and his reputation for being hard to play with. He even wrestles with the charge that he was too focused on his career to speak up on behalf of his African-Americans community.
“Republican buy sneakers too,” is the quote that has long haunted Jordan. To his credit, he addresses it in The Last Dance. And for the first time admits to actually having said it (for many years the remarks were widely suspected to apocryphal).
“I don’t think that statement needs to be corrected because I said it in jest on a bus with Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen,” Jordan told Hehir. “It was thrown off the cuff. My mother asked to do a PSA for [North Carolina Senate hopeful] Harvey Gantt, and I said, “Look, Mom, I’m not speaking out of pocket about someone that I don’t know. But I will send a contribution to support him.” Which is what I did.
“I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in. But I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player. I wasn’t a politician when I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That’s where my energy was.”
Here, too, there are claims The Last Dance omits more than it includes. It glosses entirely over Craig Hodges, and his belief that African-American basketball stars had an obligation to publicly condemn Institutionalised racism.
As Hodges knew, there was a long tradition of social protest in American sport. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the biggest basketball star of his generation, for instance, boycotted the 1968 Olympics. Later that baton would be taken up by Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began a nationwide debate when he started kneeling during the US national anthem (and was promptly blacklisted by NFL clubs).
Hodges was a key part of the Bulls team as it won its first two NBA titles. However, his outspokenness didn’t go down well with his teammates. In 1992 he won a three-pointer contest and publicly announced he was donating the $20,000 prize to Chicago charities. He urged his team-mates to stump up similar amounts. They demurred saying they would have to consult their agents.
“I envisioned the Chicago Bulls making history in the most meaningful way. We also had a basketball player [Jordan] whose popularity exceeded that of the pope,” Hodges would write in his autobiography. “If the Bulls spoke in a collective voice during the golden age of professional basketball, the world would listen.”
His dissatisfaction with Jordan eventually made the press. The New York Times ran a story: Hodges Criticises Jordan For His Silence On Issues. He was let go by the Chicago Bulls that summer, his NBA career over. But Hodges does not feature in The Last Dance. Hehir interviews some 101 individuals, Justin Timberlake and Barack Obama among them. There’s no room for Hodges.
Even when The Last Dance touches on Jordan’s dark side, the complaint is that it pulls its punches. Steve Kerr recalls how getting into a scrap with Jordan benefited him and the team – they could put it behind them and push on. This has led to claims of revisionism.
“He was a bully as a teammate and someone who wanted to rip out your soul as an opponent,” argues sportswriter David Zirin in The Nation.
“That he treated those around him so poorly does not make Jordan unique among those deemed geniuses in their craft. Steve Jobs wasn’t exactly warm and cuddly. But The Last Dance lionises this behaviour to an absurd degree. While exposing a new generation to Jordan’s greatness, the filmmakers also project his bullying as critical to his success. Former presidents and Hall of Famers, in tiresome fashion, pay tribute to his 'intensity,' without a thought as to its toxicity.”
The portrayal of Jerry Krause as the villain of the piece has also raised an outcry in some quarters. Krause was, after all, merely carrying out the instructors of Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. One theory is that, as Jordan is now the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, he was reluctant to single out a fellow owner for criticism. Krause, who passed away in 2017, was thus the perfect scapegoat, despite his central part in assembling the all-conquering Bulls of the Nineties.
“If the recollections of Krause feel unfair, the old footage from 1997 shows Krause constantly being belittled to his face by Jordan about his height, weight, and general appearance,” writes Zirin. “Again, this is all presented not only without criticism but with a message that this is part of what made Jordan great.”
Craig Hodges is among those who have spoken out against the documentary, arguing Jordan threw many former team mates “under the bus”. He singled out Jordan’s assertion that Bulls centre Horace Grant was the primary source for journalist Sam Smith’s devastating Jordan exposé, The Jordan Rules, which caused a sensation when it was published in 1992.
“To single Horace out for that, to look at the climate that was going on during the time,” Hodges said, “Who knows the conversations that was happening between Sam (Smith) and MJ that MJ thought was off-the-cuff, and he was writing them down? So, there’s a lot of things to me that are left unsaid that need to be explained, and so if you’re going to point someone out, point them out with facts as opposed to it being innuendo.”
More prosaically, The Last Dance doesn’t tell us what happened next. Jordan stayed true to his word to leave the Bulls if manager Jackson was let go. On January 13 1999, he announced his retirement (his second, following his two years playing minor-league baseball in the mid-Nineties).
But, yet again, he couldn’t stay away. In January 2000 he was unveiled as part-owner and “president of basketball operations” at the Washington Wizards. On September 25 of the following year he lined out with the Wizards, before playing his final NBA game, in Philadelphia, in 2003.
Jackson, for his part, was snapped up by the LA Lakers, where he coached superstars Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. He led them to the 2000 NBA championship and to a further three titles. He then went to the New York Knicks, where his tenure as president was deemed a disaster. He left in 2017 by mutual agreement.
Dennis Rodman joined the LA Lakers after being released by the Bulls. He then left LA after just a year and signed for his hometown team the Dallas Mavericks. However, his behaviour remained erratic and he was released early from his contract.
Dallas guard Steve Nash said that Rodman “never wanted to be [a Maverick]" and therefore was unmotivated”. He later did the rounds in lower leagues, lining out for Fuerza Regia in Mexico and Torpan Pojat in Finland. In 2006 he played three games for the Brighton Bears, beginning with a glamorous tie against Guildford Heat.
After basketball he had a career in reality TV. He appeared on the fourth series of Celebrity Big Brother and, in 2006, as a house-guest on ITV2’s Love Island. In 2013 he visited North Korea for the first time and described Kim Jong-un as a “friend for life”.
“My mission is to break the ice between hostile countries,” Rodman told Sports Illustrated in 2013. “Why it's been left to me to smooth things over, I don't know. Dennis Rodman, of all people. Keeping us safe is really not my job; it's the black guy's [Obama's] job. But I'll tell you this: If I don't finish in the top three for the next Nobel Peace Prize, something's seriously wrong.”
With Jordan having final sign-off, perhaps it’s not surprising The Last Dance refrains from gazing too deeply into his soul. That’s obviously a shame. It also arguably stops us getting a sense of just how determined he was to win at all costs.
Consider his relationship with Phoenix Suns power forward Charles Barkley, one of the other big stars of the era. Ahead of the fourth tie in the 1993 finals series between the Bulls and the Suns Barkley and Jordan went playing golf. Halfway around the course, Jordan presented Barkley with an item of jewellery worth $20,000. On the way back to the clubhouse Bulls coach Johnny Bach asked Jordan why he had given Barkley such an expensive gift.
Jordan smiled. “He won’t get in my way the rest of the series, what’s $20,000 to me? Charles thinks we’re great friends. I hate that fat f—”. Jordan scored 55 in the next game and Barkley chased shadows all night.