It feels like Michael Jordan just retired again. Even in a documentary, he comes and goes in dramatic, awe-inspiring fashion.
For five Sundays, he resumed life as the most relevant figure in a barren sports world, rescuing millions from boredom as the star of a 10-part ESPN documentary series, “The Last Dance.” It speaks to Jordan’s charisma and excellence that the creative retelling of an already well-told story could be so engrossing. It also speaks to his elusiveness. You could watch a 100-part doc on Jordan and still not feel like you know him.
I’m not sure whether that makes him complex or simple. As director Jason Hehir was able to show in glimpses, there are some heart-wrenching emotional layers to him. He was near tears as he tried to explain his harsh leadership style and his obsession with winning. He turned back into a little boy as he watched video of his mother reading a letter he sent as a freshman at North Carolina. The wife of security guard Gus Lett told the story of Jordan often calling at 2 a.m. and crying to his fatherly friend while grieving his dad’s murder. But “The Last Dance” mostly left you in that same, frustrating place with MJ: He was a ruthless winner, and he will never apologize for his success.
Hehir did about as well as anyone could in humanizing Jordan, and that effort has been praised by everyone from Ahmad Rashad to Bob Costas. Still, 10 hours of storytelling merely pricked at Jordan’s soul because he is so thoroughly walled off. Or maybe the really deep stuff just doesn’t exist anymore because, to become Michael Jordan, he shed the perceived weakness.
“Michael lived a different life than the rest of us out of necessity,” Steve Kerr said during the film of his former teammate. “It was very difficult to reach him emotionally.”
Jordan was petty. He suffered from unrelenting narcissism. He gambled recklessly. As a teammate, he gave new meaning to bad cop. But he was an exhilarating performer blessed with impeccable work ethic, mental toughness and flair. This is true of every superstar in every professional team sport: Their interpretation of the game takes over the team. There is a selfishness to greatness that many prefer to defend or gloss over, particularly if the results allow for some ignorance. Jordan is the greatest example of this, and so if he has put himself in a cocoon, it is impenetrable because both he and the adoring public joined forces to create it.
Critics of the documentary, including award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, point to its restricted objectivity because the project required Jordan’s permission and heavy involvement. Certainly, it limited the story Hehir and his crew could tell. In particular, there could have been greater doses of skepticism about certain events, such as the “intentional” food poisoning in Utah, the notion that he could have been a major league baseball player with more time and the effects of his bullying on his teammates beyond their “But we won championships, so it’s all good” rationale.
If you wanted the highest form of journalism, this wasn’t it. But “The Last Dance” was a great piece of storytelling nonetheless. It would not have been compelling without Jordan’s involvement. Even if he had allowed for the use of the previously unreleased footage of the 1997-98 season and just left the story to be told without his participation, it wouldn’t have been very good. It may have been fairer to some of his enemies, including the late Jerry Krause, the dynasty’s architect. But it wouldn’t have captivated the nation for more than a month.
Hehir hasn’t received credit for how brilliantly he worked around some of these shortcomings. All the focus has been on what the documentary says — and who gets love and hate and MJ’s eternal damnation — but there is greater artistry in what is left unsaid and simply laid out for the viewer to ponder. Reflect upon it in that manner, and the documentary isn’t just a Jumpman infomercial that passes judgment on just about everyone except Jordan.
The best example comes at the end of Episode 7, which is the only time Jordan strains to explain himself. The conversation is about the price of winning.
“You ask all my teammates, the one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asks me to do something that he wouldn’t f---- — do,” Jordan said.
“Look, I don’t have to do this,” he continued, growing more emotional. “I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.”
And right when you expect him to start bawling, he declares “Break!” before rising from his seat.
For those who think the documentary is merely a puff piece that worships a flawed hero, consider how that episode ended and then flash to the very end when, for all that winning, all that glory and adulation, all of those six championships, Jordan is denied the thing he wanted most: an ideal ending for his tastes.
At the beginning of the documentary, after championship No. 5, he is defending the Chicago Bulls’ right to stay together until another team dethroned them. Keep running it back. Let the game — not the games — decide his ending.
Many consider his title-clinching final minute in 1998, complete with the game-winning jumper, to be the perfect way to leave, and therefore they can’t stand that he came back three years later and played two seasons for the Washington Wizards. But he was addicted to the competition, and for as tired as he was of being Michael Jordan, he wanted to stay on top longer.
So in the end, Jordan paid dearly for winning so mercilessly: He didn’t get to finish his masterpiece with the Bulls. And it haunts him.
“Not to be able to try, that’s something that I just can’t accept,” Jordan said near the end of the documentary. “I just can’t accept that.”
Without his forceful push, the Bulls probably don’t get all six titles. But because of it, he was denied the closure he needed.
It became clear that owner Jerry Reinsdorf didn’t want to spend the money to keep the Bulls together. But their culture — the one Jordan created — made and killed them. It was a culture of extraordinarily high standards. And it was an abusive culture that enlarged egos and developed a kind of dysfunction that only singular talents as phenomenal as Jordan, Krause, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson could transcend. But their greatness became their enemy.
You will never forget how much Jordan and the Bulls won. You will never know what more they could have accomplished if they appreciated the success more.
That emptiness, explored in open and subtle ways, provides profound depth and an acute contradiction in “The Last Dance.” And now that the documentary is over, it’s also a window into Jordan that may have just closed forever.