Basketball fans still smarting from the aborted NBA season were treated Sunday night to an electrifying portrait of Michael Jordan, arguably the game’s all-time greatest player, in what some argue was his ultimate performance — the Chicago Bulls’ sixth championship season in eight years.
ESPN aired the first two episodes of its sweeping 10-part documentary series, “The Last Dance,” about Jordan’s Bulls through the lens of the team’s 1997-98 season, Jordan’s last in Chicago.
The series was initially scheduled to air in June during the NBA Finals, but the network moved up its release after fans clamored for it on social media as live professional sports ground to a halt amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"The Last Dance" has been in the works since 1997, when Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and head coach Phil Jackson agreed to let an NBA Entertainment film crew follow the team for the season.
It features archival footage of the entire span of Jordan’s youth and college career, alongside new interviews with his former teammates, basketball greats like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, as well as Jordan’s high school and college coaches and even former President Barack Obama, who cut his teeth in politics in Chicago during Jordan’s tenure with the Bulls.
Part one of the series introduces the high drama and tension that hung over the team to start the 1997-98 season.
Speculation swirled as to whether the Bulls would fire coach Phil Jackson, who led the Bulls to five titles in seven years. And Jordan’s most important supporting teammate, Scottie Pippen, was injured and publicly feuding with the team’s management over his salary and rumors that he would be traded despite coming off of back-to-back championship seasons.
Jordan’s fame and career were reaching a zenith as the team played in a tournament abroad in Paris before the season.
“Michael was like the pied piper walking down the Champs-Élysées,” remembers former NBA commissioner David Stern, who died in January.
The episode bounces back to Jordan’s success at the University of North Carolina, when he made the game-winning shot with seconds left in the 1982 NCAA national title game against Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas.
“It gave me the confidence I needed to start to excel at the game of basketball,” Jordan said.
The opening hour reveals Jordan’s jarring transition from the discipline of collegiate basketball under premier coach Dean Smith, to arriving as a rookie on the 1985 underperforming and hard-partying Bulls.
Jordan describes one night on the road when he knocked on the hotel room door of a teammate. Inside, Jordan said he saw women and players snorting cocaine and smoking marijuana, “things I’ve never seen in my life as a young kid.”
Part two of the series flashes back to the earliest days of Jordan’s basketball life, his childhood in Wilmington, North Carolina, of the 1970s, where his notorious competitive spirit took shape playing basketball against his older brother Larry.
“I always felt I was fighting Larry for my father’s attention,” Jordan recalled.
His mother described a sobbing teenage Jordan who failed to make the high school varsity team as a sophomore and the fire that lit inside him to improve.
It bounces forward to the 1985-86 season, whose playoffs were something of a coming out party for him. Forced to play severely reduced minutes due to a broken ankle, Jordan somehow willed his 30-win team into the playoffs for the second year in a row.
With his time limitation lifted, his hunger to win high and the expectations for the Bulls against Larry Bird’s 67-win Boston Celtics low, conditions were ripe for Jordan to show basketball fans what he was capable of. The Bulls lost the series, but not before Jordan put up 49 points and then 63 points against one of the sport’s most formidable teams.
“That wasn’t Michael Jordan out there. That was God disguised as Michael Jordan,” Bird said of the performance.
Social media reaction to the first two of ten hours documenting Jordan’s career brought praise of some of the game’s greats.
"Michael Jordan’s Last Dance was fantastic and I loved all two hours of it!! Young fans that never got to see Michael play now understand why he’s the 🐐 of basketball!" Magic Johnson said in a tweet.
The next two installments in the series air on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET. It will also be available for international fans on Netflix.