'The Last Dance' Gave Us Something To Fill The Gaping Sports Void

Olivia Ovenden
Photo credit: Andy Hayt - Netflix

From Esquire

In the penultimate episode of The Last Dance, the docuseries which follows the unrelenting dominance of the Chicago Bulls from 1991 to 1998, Michael Jordan and his team face the Utah Jazz in the 1997 NBA finals.

Jordan is recovering from the 'flu game', which he reveals in the series was in fact a bout of food poisoning, and looks exhausted while making his way up and down the court. The Jazz tie the game at 86 with less than two minutes to play, the Bulls now facing the prospect of having to play their rivals again in a seventh game if they don't close them down before the clock stops.

Jordan is aware that he will be double-teamed so tells teammate Steve Kerr to be ready, setting up a final sequence that would be implausible if this were the basketball final in a high school movie and not recorded history. Kerr's ball soars in a slow-motion arc before sinking into the basket, a moment so thrilling that your heart is in your mouth as you watch it unfold, even as we know it is coming.

The Last Dance has countless edge-of-your-seat moments like this despite repeatedly making us aware of the double three-peat which the record-breaking team pulled off during the Nineties. We are reminded over and over again of their six title wins and yet every final which we already know they win, and every game that leads to the final we know they were part of, fires up your nervous system as scores bounce back and forth while one team takes the lead and then falls behind.

The fact that teams can run up such huge scores in basketball means that the momentum of a game can swing wildly in either direction and games are often dramatically cinched in the closing seconds. If a basketball game is tied by the end then extra periods keep being added until one comes out on top, a rule which makes games often feel more like gladiatorial combat than sport. You get the sense that basketball fans would be very disappointed at going to a game of English football where there's every chance you could walk away without seeing a single goal

Photo credit: Nathaniel S. Butler - Netflix

The Last Dance wasn't finished when the Coronavirus pandemic ground the world to halt, with the series originally set to premiere on 2 June before it was moved up to give fans something to watch while in lockdown.

It was made without the knowledge that audiences would experience it during an unprecedented drought of live sports, with pitches and courts all over the world empty and stadiums sat in silence. Despite the footage being nostalgia-laced highlight reels of games which took place almost thirty years ago, the fixtures still give us the heart-racing excitement that live sport is so uniquely powerful at conjuring.

Photo credit: Andrew D. Bernstein - Netflix

There are elements of The Last Dance which feel laboured: Jordan is clearly in charge of the narrative and any criticism of him comes with a caveat for why he punched someone in the face or bullied a rival, but what it does capture so well is the delight in watching a team winning again and again. It allows you to marvel at a type of sporting greatness that transcended the sport and, as Barack Obama says in the documentary, "changed the culture."

It is the same frenetic joy that has come from seeing Liverpool's wild, unbending winning streak in the Premier League this season, a game that feels as though you are watching superheroes that only lose when it serves to drag out the excitement of them winning a little further.

At the end of The Last Dance Jordan discusses the possibility that the Bulls could have taken a seventh title and his regrets that they didn't get the chance to. It is fun to imagine how many more years they could have dominated for, as MJ says at one point through a grin, “They can’t win until we quit”. But the fact that The Last Dance never let's you witness their decline means you believe in them until the end.

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