It all started last Sunday on a Zoom call with family when I struck up a conversation with a 15-year-old relative.
“So, what do you think of The Last Dance, the ESPN documentary about Jordan’s last years in the NBA?”
He thought about it for a minute. This is a kid who’s favorite NBA player is Kawhi Leonard, who is constantly playing NBA 2K during quarantine and has had LeBron James in the finals for about half of his life.
“I think, I didn’t know just HOW good Jordan was,” he said. “Like I knew about the rings, but like, he was so much better than anybody else. I think I’ve changed my mind. He’s the GOAT now, over LeBron.”
In other words, Michael Jordan’s 10-part commercial The Last Dance has won, and in some ways we all lose. Let’s be clear, The Last Dance isn’t a documentary. It’s not documentary when the subject has the final say on what goes on the air (You think Tiger King hits the same if Joe Exotic was doing the final edits?).
The Last Dance featured amazing music, some nostalgia and nuggets of information I never expected, like how the famous Flu Game is now a new version of Pizzagate, but I was left with a strange feeling in the end. As much as I enjoyed and tweeted about The Last Dance when the whole 10 hours were done, it felt, dated, and not in a good way.
The Last Dance takes the modern fan through the 90s when Jordan dominated every aspect of popular culture, selling Nike, Gatorade, McDonald’s, and really bad cartoons (Not Space Jam, I’m talking ProStars, starring Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Bo Jackson).
Jordan wants to take us through his highlights and some of it is legitimately thrilling, even if you’re old enough to have lived through it. At the same time, the hours of worship and praise are dated and almost embarrassing to watch. We expect so much more from our iconic athletes today, as players, people and citizens, than we did during The Last Dance era, and that’s a good thing.
The Last Dance is hearing a father from a bygone era brag about bringing home the bacon, putting 7 kids through college and not mentioning his wife once. The Last Dance is your friend finding archives of your old BlackPlanet page, reminiscing about parties and bullshit and area codes, but it was all good because you were making bank as a day trader.
The Last Dance wants fans to backslide, it wants to seduce a 15-year-old fan, who’s only known LeBron and Colin Kaepernick and Chris Paul and Serena Williams, into thinking that athletes should only be entertainers and not role models of personal, social and yes even political change.
In the final episode, we see Forever President Barack Obama talking about Michael Jordan’s legacy. He reminds us that MJ internationalized basketball, changed how Black athletes were looked at by white America, and fundamentally changed what was financially possible for an athlete. Everything Obama said about Jordan’s impact was true, but the question is, how much of that was actually intentional on Jordan’s part?
There’s little or nothing in The Last Dance that suggests Jordan had any goals besides winning championships and crushing his enemies real and imagined. Nowhere in Jordan’s own words does he say he really cared about making the NBA or the world a better place. He wants us to be OK with that.
However, modern fans want athletes to model behavior that is applicable across sports and beyond. This is deeper than just politics and whether Dennis Rodman should be negotiating with North Korea. This is about Jordan not blinking about Pippen’s bad deal, while J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson are still eating off the contracts that LeBron got them after Cleveland’s championship in 2016 (Tristan also has that Kardashian money but you get the point).
Jordan ran a decade-long commercial barely mentioning his wife and kids, while today we praise Dwyane Wade for sharing his parenting journey as a way to battle toxic masculinity and homophobia. That’s just how we view our basketball athletes today; Serena’s tennis court dominance is bolstered by her fight for equal pay for women’s sports, racing driver Lewis Hamilton’s Formula One Success is all the more impressive because fans see him fighting for greater diversity in the sport.
We live in an era when white athletes like Megan Rapinoe take a knee, Steve Kerr calls out racism and Trump’s BFF Tom Brady signs a letter calling for an investigation into the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. The deepest thing Jordan said in 10 hours of The Last Dance can fit on an official motivational poster. His life mantra, for all intents and purposes, was the epitome of Laura Ingraham’s racist warning to NBA stars today: “Shut up and dribble.”
Much as Jordan wants, and while he may pick off a few teenagers we aren’t going back to that era.
I’m part of a generation of fans that fought with our money, our eyeballs and our social media to uplift athletes who were more than just figures in the arena. Who first called into radio shows, then message boards and then Twitter to say it was great that Stephon Marbury made an affordable sneaker specifically because he wanted to end violence in the Black community; that praised Magic Johnson for literally transforming Black neighborhoods with his movie theater chain, that gave LeBron credit for empowering his ‘friends’ into independent media moguls.
We made Colin Kaepernick the highest-selling jersey when the man hadn’t stepped on a field in years. Sports fans, and Black fans in particular, fought to change the narrative about what made an athlete great. To raise the standard. We fans and society as a whole won that battle.
The Last Dance wants us to forget all that. You may say this isn’t fair, you may say this is tyrannical woke-ness run amok. But that’s you. Because you never won anything.
Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of Politics and Journalism at Morgan State University, a Political Contributor at MSNBC and SIRIUS XM Satellite Radio. Notorious comic book and sports guy with dual Wakandan and Zamundan citizenship.