Michael Jordan, clad in a draping suit and a fitted beret, is ambling toward a makeshift Chicago Bulls locker room before the 1997 McDonald’s Championship, an international summer basketball exhibition tournament, held in Paris. An NBA Entertainment cameraman films the jaunt, then pauses to capture some watercooler talk between Jordan and the NBA commissioner at the time, David Stern. The cameraman continues walking as Stern enters the room, but stops when Jordan’s broad frame fills up the doorway. Jordan swiftly turns back, his smile warping into a scowl. He dismisses the film crew. “You guys are not allowed,” he says, and the cameraman instinctively turns the camera away before Jordan even finishes uttering a perfunctory “Sorry.” He’s kidding, of course. But lesson learned: MJ didn’t need a ball to get people to bite on a fake.
This scene in Paris is one of many candid, never-before-seen moments in the new 10-part Netflix-ESPN joint documentary, The Last Dance. It’s also perhaps the most explicit in establishing Jordan as the series’ gatekeeper. The NBA’s production arm was granted unprecedented access to the Bulls during the entirety of their dramatic 1997–98 title run, on the condition that Jordan would be given the final say on how the footage would be used. The footage sat in vaults for two decades. Its myth grew among those in the film industry who knew of its existence—something like Excalibur lodged in the stone. Jordan held firm, turning down the likes of Frank Marshall and Spike Lee, who wanted to make the documentary. In sports parlance, “legacy” is a nebulous measurement of one’s accomplishments. But in those 500 hours of archival tape was a bit of Jordan’s legacy rendered tangible. It was leverage against any prospects of irrelevance, something that would have to be shared in a manner befitting the cultural monolith he became in his prime.
With The Last Dance, his patience has been rewarded, and so has the public’s. The series, which premiered last Sunday and is airing new episodes over the next month, serves as an education, a reintroduction, and a spiritual reunion for one of the great basketball teams of all time. It is as farcically self-involved as it sounds, but how else would one capture Jordan’s singular, single-minded essence? The hypnotic montages of Jordan dismantling defenders would be enough to placate the masses in these days of isolation. But the viewer also gets plenty of fodder—through firsthand accounts of vitriolic tensions between players and management—for considering how professional basketball has changed in the ensuing decades. Jordan rehabbed his broken foot away from the team in North Carolina, staging clandestine scrimmages without authorization from the Bulls. How many clauses would he be violating in a modern contract? How long before he’d be caught on an Instagram Live stream from a passerby? But Jordan and the 100-plus other interview subjects in The Last Dance aren’t concerned with those hypotheticals. They have an entire arc of personal history to retrace.