The last time ESPN got behind a Ken Burns-size documentary, it resulted in “OJ: Made in America,” an Oscar-winning epic that went beyond the gridiron, or even the courtroom, to tackle racism in America. It stands as one of the greatest TV achievements of the past decade.
“The Last Dance,” a 10-hour documentary on the Chicago Bulls’ championship runs in the 1990s, isn’t in the same league. But for sports enthusiasts trying to survive the pandemic without live games, it’s a godsend, if only for a chance to crawl inside the psyche of the 20th century’s greatest athlete.
If you think that person is someone other than Michael Jordan, don’t tell him that. He will destroy you. The superstar’s competitive spirit is already legendary, but filmmaker Jason Hehir keeps leaving you with the impression that his lead character would snap your wrist to win a game of tic tac toe.
Jordan took the slightest indignity and turned it into a reason for revenge. A rival coach not stopping by his table at a restaurant to say hello. A competitor celebrating a tad too much after a victory.
There’s the story of Washington Bullets shooting guard LaBradford Smith, a journeyman who somehow managed to score 37 points in a 1993 matchup. The Bullets would lose, but Jordan still made it his mission to embarrass Smith in their next game, citing a backhanded compliment Smith made to him after his hot night. The only problem: Jordan made up the comment.
Other basketball legends go out of their way to laud the King. Larry Bird marvels at Jordan’s performance the first time they faced each other in the playoffs.
“That wasn’t MJ out there,” Bird says. “That was God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
Jordan is much stingier with compliments. In his series of interviews, conducted in his home, he’s as reflective and open as he’s ever been, tearing up every time his late father’s name is mentioned. But when it comes to getting him to say nice things about his peers, it’s like trying to pull championship rings off his fingers.
“He couldn’t be nice,” says former teammate BJ Armstrong. “He could be difficult to be around if you didn’t truly love the game of basketball.”
He was even tougher company if you did love the game. From the numerous interviews, it’s clear that anyone who ever shared a locker room with him remains in awe of their leader. Respect is in abundance. Affection is another matter.
Hehir takes the same approach in his storytelling. His film is generous in giving Jordan his due when it comes to contributions to fashion, the Olympics and defying gravity. There are loads of great montages of Jordan in action, set to upbeat music like Prince’s “Partyman.”
But off the court, his behavior is often less than spectacular. If Jordan has a keen sense of humor, it’s never evident — unless you think it’s a riot to watch him poke fun at general manager Jerry Krause’s short stature. Then, he’s hilarious.
“Dance” does devote time to other key contributors to the team’s six titles. Episode 2, which also premieres this weekend following Episode 1, focuses on Scottie Pippen, woefully underpaid as the best No. 2 man in basketball history. Dennis Rodman takes center stage in the third installment, airing next week.
But this is the Jordan show — as it should be. By the end, you won’t want to be like Mike. But your awe of his superpowers will run even deeper. Something tells me Jordan will be just fine with that.
Njustin@startribune.com Twitter: @nealjustin