Like much of the sports starved public yesterday, I tuned in to watch The Last Dance. In case you’re living under a rock, that’s the long-delayed and much-hyped documentary about the champion Chicago Bulls team of the nineties, Michael Jordan, and particularly their final championship year in 1998.
I was hooked from the get-go. I love docos like this – quality, in-depth, and candid. And as subject matter, doesn’t get much better than this.
I got into the NBA earlier than most people in Oz. I remember happening across it one night at my grandparent’s home in Strathmore. They were in bed, and it was some time after 10pm, and here on TV was some basketball match from far away between Philly and the Knicks – this was when Doctor J was still going around, and every player was in tight shorts. It was exotic and novel for a kid brought up on cricket and footy, and the Olympics every four years. It had a noise about it that kept me watching.
I reckon that was on the ABC, and after that, I made an effort each week to watch it. It was a great time to get into it because it coincided with the rise of the Celtics and the Lakers and the great rivalry they’d be enmeshed in throughout the decade. I got caught up in it big time, and after my early preference for the Sixers, found myself a dedicated Celtics fan, mainly because of Larry Bird. And because I guess, I had an instinctive and Australian aversion for what I perceived as the show ponies in LA. That was unfair, of course, but I was just a kid. Later I became a fan of Magic Johnson too, but I barracked against him.
I was watching still when the unfashionable Pistons rose to eminence. I had a soft spot for them too because they were hard at it and played it tough, which were qualities an Aussie growing up on footy could appreciate. They didn’t always win because they were the better team, they won because they went at it harder. I thought Isaiah Thomas personified leadership, as well as being a cracking player. He was silk, and backing him up was a talented team long on grit.
You have to remember that basketball in general, and the NBA, was a marginal sport here back then. What changed all that was Michael Jordan. The sport exploded here, and almost everywhere, on the back of his incredible athleticism and scoring ability. After a long period of mediocrity, the Bulls became a legendary team, largely on the back of Jordan, but there was a fair roster behind him. Suddenly the NBA was on TV every Saturday morning in Oz and highlights were in the news. Jordan was lauded as a supernaturally gifted player capable of doing just about anything. In short time he became the most popular sportsman in the world, and the media tie-ins and partnership with Nike made him just about the most recognisable too (even an appearance in Space Jam!). Looking back, it seemed an incredible vibe.
It didn’t last. The NBA has a fair profile here now, but not as it was then. Now it’s the aficionados of the game – and there are lots, but back then it felt as if everyone had an opinion on the game, and the Bulls, and Jordan. It was that spurt of interest that got Australian basketball going, and though it’s had its ups and downs we’ve got one of the best teams in the world and a swathe of quality players playing in the NBA. It’s going forwards, not backwards.
But back to Jordan. There was a lot of talk ahead of the doco about how he’ll be perceived throughout it – hard-nosed, arrogant, demanding, even cruel. I don’t know if that was a huge surprise to me. It was always clear that he had a competitive streak that matched his athletic gifts. It was what made him great – he was a great scorer, but he was also a great defensive player. He only ever wanted to win, and expected it, of himself, and others.
It was easy for him. He was the best player in the world and its pretty easy to be self-assured when you know that. It’s harder for others in the shadow of that. It comes as no surprise that Jordan was demanding of others. Last night we even saw him being cruel on occasion, to those he had no respect for. Not surprisingly, he had a significant aura about him. I figure even his teammates were in awe of him.
I always liked Jordan. For me he’s clearly the GOAT, the only question is who comes second? As much as I loved the way he played I always found him fascinating as a man. There’s plenty of champions who are uninteresting people. Jordan had a swagger to him, an attitude that made him interesting. He was more than just a supreme athlete, he was smart and driven and determined. You can say he was a great player, but he made himself that. That’s what he set himself to be, and he did the work to become that. He is a product of his will, and that makes him exceptional and fascinating.
I may end up revising my opinion by the end of this program, but for now I’m settling in to enjoy it.