April 20, 2020

CABLE | Documenting 'The Last Dance' of Basketball

"It's just God disguised as Michael Jordan."
Michael Jordan Jason Hehir | Chicago Bulls 1997–98 | ESPN The Last Dance
ESPN Films / Netflix
Jason Hehir's latest ESPN sports documentary series closely follows Michael Jordan's historic final championship run amidst the absolute peak of the Chicago Bulls' basketball dynasty during the 1997–98 season. Using archival footage from unprecedented backstage access at the time paired with new talking-head interviews, The Last Dance is a stunning look at a team of all-stars at the height of their success, popularity, and power clearly barrelling towards the end of a magical ride.

Through a series of front office personnel moves, it was made clear the Bulls' dream team was unlikely to be reassembled after attaining five NBA championships in seven years. Before the season, cameras were granted total access to film the players as they journeyed towards their second three-peat victory and a very uncertain future.

In the two decades since then, negotiations and longform documentary ideas were in stasis until all parties agreed on how to utilize the possibly damaging and deeply personal 10,000 hours of video gathered. Rumours persisted about how unflattering the material captured Jordan and his teammates was as the series floundered in development hell until now.

Finally, Jordan, Hehir, and ESPN came together to create an uncompromising look at basketball through an unfiltered ten-part docuseries on the famed NBA team at the end of their legendary run. All that time has given the miniseries a fully-rendered perspective in contrast to today's current NBA and sports landscape.

Michael Jordan Scottie Pippen Phil Jackson David Stern Jason Hehir | Chicago Bulls 1997–98 | ESPN The Last Dance

What The Last Dance so perfectly captures is that moment in time during the end of the 1990s where the NBA reached a unique peak of cultural awareness before the internet age. It's such a nostalgically reflective all-access documentary that says as much about today as it does its late-'90s era.

The docuseries is also a perfect antidote for the current state of sports withdrawal as it frames these bygone basketball stars as extremely talented but also very human subjects. Jordan comes off as manically competitive yet prophetic and deeply reflective in all his success. But more than anything, he was so singularly obsessed with winning at any cost.

Everything lives up to ESPN's 30 for 30 legacy of films as an exhaustive look at a specific time in sports and through its specificity says so much about our culture some twenty years later.

It looks and feels timeless in telling the different aspects of classic sports stories anchored by some incredible backstage footage. The Last Dance is more than just a celebration of the game of basketball in its heyday as it transcends sports thanks to some sophisticated storytelling.

The Last Dance's first two parts (of ten) are currently available to stream on Netflix in Canada with two new episodes being released weekly.


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