“The most dominant player in the game.” “Michael Jordan was as good at his job as anyone was at their job, ever, in anything.” “You don’t need to be a sports fan to know that this man is superhuman.”
The Last Dance, Netflix’s latest unmissable documentary, is a study in the impossible task of putting into words just how good Michael Jordan was at basketball.
Early on in the documentary, which follows the globe-bestriding 1990s Chicago Bulls team as they attempt to win a sixth NBA world championship, Jordan’s teammate Steve Kerr is asked what makes the Bulls different to any other basketball dynasty. “The difference is that”—he pauses, looking for a way to say something beyond the obvious, before submitting—”we’ve got Michael.”
The documentary can’t escape the event horizon of Jordan’s greatness. Its ostensible storylines—an interfering coach, a changing-room war—evaporate in the white heat of the on-court footage. Even to those of us who didn’t know beforehand, the answer to the show’s central question—”Can he do it again?”—feels like a foregone conclusion.
Like most panegyric, The Last Dance ends up making its subject more distant at the end than they were at the beginning. Fame does this to people. Jordan was “the most famous man on the planet” (or in the US it seemed that way), and the endless scenes of him flanked by adoring crowds, sniping journalists and terminally ill children whose dying wish has been to meet Mike, suggest how oppressive that fame must have been to inhabit. The most penetrating contribution comes from a talking head who says simply, “Michael was competitive at everything. His life was just one big competition.”
The language of sports is so desiccated and unfit for the purpose of meaning that this takes a little time to sink in. It turns out to be the documentary’s chief insight. Jordan lived to win. He trained all day to win at basketball, then won at basketball. On his days off he played golf (we see him kicking himself after missing a put). In the evenings, even after matches, he played cards late into the night. On plane trips to other cities, after cleaning out his teammates at high-stakes poker, he would walk down the aisles for a hand with the backroom staff. It didn’t…