The Oscar Project Reviews
Whether you're old enough to remember the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s or you've just heard tales about it from your parents, this docuseries will go down as one of the definitive tellings of the story of those teams, specifically the 1997-1998 team that completed the second three-peat in eight years.
I don't typically review television series here, but this almost feels more like an extended 8-9 hour film, than a series, so I'm making an exception. From here out, I will refer to it as a singular entity.
First, a little background. The documentary focuses its attention on the 1997-1998 season of the Chicago Bulls, dubbed "The Last Dance" by coach Phil Jackson after he was told by general manager Jerry Krause that he would not be back as coach the following year. The team had been at the top for most of the decade of the 90s and was coming off their second run of back-to-back NBA championships in 1996 and 1997, bringing their total to five in the decade.
The story is told within the the framework of this last season through flashbacks within each episode. The 1998 frame serves to start the narrative before jumping back to build the team up, piece by piece, starting with His Airness himself, Michael Jordan. Many people spoke of this as "the MJ doc" or "the Jordan series" and they can be excused for using that terminology. While it is officially about the Bulls last run to the championship, Jordan features so prominently in the story of the Bulls of the 1980s and 1990s, that the two are nearly synonymous.
Fortunately, director Jason Hehir and his creative team didn't forget about the other role players on the team. Episode one not surprisingly focuses on Jordan before delving into Scottie Pippin and Dennis Rodman's history in episodes two and three. Episode four provides the backstory for Jackson before Jordan and the 1992 Dream Team head to Barcelona for the Olympic Games in episode five, also the only appearance of the late Kobe Bryant, interviewed before his passing earlier this year.
The second half of the series starts with questions about Jordan's seemingly rampant gambling and completing the first three-peat in episode six. Finding himself physically and mentally exhausted after that championship, and dealing with the death of his father, Jordan exits to play baseball in episode seven, before returning to chase his fourth championship in episode eight. Episodes nine and ten round out the series as the bulls face off against some younger talent in the NBA and struggle to complete the second three-peat.
The series includes hundreds of interviews from the likes of former president Barack Obama, journalists Michael Wilbon, Andrea Kramer, Bob Costas, Sam Smith, and J. A. Adande (just to name a few), former NBA commissioner David Stern, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, NBA hall of famers Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, John Stockton, and Kobe Bryant, not to mention members of the Jordan family, former coaches, and of course, players for the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. I'm sure there was enough interview footage to fill another 100 episodes about this team, so the care that the creative team had to take to put together these stories does not go unappreciated.
One of the hallmarks of a great documentary, in my opinion, is one that can keep you on the edge of your seat even when you think you already know the story backwards and forwards (see O.J. Made in America). The Last Dance does that to perfection by reminding you of some of the stories you may have forgotten about this great team. What happens if certain shots fall an inch the other way? If Jordan hadn't been hurt early in his career, how would that have changed his trajectory? Would he have still left basketball if his father had still been alive? Did he really have the flu for the "flu game" in 1997? We get to see these stories play out as if watching them for the first time, and hear some of those stories from the mouths of those who lived them first hand.
Whether you are a basketball fan or not, The Last Dance is required viewing. The fact that it came out in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 only served to lift it to an even higher profile than it may have had otherwise. We were starving for sports and while sports have started to return around the world, this still feels like an important story to tell.
The Last Dance is streaming now on Netflix. You can also follow along with the episodes and listen to interviews with director Jason Hehir on the Jalen and Jacoby Aftershow podcast from ESPN or on YouTube.
10 out of 10