ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary came at the perfect time. Sports fans, confronting a world without sports due to COVID-19, found solace in the weekly two-hour visit with the greatest NBA player of all time. The Last Dance itself is far from perfect, however. Many voices are missing, from Jordan’s own family members to several key players.
One of the biggest critics is former Chicago Tribune sports journalist Sam Smith. Here are the flaws lurking within the mostly fantastic Jordan doc, and Smith’s issues with several narrative strands within.
How The Last Dance struggles to hammer out narratives
The Last Dance was a massive success, in terms of being both entertaining and pulling in viewers. We needed it, in a sense, because of the eerie void where sports were supposed to be while it aired. LeBron James pushed for an early release, according to NBS Sports, making the case that it would be a salve on the nation to do so.
Those conditions perhaps led to the unwieldy aspects of the documentary. The lofty goal of telling the entire story of Jordan’s life, and the ’90s Bulls, via the lens of the 1998 NBA Finals, made for difficult time-hopping storytelling. Themes from throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s had to connect to archival footage of the ’97-’98 season.
Then there’s the issue of Jordan himself. He had the final say on the documentary, limiting its scope. While it doesn’t shy away from the major controversies, it leaves us with Jordan’s take on all of them. And, as sportswriter David Roth points out in Vulture, Jordan’s perspective is often compulsively limited to cycles of revenge and domination. Some viewers felt the documentary outright glorified his notoriously brutal bullying.
How Sam Smith’s remarkable book The Jordan Rules changed sports journalism
One recurring figure in The Last Dance provided consistent pushback to Jordan’s go-to narratives throughout the documentary. Smith, the Tribune sportswriter who became world-famous for his iconoclastic Bulls coverage in the ’90s, has ample time to speak his mind.
The documentary would feel slanted without the presence of the man who wrote the 1991 bestseller The Jordan Rules, the first piece of long-form journalism that truly revealed Jordan’s off-camera persona to the world. Before the book released, reports The Ringer, Jordan was a mystery to most. Rumblings among players of his abusive streak rarely reached the press.
The book changed everything, without being a straight-up smear job. It presented Jordan as he was: boisterous, demanding, often cruel, always able to back his words up with action. It undermined any hope of presenting Jordan as a perfect boy scout for marketing purposes. But it also gave deep insight into the realities of with and against a player so singularly obsessed with his craft.
Sam Smith’s pointed critique of The Last Dance
Smith illuminates many aspects of the tale woven in The Last Dance in his interview segments. He doesn’t get the same opportunities Jordan does to respond to direct statements by other interviewees, however. That has been reserved for interviews about the finished documentary, after the fact.
In a string of interviews, reports CBS Sports, Smith identifies two major lies pushed by the documentary — and by Jordan in particular. He consistently says that the idea of a poisoned pizza is untrue, although he never elaborates what actually happened. He simply says that he is in the position to know that the story is complete nonsense.
More consequentially to the entire theme of the series, Smith claims that Jordan isn’t telling the truth about why things ended in ’98. On a recent radio appearance, Smith lays it out. Reinsdorf left the door open for Jordan to return, if he wanted. The looming lockout gave him another opportunity.
Jordan didn’t want to come back to that particular group of players, in Smith’s telling. “I had to carry us down the stretch. [Scottie] Pippen couldn’t play in Game 6 [of the 1998 Finals] because his back was hurt, he’s limping around. Dennis [Rodman] is crazy.” If Smith is right, there could have been one more dance beyond what we now know as the last one. It wasn’t just Krause and Reinsdorf who ended that possibility — it was Jordan himself.