The Last Dance: Courting Basketball and a Weekend Waltz

“In the fall of 1997, with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls beginning their quest to win a sixth NBA title in eight years, they agreed to let a film crew follow them all season long. It’s an unlikely scenario that serves as a fascinating backdrop for the inside tales of the tension-filled season. As the series chronicles the 1997-98 season in-depth, it also explores the years and achievement…”

As you may recall, I’ve been watching quite a bit of TV these days, and sometimes I think I’ve inhaled more of it in the past year than in all my life combined. At one time I wrote about my quarantine viewing, which I suppose is where it all began. Then, on Christmas Day, I started watching Chernobyl, and not long after, Game of Thrones. (You can click here to read a bit about it, but know it is super outdated since I’ve watched more, and I will be writing about the series again!) And then, closer to now, I’ve been semi-binging Mad Men and sort of—what’s a polite way to say pushed into?—persuaded to watch The Last Dance, a docu-series spotlighting the Chicago Bulls, with specific attention paid to their superstar shooting guard, Michael Jordan. Now, I joke about being strong-armed into watching because, well, before last weekend, here is what I thought I knew about basketball, the game:

  • The ball is orange and round
  • You score points by shooting it into a net
  • Taller players have a bit of an advantage
  • You can play it inside or out
  • The shoes are super expensive

So why am I writing here about The Last Dance and not, say, Mad Men? There are some things I don’t care for within Mad Men, but it’s got an addicting power over me and I will in fact write about it as I keep watching (I’m just about to start season three). However, I’m only about to start episode four of The Last Dance and it has created a bit of excitement for basketball that I never really knew I had before.

Well, it could be I didn’t. Basketball was never as boring to me as, say, football, but it wasn’t the highlight of my life, either. I wasn’t into it, but could see the appeal for others. Also, I did have enough curiosity in past years to know famous players such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dennis Rodman, and respected their accomplishments. Barring ice skating, which I watched obsessively and used to do (as a total amateur, mind you) before an injury sidelined all that, and gymnastics, the twists and turns of which horrified and thrilled my soul, only swimming interested me. I’ll admit that baseball is rather thrilling to watch live; there’s a charge in the air that alerts you to things happening on the diamond. But for me (both times) it was just a thrill to get caught up with in the crowd; I didn’t take any of it home with me. And football just reminded me of traumatic brain injuries. Even without any TBI, there just is no appeal in constantly slamming into other people or being dogpiled. Outside. In the cold. Sometimes rain. If I want to be outdoors in the elements I’m going to have a sleigh underneath me and/or loads of children begging to be pulled back up the hill. And I do love rain; you’ve seen me say it here a number of times—but always when it involves a snuggly blanket near a window and lamp bright enough to read by.

Michael Jordan at Boston Garden. Image courtesy Steve Lipofsky via Wikimedia Commons

So what is it about basketball that kept me watching this series? Well, I think I might have liked Michael Jordan a lot more than I ever knew I did, even though I didn’t know much about him. For example, a lot of athletes’ behavior or demeanor perpetuates the “dumb jock” stereotype, but Jordan’s never did. I never knew his scores or records, but when he talked, I listened. He seemed naturally intelligent and I was aware he was a top player—not a bad combination. Still, I didn’t seek him out or follow his career.

But when I began to watch The Last Dance, it was so easy to admire the trajectory he took, from childhood passion to college basketball to being drafted into the Chicago Bulls, who were third to choose but may have won the best victory that day. Built into the series is archival footage, much of which shows Jordan’s heart-stopping and utterly thrilling, and I mean thrilling, means of getting the ball into that net. Why it appeals to me so much is perhaps related to why I love the other two sports I do: the creative movements people can perform with their bodies is seemingly boundless, and this was all new. It wasn’t “just” turning yourself upside-down and gliding all over the ice. In fact, the movements often, though not always, were much smaller in the space they occupied, but no less astounding. I may not yet quite have the words to describe it, but I’ll try: When I shoot a ball into the hoop, I might pivot up onto my tippy toes, and definitely extend my arms forward, maybe my fingers sort of dance ahead of the rest of my hands as they hover in the air.

Gracious reader, I am here to tell you this is utter child’s play. Jordan, visibly utilizing the tips of his fingers down to about his elbow, swishes the ball rapidly through the air with an underhand sort of twist and then lifts back up to dunk it in. And I want to see him do it over and over. Or he might be nowhere near the hoop when a teammate, with the ball and being guarded by an opposing team member, tosses him the ball and he quickly sinks it in from afar. Or, as in one clip I injured my lower jaw watching, he takes flight and his feet are higher in his jump than my head would be if I stood nearby. His physical strength also seemed so intense it was next to impossible for other teams to guard him. It was such a problem to them that one , the Detroit Pistons, developed techniques especially for him, labelling them “the Jordan Rules.”

Click here for a beautiful, basketball-related image.

I’ve made a few discoveries about some professions, such as that trial lawyers, really good trial lawyers, have to practically be as skilled as a psychologist in reading people (one reason I love Law and Order so much—this is stunningly portrayed). Some people see in numbers what to others resemble just a jumble, and I’ve met a few engineers who are extremely talented at accurately assessing a large amount of information in s short period of time. In this case, I saw the artistry some can create with their physicality in a particular sport I never really knew—until now—had any.

Moreover, within episode four, viewers are introduced to the triangle offensive strategy, a particular setup of players that facilitates quickly passing the ball, each pass determined by opposing team’s defense and with specific purpose. It reminded me a bit of the art within baking that I cannot seem to achieve, despite it being more a science to me, and in spite of being a very able cook. You might know each particular move and exactly when to execute it, but without the artistry required, it may end up flat.

The episodes also show how, like ingredients, teammates worked together just right. Coach Phil Jackson knew exactly how to utilize Scottie Pippin, who I grew to like quite quickly, to complement Jordan’s techniques and abilities. With this, it also grew in me a greater appreciation for a certain eye and what it can see: Jordan’s, for example, in hitting the shot and the geometry of his moves, and Jackson, in how he combined awareness of physics, dynamics and chemistry to whip up a marvelously exciting team to watch – even in small clips and on TV.

I found myself really attached to these scenes and more than once found myself shouting out in approval or dismay, and know I shall again. See if you don’t as well!

Watch number 23, Michael Jordan, lower right at start of clip. 

Stay tuned for more on the amazing career of MJ and more!

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