Dancing Days

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The pandemic has turned the lights off when it comes to live sports, but we're not entirely lacking sports drama. Not with The Last Dance, ESPN's 10-part series on the six-time NBA champion Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. (Six episodes have aired to date, with two more this Sunday, and the final two on May 17th.) It's fascinating journalism, and really only set in the world of sports. ESPN was able to give the Ken Burns treatment to a basketball franchise because of one transcendent human presence: Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Soak up all 10 hours, but you'll be left with zero ambiguity when it comes to the most famous man of an otherwise ho-hum decade. And I find the reflection significant on two levels.
NOREN TROTMAN/NBA
  • Noren Trotman/NBA

First of all, how many athletes would you give 10 hours of your life's attention in documentary format? My short list: Muhammad Ali, Ted Williams, Bill Russell, Julius Erving, and Wayne Gretzky. I reached out to my Twitter pals and received the following submissions: Serena Williams, Jack Nicklaus, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Pete Rose, Tiger Woods. This kind of star power, in Jordan terms, is rarefied air. But quite honestly, those of us a certain age have read and heard the stories of Ruth, Robinson, and Ali, told well and told poorly. If John Goodman can play you in a movie, you take a backseat to Michael Jordan.

Rose and Woods are as infamous as they are famous (though both extraordinarily accomplished athletes, to say the least). Jordan, somehow, remains atop Olympus, even with his own shortcomings: that bizarre early-retirement-to-pro-baseball chapter, the gambling, the grudges. Similar to Erving, Jordan personifies cool when he walks in a room … but he won five more titles than did Doctor J. Back when posters were an actual thing, no one leaped from more walls than Michael Jordan. (I happen to own the finest Jordan poster ever printed, which I'm sharing with you here.) ESPN has reminded us that we have an actual living legend, one with juicy opinions on the likes of Isiah Thomas.

The second fascinating element of this mega-series is the temporal component. Jordan's magnificence shone brightest before the Internet. He is the last sports great to do his thing before Twitter and Instagram could micro-analyze every achievement (or transgression) before sunrise the next morning. It took a book being written — printed pages! distribution! — for us to learn details about Jordan's one-punch fight with teammate Steve Kerr during a Bulls practice. I'm not convinced LeBron James can ever achieve Jordan's Olympian perch for the simple fact that his docu-drama has already been told, one tweet, gif, or meme at a time. (We had footage of James getting off a plane after learning of Kobe Bryant's death before many of us learned of Bryant's death.)

I've been in close proximity to my share of celebrities, and exactly three have given me goose bumps: Robert Plant, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Michael Jordan. I didn't see Jordan play in person until he came to Memphis to play the Grizzlies in 2001 … in a Washington Wizards uniform. And that's precisely the magnitude of Jordan: He could have walked onto the floor at the Pyramid in Baryshnikov's tights or Plant's bell-bottoms and he would have raised goose bumps. A legend among us. I'm grateful for the folks at ESPN reminding their younger audience that a standard was set for basketball greatness in the last decade of the twentieth century. I'm not sure it's a standard that can be matched in this century or any century to come.

• The football revolution at the University of Memphis continues. When Antonio Gibson was chosen by the Washington Redskins with the 66th pick in this year's NFL draft, it marked the third straight year a former Tiger's name was called in the first three rounds. (Darrell Henderson was taken by the Los Angeles Rams in the third round last year, and Anthony Miller went to the Chicago Bears in the second round in 2018.) You have to go back more than 30 years to find a similar stretch (1985-87) for the Tiger program. All the more impressive, these are "skill position" players, the kind who make highlights on Sunday wrap-up shows. Win on Saturdays and a region will respect your college program. Help teams win on Sunday and the entire football-watching country will salute.

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