July 8, 2020

The Last Dance : The Second Fiddle Episode 2

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The opening round of the NBA playoffs is seldom the most compelling. The competitive series tends to feature teams that aren’t quite contenders, while the legitimate contenders usually face the flawed teams that snuck into a bottom seed. The former can be fun in the way a mid-budget action movie can be fun; if you prefer watching Damian Lillard hit preposterously ballsy shots to watching a glowering Kurt Russell kick a kidnapper off a dam, they can even be more so. The less competitive matchups are a different sort of experience. There can be some thin thrill in watching an overmatched team max itself out in the attempt to steal a win or two from a future champion, but more often than not there’s something stilted and funereal about it. It is just a matter of watching something that is supposed to happen go through the process of happening as everyone supposed it would.

There are no NBA playoff games happening right now or likely to happen in the foreseeable future. Different people will have their own price, but I would personally pay at least $80, at this moment, for the opportunity to sit in a bar and drink two warmish beers while watching the most desultory possible quarter of basketball in the most mismatched possible series between the first and eighth seeds in either conference. This is not a negotiation, though, and The Last Dance is what we’ve got — the closest thing to basketball and, in the second episode, also the closest thing to one of those foreordained matchups. There are some fine moments to find in “Episode II” — the roman numerals do not augur well for the series loosening up and shaking off the heavy pomp — but it is, finally, a matter of watching various things drift toward their destination.

It would be a challenge for any filmmaker to tell a story as widely known and richly documented as that of the high-dynasty Chicago Bulls in a way that reveals new or surprising angles. Director Jason Hehir and the Last Dance producers have thus far opted to do something altogether different, which is to treat the most familiar stuff — Michael Jordan’s vaunted and amply covered hypercompetitiveness and full-spectrum aggressiveness, for instance — as if it is startling and new.

It is not. By the time Jordan and the Bulls began their title defense in the ’97–’98 season — the team’s quest for its sixth championship in eight seasons — all of that was well known. Five years earlier, Chicago Tribune beat writer Sam Smith’s book The Jordan Rules documented Jordan’s wild and bullying imperiousness and passion for relentlessly trolling his teammates during the team’s push for its first championship in the ’90–’91 season. The book was full of infamous stories, like how Jordan punched ineffectual backup center Will Purdue in the head, twice, after Purdue set a bruising screen against him in practice. (He also called the rookie “Will Vanderbilt” because he didn’t think he “deserve[d] to be named after a Big 10 school.” There are a lot of anecdotes like this.)

The Jordan Rules was a best seller, which means that even casual NBA fans could guess how Jordan was reacting behind closed doors during his team’s slow start to the ’97–’98 season. The Last Dance delivers the goods here, if that’s the word for footage of Jordan snapping at various Bulls backups for not being aggressive enough. “I was trying to get the guys to understand it from my standpoint,” Jordan tells Herir. “I let my anger motivate the players by saying, I want this, do you guys want it?” This is not really a dodge, or at least is less of a dodge than a reframing of things that was familiar even then — a retrospective reverse-engineering of strategic leadership onto the behaviors that leapt off the blazing, raging competitive pyre that both allowed Jordan to become the vengeful godhead he was and blocked him off from becoming a total person. Jordan has talked about this in the past — “I can’t help myself,” he told ESPN’s Wright Thompson in 2017. “It’s an addiction. You ask for this special power to achieve these heights, and now you got it and you want to give it back, but you can’t. If I could, then I could breathe.” That is not how Jordan talks about any of this in The Last Dance, even in the parts that retrace the oft-told tale of Jordan honing his competitiveness in backyard games (and fights) with his brothers, in getting cut from his high school varsity team as a sophomore, and through his meteoric-but-not-immediate rise to basketball stardom. The legend again crowds out the insight; the rocks glass next to his chair fills and empties.

The reason that the Bulls had such a disappointing start in ’97–’98 was not because Jordan’s teammates Didn’t Want It as much as he did. This was obvious even then. The issue was that Scottie Pippen, Jordan’s indispensable second — “the underappreciated, underrated Robin … to Michael Jordan’s Batman,” Michael Wilbon says with a sententiousness that delivers the episode’s first real laugh — was still rehabilitating from surgery he’d undergone shortly before the season began because the alternative, as Pippen says, would “fuck my summer up.” Pippen was not renowned as a selfish player or a selfish person, although Jordan does criticize him for making a selfish decision in this case. It’s just that Pippen had decided he no longer wanted to be with the Bulls.

Pippen’s greatness was beyond dispute even then, and the estimation of his game has only grown in the years since. He was the best wing defender in the sport for many years, and his spring-loaded athleticism and versatility would make him as valuable in the contemporary NBA as he was in the very different one of the 1990s. He had also signed a seven-year contract early in the Bulls run that allowed him to get his family out of small-town poverty in Arkansas but left him, by 1997, only the sixth-highest-paid player on his own team and the 122nd-highest-paid in the league. Unable to renegotiate the deal — owner Jerry Reinsdorf says on camera he advised Scottie Pippen against signing it but also refused to renegotiate it — and disconsolate after GM Jerry Krause tried to trade him following the ’96–’97 season, Scottie Pippen opted for surgery and thus effectively opted out of the first few months of the season.

Scottie Pippen speaks here about his early life and troubles with the Bulls with a forthrightness that Jordan can’t quite manage, and his family paints a warm but not entirely simple picture of what it was like to grow up poor in tiny Hamburg, Arkansas. What initially looks like The Scottie Pippen Episode, though, is pulled inexorably back toward Jordan himself. Just a few minutes after Bill Clinton is enlisted to deliver a brief, anodyne assessment of Scottie Pippen’s rise to stardom at the University of Central Arkansas — after two episodes, The Last Dance is averaging an ex-president per hour — Hehir is zooming back in time to trace the origins of Jordan’s competitiveness and then illustrate it with a story about Jordan’s recovery from a foot injury of his own during his second season in the NBA.

There is obviously no way to tell the story of the Chicago Bulls without also telling the story of Michael Jordan; the former just doesn’t exist without the latter. But the Bulls wouldn’t have been what they were without Scottie Pippen, either, and the narrative restlessness of The Last Dance shortchanges the team’s other most important player all over again. And yet, as in the first episode, Hehir’s decision to simply put the ball in Jordan’s hands down the stretch pays off — in this case, with a thrilling re-creation of Jordan’s first, brief playoff experience. This was one of those first-round mismatches, with the ultradominant Boston Celtics facing a Bulls team that had barely made the playoffs after Jordan’s foot injury and a painfully micromanaged return to the rotation. The Celtics swept the Bulls in three games, as expected, en route to a NBA championship.

The fact of that sweep doesn’t quite do the series itself justice, though, because Jordan’s three games were so berserk and brilliant that the numbers barely scan as comprehensible. He averaged an astonishing 43.7 points per game on 50.5 percent shooting, including an NBA-record 63 points in a double-overtime loss that followed a day of getting thumped on the golf links by Boston Celtics guard Danny Ainge. “That wasn’t Michael Jordan,” Larry Bird says after the game. “That was God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

For all the strange changes of pace and jarring storytelling choices in this hour — like the peculiar decision to end with Scottie Pippen issuing an early-season trade demand that functions as a cliffhanger, the suspense of which will be lost for anyone who remembers all the games that he would go on to play for the Bulls that season — they know enough to just let Jordan cook. Hehir sets the highlights up with LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad” and then clears the hell out to let his star do what he does. It’s not quite playoff basketball, and the actual story of the ’97–’98 Bulls had only tentatively begun, but the taste of Jordan at work is more than enough to take the edge off.

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