Three flaws in 'The Last Dance' that limited the documentary on Michael Jordan's Bulls

Sporting News

So, uh, what happens now? After spending five consecutive Sunday nights with Michael Jordan and the Bulls, viewers of "The Last Dance" must find new ways to fill the gap in their quarantine calendars.

ESPN's 10-part documentary series was an entertaining ride from start to finish. It featured new interviews, fascinating archival footage and plenty of fresh Jordan memes.

"The Last Dance" was a lot of fun. It was also flawed in a few ways.

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To be clear, this writer thoroughly enjoyed it and would absolutely sign up for more hours of Jordan being presented an iPad and reacting dismissively. "The Last Dance" was always going to be an ambitious undertaking, but considering the early premiere date and limitations in editing the final episodes, the overall product deserves immense praise.

However, certain elements of the series didn't work, and some storylines were lacking necessary context.

Timeline jumping

Though it was billed as an examination of Chicago's 1997-98 run to its sixth championship, "The Last Dance" spanned multiple decades and covered the journeys of multiple key figures in the Bulls' dynasty. That presented a challenge for director Jason Hehir, who decided to jump from one year to another with quick graphics.

"The idea of converging timelines we discussed very early in the process as being the easiest way for the viewer to process it," Hehir told The Athletic's Richard Deitsch. "There are time warp graphics to help cue the viewer that the story is now going back in time. That's how the film goes from the 1998 season to a back story."

It's a smart plan in theory, but more confusing in practice.

In Episode 5, for example, viewers are taken from the 1998 All-Star Game matchup between Jordan and a young Kobe Bryant to the "Dream Team" experience in 1992. There is little connective tissue, and it's jarring to bounce around with different versions of MJ.

The same issue emerged in Episode 9 when the Bulls were right in the thick of a tough series with the Pacers. Suddenly the timeline shifts to 1997 and Chicago's rivalry with Utah. All of the tension-building done to prove the Pacers were a true threat in the Eastern Conference immediately dissipated.

Hehir's logic made sense given the amount of footage he had at his disposal. A linear approach may have worked better.

The portrayal of Jerry Krause

In the opening episode of "The Last Dance," Jordan is seen joking about Krause's height and weight, a common occurrence whenever the Bulls general manager happened to walk down to the court or into the locker room. The shots only continued from there until the finale when Scottie Pippen, who had far from a friendly relationship with Krause, offered a genuine compliment.

"We can't knock him. We gotta give him credit. And he deserves credit because he was the general manager of those teams," Pippen said. "I've had a lot of great people in my life and that's why my success happened. I played with Phil Jackson, the greatest coach in the game. Michael Jordan, the greatest player in the game.

"Jerry Krause, obviously the greatest general manager in the game."

The man was far from perfect. Krause struggled to connect with his players. He seemed obsessed with receiving credit. He threw reporters wild quotes without a second thought. He was looking forward to a rebuild while he had Michael Freaking Jordan on his team.

And yet, Krause consistently built a contender around Jordan and executed multiple smart transactions in order to improve the team. His inability to defend himself in the documentary series — Krause died in 2017 at age 77 — created some uncomfortable situations. (NBC Sports Chicago's K.C. Johnson has published excerpts from Krause's unfinished memoir if you want to hear his side of the story.)

The vilification of Krause also let Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf off the hook. Krause was an easy target, but Reinsdorf had the ultimate power. He appeared content to leave Krause in the line of fire and throw his hands up as though he didn't sit atop the organizational chart.

If Reinsdorf wanted to bring everyone back for the 1998-99 season and chase a seventh ring, all he had to do was take the reins. He could have fired Krause at any point. He didn't.

It's highly unlikely Hehir intended to position Krause this way, but he wasn't the only person with editorial influence.

Jordan's heavy hand

As documentary filmmaker Ken Burns noted, Jordan's relationship to "The Last Dance" was always going to be an obstacle. The series couldn't move forward unless Jordan gave Hehir permission to use the footage shot from the 1997-98 season, and Jordan's production company, Jump 23, was involved in the project. (NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who was the head of NBA Entertainment at the time, convinced Jordan to allow a film crew to follow that Bulls team.)

"This isn't investigative journalism," executive producer Mike Tollin told Deadline last month. "Jason's a filmmaker and like his, my orientation is to tell great stories. But in order to tell a great story you have to be credible and people have to believe they're getting the truth and you're not pulling punches."

Viewers often got a partial, Jordan-ified version of the truth over the course of "The Last Dance." While teammates like Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr had their moments to shine, others like Horace Grant and Toni Kukoc were called out for snitching to writers or being beloved by the front office. Ron Harper barely spoke.

Jordan's pettiness also came into play when the series covered his rivals. In Episode 8, Jordan laughs off the idea SuperSonics guard Gary "The Glove" Payton slowed him down in the 1996 NBA Finals. The game film and stats show Payton indeed impacted Jordan's performance, but "The Last Dance" brushes off Payton's claims just as quickly as Jordan does.

Away from the court, Hehir dove into tougher topics such as the death of Jordan's father, which was commendable. And yet, those types of inquiries further highlighted the absence of those who were closest to Jordan throughout his playing career — his first wife, Juanita Vanoy, and their three children, Jeffrey, Marcus and Jasmine.

Juanita wasn't interviewed for the series, and Jeffrey, Marcus and Jasmine only made brief appearances in Episode 10 to say they didn't attend NBA Finals games in Utah. (Jordan's current wife, Yvette Prieto, with whom he has twin daughters, also didn't appear in "The Last Dance.")

"I wasn't interested in the opinion of any wife or kids in this," Hehir told Deitsch. "We had the storytellers we wanted and I felt like we had the story covered from every angle."

Except that angle was missing completely. After detailing the deep and powerful connection between Jordan and his father, "The Last Dance" never put "Air Dad" on display. Michael and Juanita divorced in 2006 after 17 years of marriage, so it's hard not to wonder if MJ pushed back on any conversations about his family.

This wasn't "investigative journalism," and portions of "The Last Dance" leaned closer to Jordan propaganda than a search for the truth. But Hehir and his colleagues gave us 10 episodes to watch and dissect over five weeks, a nice escape from the horrors of the world.

Hey, you could do a lot worse than fun but flawed.

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