I always had a small head. Having always been small, I guess it was proportionate. In the nineties, as I was entering my teens, this tiny noggin was nearly always adorned with a big, red, Chicago Bulls hat. This served to dwarf my features even further. Such was the fever created by Michael Jordan & Co., I was more than willing to ignore this difficulty for the sake of fashion, not for the last time either. Jordan fever had swept the world. What a time to discover basketball.
I distinctly remember a balmy night in June of ’98. Portable TVs were all the rage in the nineties. We had relatives staying, and the house was silent after an outing to Croke Park had come to a quiet end, when Wexford fell foul of a final minute killer goal from Offaly. Tough times. I, however, had a chance of redemption from this setback by staying up to watch the Bulls hopefully retain their title. So, the solemn silence of the night was gently punctuated by the Channel Four commentary of history unfolding before my eyes.
My brothers were very young at the time and slept soundly in our room as the dim glow of the portable bounced around the room. Watching the final moments of this game made it quite difficult not to rouse the whole house with my youthful excitement. I had to strictly internalise my utter rapture at what was unfolding. To watch Jordan first steal the ball, then fluidly pounce to give that Bulls team such a fitting end, was something my growing brain struggled to process.
To see someone so talked about, at the peak of their powers, deliver at the seminal moment, time and again, was so inspiring it’s still hard to put into words. What the hell just happened? Jordan, yet again, had happened.
The Here and Now
Fast forward to today and I’m helped to relive every moment of following that team thanks to The Last Dance. I’m brought straight back thanks to the multitude of epic game sequences in the form of made shots, blocked shots, and the most iconic moments that outrageous team conjured up. The filmmakers deserve great praise for helping to send me back in time so easily. With the dearth of live sport at the moment, which I have already decried (see earlier post), this was manna from heaven.
Coupled with the many action packed shots is, of course, commentary from all the central figures. This is where things get even more interesting. How can someone who has conquered all, still hang on to such bitterness and anger at others? Was this what drove him?
In Jordan we see the complexity of man. Brash, nasty, self absorbed one minute; brittle, emotional, and empathetic the next. Who is he exactly? Productions of this kind have to be taken with a pinch of salt of course. It is unlikely I’ll ever meet the man, so why fixate on his personality? All I do know is that I would be incredibly naive to think anyone who ascends to the top of elite level sport doesn’t have a serious edge to them. Although Steve Kerr comes across as a fella you’d like to have a jar with, and his success speaks for itself, so there’s that.
What exactly does it take?
It got me thinking about what it takes to achieve true greatness in this world. Believe it or not, I can’t exactly empathise at the minute. Thinking on the question reminded me of the great film Whiplash (Spoiler alert, although if you haven’t seen it do!). We see a decent, young man put through the absolute ringer. He is pushed to the edge of his sanity, burns all his bridges; loses his relationships, and generally sacrifices all. Yet in the end he plays his greatest solo, maybe even the greatest solo the theatre has heard. So it left me with a conundrum; would he have achieved such greatness had he not gone to utter hell and back, and perhaps lost part of his decent self in the process? Kind of chicken and egg stuff isn’t it?
The Last Dance is dripping with ego on all sides; start to finish, with each player telling his version of history, richly coloured by their own ego. The juxtaposition of Jordan, Pippen, and co talking of their early rivalry with the Pistons, with that of the Pistons laughing it all off as nothing, was very insightful. Ego clouds all. Feeling Jordan’s anger shimmer through the telly as he declares ‘There’s no way you’ll convince me Isiah Thomas wasn’t an asshole’, hammers home just how intense these guys can be. The Pistons’ behaviour that night does show that sometimes ego prevents us from losing with class and dignity.
However, rather than investigate these guys’ egos, I would rather try to glean some insight into just what makes them tick, in a sort of master-craftsman kind of way. What are the attributes needed to achieve such mastery? Listening to them talk offers lots of insights. From seeing Pippen’s controlled aggression as he got up from a dirty blow, to Steve Kerr’s commitment to getting the most out of his self-described ‘basic ability’. It takes a bit more than basic ability to thrive on one of the teams for the ages, Steve.
Rodman perhaps offers the greatest glimpse into the mind of the elite sportsman. The sequence where he talks about how he came to master rebounding is something else. Rodman seems fairly damaged from his other lifestyle habits, but he comes completely alive when he describes studying all the sounds the ball would make as it hit the backboard, depending on which direction it would go. This left my jaw on the floor. His lively description of getting out of Jordan’s way to make that famed final shot is so rich with knowledge and appreciation of the colossus that is Jordan. So enjoyable.
The things we fail to see in these men is what sets them apart; their dedication to perfecting their skills and knowledge. Sometimes we prefer to see them almost as caricatures. It is clear Rodman has a bottomless pit of knowledge of the game, and in particular the actual physics of the ball; yet how many out there see him as a bizarre celebrity sideshow? How unfair.
Scottie Pippen the same; often seen as Jordan’s number two, this documentary highlights just how jaw-droppingly good he was. I will say that at the time, I do remember seeing him as one of the best players I’d ever seen. His aforementioned controlled aggression, and cool, calculating nature, offers us more insight. The clarity of thought that these guys show, when all the world is crumbling around them, is almost robotic. Incredible.
Then there’s talent, hard work, and endeavour. Something which seems to have been a perfect storm within Jordan. We see his commitment to improving through sheer hard work throughout the show. Two moments stand out. Firstly, when having lost to the Pistons again, he heads straight for the gym for the summer, as they all do. Secondly, during his brief dalliance with baseball. It is clear at the start of the baseball journey that he is far from the summit. Yet we see him attempt to scale that summit through sheer endeavour, working incredibly hard. How inspiring is that?!
Raw, Visceral Talent
The show oozes talent throughout. Of course every elite sportsperson is talented at the outset; someone in their lives spotted this and pushed them. For Jordan it seems his parents pushed him. His talent is what captured all of our imaginations. The prediction at the start about a six foot five inch guard being unable to lead a team really hasn’t aged well. From the outset it is clear Jordan was more than exceptionally gifted. For us mere mortals at the time, it really seemed that Jordan could fly. Watching his brilliance at every dunk competition left us all rapt, always wondering what would he do next.
We see Jordan’s vulnerable side too. Having had my own dalliances with grief, I was certainly left shook by sights of Jordan sobbing uncontrollably on the dressing room floor. What a scene that was. Such an outpouring of unspeakable pain. It highlights how much these great players must shackle their emotions to be the best. Almost like becoming inhuman. Victory usually is the key to these shackles, as everything is just unleashed at the buzzer. Similar sights of Roger Federer would compound this view.
I am reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem The Windhover. Unlike Jordan, Manley Hopkins received no adulation during his life, receiving notoriety posthumously, but that hasn’t stopped him becoming as influential in his field. In the poem, he describes his wonder at the aerial ability of a kestrel. He is left speechless by its raw abilities, exclaiming; ‘My heart in hiding/Stirred for a bird,-The achieve of, the mastery of the thing!’ I can relate to Hopkins’ experience here, as we were all left with our jaws on the ground as Jordan, time and again, defied all laws of physics and logic. What a time it was to be alive. Thank you, Michael, for showing us that there is always wonder in this life.
Watching The Last Dance has again shown me it was indeed some time to be alive. Not only is it earth-shaking entertainment, but it offers us mere mortals a rare glimpse of the elite sportsman’s mindset, and the attributes that make them tick. Compelling to say the least.