I and about six million other people have been enjoying The Last Dance, the Michael Jordan documentary currently on ESPN. It tells the story of the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-1998 season and contains many pleasures. There is incredible imagery, new interviews with Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson, and Dennis Rodman, gossip and intrigue, and, above all, the presence on television, albeit commemorative, of professional sports.
The Last Dance offers a double escapism. Not only does it allow the audience to spend two hours a week thinking about something other than coronavirus. The film is also a time capsule, chockfull of highlights and characters from a previous historical epoch. Every so often one is reminded, subtly and unintentionally, that Jordan’s rise to glory took place against the backdrop of the self-demolition of America’s preeminent adversary, the marshaling of American military and diplomatic strength in Operation Desert Storm, and the tech boom. Jordan becomes both the exemplar and symbol of American achievement. His past glories coincided with national ones. Indeed, in the case of the “Dream Team” at the 1992 summer Olympics, they were one and the same.
This exercise in nostalgia transports the viewer back to the “unipolar moment” when, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there existed “a single pole of world power that consists of the United States at the apex of the industrial West.” So wrote Charles Krauthammer in late 1990, developing Francis Fukuyama’s argument from the year before that the world had arrived at “the end of History,” with the victory of the liberal-democratic model of governance over its ideological competitors.
The end of History was short-lived. After 9/11, Krauthammer took to calling the 1990s not an end but a “holiday from history.” What a pleasant holiday it was. And how large a part Michael Jordan played in it. I can’t be the only child of the Reagan years for whom memories of Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf, Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers, and H. Ross Perot are intermixed with recollections of Bulls Starter Jackets, pairs of Air Jordan sneakers, All-Star Weekend, and NBA Inside Stuff with Ahmad Rashad on Saturday mornings. To watch The Last Dance is to revisit America before the fall of the World Trade Center, before Afghanistan and Iraq, before the global financial crisis, Syria, Ukraine, and the rise of China. It was a stronger, more self-confident place. And a naive and superficial one.
This historical reflection is not meant to diminish the star of the show. Jordan is as beguiling and charming today as he was back then. His cigar stand and magically refilling whiskey glass at his side during the recent interviews, he offers a reassuring presence during a global emergency. And the archival footage remains jaw-dropping. His athleticism and performance under pressure is thrilling. He really did fly.
What comes across most is Jordan’s drive and willpower. Jonathan V. Last put it well in an essay on the star in the January 25, 1999, issue of The Weekly Standard. “The secret of Michael Jordan’s greatness — of all competitive greatness — is not merely, as we now instruct our children, to do your best,” Last wrote. “It is to make your best superior to everyone else’s. You must cultivate your own talent, yes; but you must also search out and exploit the weaknesses of your opponent. Somebody must lose so you can win.”
In Jordan is found intelligence, determination, talent, and an overwhelming competitive streak. At the so-called end of History, when the world was thought to be converging, flattening, homogenizing, he personified inequality, difference, greatness, and the desire for recognition. Which he achieved.
But there is more than one way to thirst for recognition. Jordan is not the only human type on display in The Last Dance. The filmmakers do a wonderful job of communicating the pathos and ambivalence of Scottie Pippen and the equanimity and discernment of Phil Jackson. The latest episodes have focused on the character of Dennis Rodman. This skilled athlete, with his complicated and troubled personality, represents another facet of the 1990s: its obsession with gloss and celebrity.
The hijinks that scandalized America 30 years ago — the chameleon-like hair and outlandish fashions, the piercings, the crossdressing, the flings with Madonna and marriage to Carmen Electra — are commonplace in 2020. That is because Rodman was a pioneer. His shocking displays of a fluid individuality pushed the boundaries of acceptable public behavior until there was no boundary at all. Where Jordan was elitist, Rodman was nihilist. And if Jordan is the consummate athlete of his era, Rodman, in his eccentricity, materialism, transgression, and media savvy, defines that era itself.
When the “last dance” finished, the Bulls had another championship. Jordan headed off to a second retirement before his final stint with the Washington Wizards. Rodman played a few more seasons. Then he left the NBA for wrestling, international stardom, and a stint on Celebrity Apprentice. Where he worked for, and was fired by, the man who ended the end of History.