SportsPulse: Michael Jordan’s former teammate BJ Armstrong believes ‘The Last Dance’ will have a lasting impact due its universal message.
Michael Jordan had the stage to himself the last five weeks. Not unlike he did when he played. That must’ve felt … familiar to the legendary basketball player.
Once again, all eyes were on him.
Not that he’s ever far from view. What with his Jumpman image affixed to billions of dollars of shoes and athletic apparel. And with the highlights of his most indelible moments affixed to our mind’s eye.
Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan looks to move around the Seattle SuperSonics’ Gary Payton during the third quarter of Game 3 in the NBA Finals, Sunday, June 9, 1996, in Seattle. (Photo: Beth A. Keiser, Associated Press)
For those mid-30s and older, Jordan never really went away. He is a fixture of late 20th Century American culture. Embedded in the consciousness.
What he meant and, more important, what he represented, can’t be understated. “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part documentary about Jordan and his Chicago Bulls dynasty, just made that easier to explain to the younger set.
My own sons — 22 and 21 — sat mesmerized by the footage and by the stories, as did an entire generation of basketball fans. Though they remain convinced that LeBron James is better. (More on that in a moment.)
Before “The Last Dance,” trying to articulate what it was like to watch Jordan — especially in his younger years in the 1980s before social media, before widespread cable — was difficult. In a sense, you’re asking someone to envision a completely foreign world.
Back in those days, when Jordan leapt onto the scene, I was living in Austin, Texas, and attending college. Without access to ESPN, I relied on local news for highlights, shown on a community television in the lounge of a dorm.
The Texas Longhorns dominated the broadcasts. Followed by clips of the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers and San Antonio Spurs. But that’s not why we started watching.
Even during his rookie year, Jordan crashed the local news. Here was a player from Chicago, whose feats were so outlandish that a station in the middle of Texas spliced his takeoffs and dunks into its feed.
We learned the Bulls’ schedule in order to crowd the lounge in hopes of catching a glimpse. He wasn’t just different. He was new. And that sensation rarely happens in sports.
That he harnessed those otherworldly athletic gifts, combined them with maniacal desire and grit, and grabbed hold of the league — and the global sporting scene — created a kind of mythology around him, a mythology that still exists.
He represented near perfection. And whatever imperfections emerged — whether during his playing days or retirement — were always seen in the context of chasing that perfection.
“The Last Dance” was designed to protect that mythology. And to expand it. There are shoes and sweat suits to sell. But then this isn’t just about mere money.
It’s about legacy, and about history, about a singular force who took our most fluid and artful game to the rest of the world. In that way, Jordan was about American exceptionalism. He is the face of an era.
Which is why we just spent 10 hours reliving it, even as we all knew how it would end. Though that’s the point, too: with Jordan, we always knew how it would end.
And so, when we say there will never be another Jordan, this is what we are actually saying.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be better basketball players. In fact, there already is one. He plays for the Lakers. And no one has ever controlled — or patrolled — a basketball floor like he has.
LeBron James will always suffer to Jordan by comparison for those of us who came up at some point during Jordan’s era of dominance. Not just because James hasn’t won as many championships, but because he represents a more complicated era in public life, an era few of us want to romanticize.
Yet to my sons, James is the embodiment of their time, of their life, of social media and instant access to the world. To them, James navigates this life better than anyone else in American sports. It’s not just his power and vision on the court, it’s his power and vision off it. And that represents their idea of American exceptionalism.
James isn’t quite new the way Jordan was — or Magic Johnson before him; in fact, he plays like a quicker, more athletic Johnson — but he has survived, and thrived, under the kind of pressure and exposure that Jordan never had to. The kind of exposure my sons feel in their lives.
Kids their age document their lives in a way that no generation before has. Life unfolds on a digital stage. James lives on that stage with them, and so they feel connected to him.
And no matter how enthralled they were while watching “The Last Dance,” no matter how in awe of Jordan’s spring or first step or body control, no matter how many times they watched him hit game-winners or implore a teammate to toughen up so he could do the same, to them, the documentary is still just part of history.
Not their history.
So, it’s easier for them to see in that footage a game that wasn’t quite as skilled as it is now, or as fluid. It’s easier for them to notice the athletic difference between Jordan and his peers, especially in the 1980s, a difference that wouldn’t stand out so much now.
It’s easier for them to view Jordan as his own entity, separate from them, and marvel, without forcing him into the context of today’s players or game. A mental trick that’s not so easy for so many of us.
No wonder ESPN reported that when it aired the series, the second-most tweeted name behind Jordan was LeBron James. Of course it was.
There is a legacy to protect. Not just Jordan’s. But the generations he represents.
If nothing else, “The Last Dance” reminded us of that.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.