Have we never seen Michael Jordan like this before, or is it simply that we forgot? Anyone who lived through the Chicago Bulls’ domination of the NBA during the 1990s – even, like me, as a kid – can probably still recall the broad outlines of Jordan’s talent, the qualities that made him such an exceptional athlete: the elasticity; the hang time; the spectacular dunks, ludicrous switch-hands layups, and clutch buzzer-beaters; the raw power. Jordan reigned at “the end of history”, in that curious decade between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, and for all his ability with a ball in his hand he’s always seemed a little remote, a little above it all. He was the perfect athlete, in a sense, for the decade that fancied itself post-political. In an era that thought it had figured it all out, Jordan was the player who actually had.

And yet. As The Last Dance, the 10-part documentary whose first episodes premiere on ESPN in the US on Sunday (with the worldwide releases for each on Netflix the following day), shows, he was so much more. Yes, Jordan was gloriously, unironically macho. Yes, his body worked like a Swiss army knife, limbs cutting through the air in all directions at one moment then snapping back into a streamlined cylinder the next. Yes, he was capable of outrageous things on the court. But he was also a bully, a wrecking ball, the owner of a volcanic will to win, a man of almost unbearable intensity. However much joy Jordan gave to millions throughout his career, and will surely give to millions more with the release of this banquet of a documentary, it’s hard to escape the feeling that being him – occupying that body, harnessing that talent, channelling that unrelenting drive to be the best – must have been incredibly hard. The Last Dance is nominally about Jordan’s last season with the Bulls, but flashbacks give us the full, luxurious history of His Airness, and what we’re really offered by the end of it all is a study in sympathy. The man who emerges from these 10 hours of pure 90s nostalgia is heroic, preposterous, demanding, difficult, and sometimes outright tyrannical – and somehow only even more appealing for all his flaws. He cared about one thing, and one thing only: winning. Once you understand the singularity of Jordan’s focus, everything else about him makes sense.

The Last Dance takes its title from the name of the dossier that Bulls coach Phil Jackson, in a typically canny bit of marketing, handed to every player ahead of the 1997-98 season. Jordan had progressed from a promising but coltish No 3 pick in the 1984 draft to the NBA’s first authentic international superstar; his rise paralleled, or rather propelled, the global rise of the league. But by 1997, five titles to the good, it had become clear that Jordan’s Bulls had only one season left in them. Longtime general manager Jerry Krause had signaled that Chicago’s team of champions would be broken up at the conclusion of the season. Jackson, the man who convinced Jordan, in the late 1980s, to set his ego aside and trust in the transformational beauty of the triangle offense, was also to be shown the door. We all know how the story ends – Jordan led the Bulls to a second three-peat, before riding off into the sunset – but what happens along the way is all the pleasure of this spectacle. A TV crew followed the Bulls around for the duration of the season, and the footage they recorded – footage that has never been aired until now – forms the backbone of The Last Dance. We see Jordan coping with Scottie Pippen’s back injury – the Bulls lieutenant ended up being out of action for the first 35 games of the season – and the ongoing discord between Pippen and management. We see him trying to keep the playing group together during the periodic disappearances and brain fades of an agreeably demented Dennis Rodman. We see him bickering with Steve Kerr, of all people.

Most of all, though, we see Michael Jordan angry. If there’s one theme that emerges most emphatically from The Last Dance it’s the sheer force of Jordan’s personality, the rage that drove him on. Repeatedly throughout his career, Jordan used slights against his greatness as motivation to obliterate all before him. He decided to destroy the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1992 finals because he didn’t like comparisons suggesting he and Clyde Drexler were on the same level. He and Pippen resolved to gang up on Toni Kukoc in the first game the Dream Team played against Croatia at the 1992 Olympics because Krause, a regular punching bag, thought Kukoc was a good player who would improve the Bulls roster. He punched Kerr in the face in preseason ahead of the 1995-96 campaign, ahead of his first season back after 18 months away playing baseball, because “we were shit when I got back” and a point needed to be made.

To watch Jordan reflect on these incidents now, ensconced in the armchair of his spacious, beachy home, settled into a thick middle age, cocktail tumbler by his side, chuckling fondly as the filmmakers hand him a tablet and he watches the footage, say, of Gary Payton reflecting on his efforts to stop Jordan in the 1996 finals, it can all seem a little ridiculous that he ever took things so seriously.

But if The Last Dance proves that Jordan was not exactly popular with his teammates, it also reminds us how magnetic his personality was, how charismatic and funny he could be, of the cult that quickly grew up around him. Repeatedly we see him goofing around in practice, bantering back and forth with the press, or on the Bulls’ private jet, cigar in mouth (the sheer amount of tobacco smoked during The Last Dance would be enough to give most people lung cancer), gently teasing his entourage. The respect of his rivals is unmistakable. In the summer of 1995, as he prepared for his first full season back post-retirement, Jordan was contracted to shoot Space Jam. He asked Warner Brothers to build him a facility to practice in during the shoot, and the studio duly complied by creating the Jordan Dome, a custom-built indoor full-size basketball court and training gym. From 7am to 7pm, Jordan shot the film. Then, for three hours after shooting wrapped each night, he played pick-up games with a roster of the NBA’s best, all of whom traveled to LA to be close to him: Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller, Dennis Rodman. “Those were the best games,” Miller recalls with boyish wonder.



Michael Jordan celebrates his second NBA title in 1992. Photograph: John Swart/AP

The series deals sensitively with the murder of Jordan’s father and the other, darker chapters of his career: his habit and lack of engagement in popular politics. Jordan’s apolitical character – “Republicans buy sneakers too,” he reportedly said after refusing to endorse North Carolina Democrat Harvey Gantt in his 1990 Senate race against the notorious racist Jesse Helms – has often been cited against him in the interminable debate over whether he or LeBron James deserves the title of greatest basketballer ever. Where LeBron is fully committed to his role as a public figure and unafraid to take polarizing stances on political issues, Jordan mostly shied away from anything that would alienate segments of his enormous, bipartisan fanbase. The Last Dance does not avoid pressing Jordan on these issues, though his answers are mostly unsatisfying; he claims he could not endorse Gantt because he “didn’t know the guy”.

It’s clear that his priorities lay elsewhere: in making money, (how strange that era’s moral panic over Jordan’s love of a bet appears today), and above all, winning. That focus on making money and doing all the talking on the court – which, on the evidence here, his teammates evidently shared – made Jordan the archetype of the modern athlete. Jordan was not so much an individual as an industry, and he set the template for the generations of athletic gods that followed: the endorsements, the clothing lines, the cultural tie-ins and carefully managed media spots. But the curation of his image was designed, very obviously to Jordan’s mind, in pursuit of a single objective: being the best. Winning was the real aim, and everything else had to serve it. If Jordan did have any politics, any consciousness of racial or economic injustice, it was sublimated into the overwhelming fury that consumed him the moment he stepped on the court.

The most moving scenes in The Last Dance show Jordan in the moments after clinching his first and fourth titles. In 1991 we see him in the dressing room next to his dad, face pressed to the Larry O’Brien trophy, crying a torrent of tears, and for a second we’re there with him, living the extraordinary catharsis of that first ring. In 1996, his first title back after the 18-month hiatus in baseball, he’s back in the dressing room, clutching a ball, face down on the floor, his body convulsing as the tears flow untrammeled once again. These are the only moments in the documentary where we see 90s-era Jordan in any mode other than those of the training ground shit-talker, the on-court destroyer, the cigar-chomping GOAT; the only time he’s not braggadocio on legs. It’s fitting that the athlete perhaps best known in popular culture today for the “crying Jordan” meme should be reintroduced to us in this way. Myths and misperceptions swirled around Jordan throughout his career: that he was selfish, wasn’t a team player, only cared about getting rich. To see the footage of him after those 1991 and 1996 titles, that Ferrari of a body heaving with uncontrollable tears, possessed by the release of victory, is to understand who Michael Jordan really was: as pure a competitive animal as professional sport has ever seen.

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