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“The Last Dance” disqualified itself as viable evidence in the GOAT debate around the 59-minute mark of Episode 1. That’s when credits began to roll, and the first three names of executive producers flashed onto your TV screen. There was Mike Tollin, who originally pitched the project. And there were Curtis Polk and Estee Portnoy – business partner and manager/spokeswoman, respectively, to one Michael Jordan.
What they and countless others have made is in many ways a masterpiece. It’s driving unprecedented ratings and quenching sports thirsts. It’s enjoyable. It’s captivating. It’s nostalgia-inducing for some. It’s educational for others.
It becomes problematic, though, when Jordan’s people frame it as something more. David Falk, Jordan’s longtime agent, did just that this week. “If you are not legally blind and you watch this 10 hours and don't realize this is the greatest player of all time,” he told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, “you should probably start watching roller derby."
Falk isn’t the first person to hold up the documentary as proof of MJ’s GOAT status. He certainly won’t be the last. Millions of people share his opinion. And 10 hours of vintage footage and emotional interviews are confirmation bias’ dream.
But Falk isn’t helping. He’s actually feeding an unpopular-but-not-unsubstantiated view of “The Last Dance” as Jordan propaganda. It’s a view supported by the doc’s tendency to rely overwhelmingly on Jordan’s version of events – and, of course, by those credits, too.
It’s why the past four Sundays aren’t proof of anything. Jordan might be the GOAT. But not because he, his business associates and a team of talented storytellers tell us he is.
Falk made the GOAT pitch for his friend as an indirect response to a question about why, and why now. What pushed Jordan, a famously private figure in retirement, to agree to unseal the behind-the-scenes footage? And why, after two decades of refusing similar approaches, did he decide to participate in a groundbreaking documentary now?
Perhaps it’s relevant that Jordan made that decision literally while LeBron James and the Cavaliers were parading their Larry O’Brien trophy through the streets of Cleveland in 2016.
And perhaps that’s why Falk, after rambling for a bit, brought up the LeBron comparisons, and transitioned into his line about blind people and roller derbies.
Van Pelt began the conversation with a wide-open question. In that answer, too, Falk quickly arrived at a statement about “what really made Michael Jordan the incredible GOAT of all time.”
So why did Jordan agree to “The Last Dance”? We’ll probably never get a full explanation. But we’d be naive to think legacy wasn’t on his mind. We’d also be naive to ignore that his company, Jump 23, is an (unlisted) partner on the project. And that his business associates, and specifically the woman in charge of managing his public image, are executive producers. Perhaps they care a bit about how that legacy is crafted.
And perhaps that’s why the entire story revolves around Jordan’s perspective, occasionally to a fault. Perhaps it’s why, when the narrative arrives at his flaws, it leaves with Jordan turning the media’s coverage of them into motivation. Perhaps it’s why, when attention turns to Scottie Pippen’s flaws, Pippen – one of the best players of his generation, a beloved teammate, and an absolutely essential part of the three-peats – rarely gets the same narrative-driving privilege.
“The Last Dance” is wonderful entertainment. It just isn’t journalism. Which is absolutely fine … as long as we don’t view it as that.
Falk said on ESPN that Jordan “wanted to see the story told.” What he really got was a chance to tell it. Which, well … if LeBron’s production company spent multiple years working on a 10-hour documentary that showed why he is the GOAT, would you believe that one too?
This is not a column about the GOAT debate. It’s a column about not letting an inherently biased retelling of one contestant’s career settle the debate.
“The Last Dance” allows millions of us to see, hear, feel Michael Jordan like we never have before. Its brilliance is the look in his eyes when he senses disrespect; the tears that well and the emotions that surface; the heartfelt monologue that closed Episode 7.
It’s a unique look at, as Falk said, “his mind.” And “his approach, his concentration, his devotion – unparalleled.”
It’s also a subjective look at one slice of basketball history. It’s a useful perspective. But given whose perspective it is, don’t let it be a definitive one.
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