Jordan should be appreciated on his own merits. As should James. But downplaying their constant comparisons in this, the zenith of Jordan nostalgia, would be a foolish misunderstanding of both the Chicago Bulls legend and the documentary project.
If anyone cared about rankings, it was Jordan. In Episode 1, he described childhood fights with his brother Larry for his father’s affection and his silent takeover of the Bulls as a rookie. In Episode 2, he called out ownership for its attempts to tank during his second season because he could not stomach the idea of missing the playoffs.
In forthcoming episodes, he explains how hurt he was by criticism that he was not on the same level as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird before he won a title and says he particularly cherished his first three-peat because those two had never accomplished the feat. He dedicates his life to getting past the Detroit Pistons, spending all summer in the gym to beef up for the physical pounding. He challenges Johnson for supremacy of the Dream Team and rolls his eyes when Ahmad Rashad asks which player will get the last shot in a close game at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. “Me,” he replies. “That’s a dumb question. Me.”
Once he reaches the summit, Jordan eagerly fends off all challengers. “The Last Dance” shows him brushing off the New York Knicks as not on the Bulls’ level. He is repulsed by comparisons to Clyde Drexler that happened nearly 30 years ago. He utterly dismisses Gary Payton. He explains repeatedly how the need to be the best is at the core of his identity, and he invents and exaggerates slights for motivation. Any viewer can tell after just two episodes that Jordan’s fire is still very much burning.
Simply put, James is the biggest threat to Jordan since the Pistons. The Los Angeles Lakers forward has accumulated championships, awards and gold medals, playing more games and scoring more points than Jordan. He also has mastered the modern media environment. Some observers argue that James already has surpassed Jordan as the greatest player ever because of his longevity, all-around basketball ability and social justice leadership. Others believe the ageless James will be regarded as the GOAT whenever he decides to retire.
Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that Jordan gave the green light to “The Last Dance” shortly after James scored the signature triumph of his career by leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2016 NBA title, according to ESPN.com. Perhaps it is no coincidence that James does not appear in the first eight episodes of the documentary, even though Kobe Bryant, two U.S. presidents and younger celebrities, such as Justin Timberlake, shower Jordan with praise. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the pre-novel coronavirus production schedule was going to air “The Last Dance” on off nights of the NBA Finals, potentially pitting Jordan’s Bulls against James’s Lakers.
The most interesting wrinkle of all, though, is that Jordan took a page from James’s playbook by making this documentary in the first place. James helped pave the way for athlete-produced content with his media company, Uninterrupted, and his HBO show, “The Shop,” turning his close friends and business associates into moguls. In fact, on his “More Than an Athlete” show that aired on ESPN Plus in 2018, James said the 2016 title “made me the greatest player of all time.”
Now Jordan, who doesn’t have social media accounts and has laid low in retirement, has launched a high-profile media project — one that has bolstered his GOAT case. ESPN is airing “The Last Dance,” but Jordan’s camp drove the multiyear process, obtaining the behind-the-scenes footage from the NBA, hiring the director and sketching out the episodes. His close advisers are all executive producers on the project.
In “The Last Dance,” Jordan takes a “show, don’t tell” approach to the debate. He invites past rivals such as Johnson and Isiah Thomas to attest to his skill and showmanship. Teammates such as Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr describe his maniacal work ethic and leadership. Lesser-known opponents describe their fear, and media members describe the adoration he inspired.
If the opening episodes are any indication, Jordan’s strategy is working. Just ask Dwyane Wade, James’s close friend and former teammate with the Miami Heat. “Man MJ had it!” he wrote on Twitter. “He had that ‘IT’. He was chosen to be the GOAT.”
Or ask Johnson, who recruited James to Los Angeles in 2018 as president of the Lakers. “Young fans that never got to see Michael play now understand why he’s the [GOAT] of basketball,” he wrote Sunday night. “For me? Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, and Beyoncé are the three greatest entertainers of my lifetime; and you could probably throw Muhammad Ali in there.”
James, for his part, was conspicuously absent from the group viewing experience of “The Last Dance.” His only tweet Sunday was about an NBC game show on which he serves as an executive producer.
Maybe one day James will have a 10-part documentary that chronicles his career. As with Jordan, there will be thousands of hours of highlight reels to pore over and dozens of big performances to recount. There will be no shortage of players and writers who will testify to his greatness and his global impact.
Until then, though, “The Last Dance” will linger as classic Jordan — a man who relished personal duels and loved nothing more than demolishing his opponents. Here, Jordan sized up James and said, “Anything you can do, I can do better.” Then he set about the painstaking process of proving it.
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