D.A.: "The Last Dance" Failed By Telling Only Jordan's Side

The 10-part series was "compelling theater," D.A. says, but it was also "wildly one-sided" and left "gaping holes unfilled"

Damon Amendolara
May 21, 2020 - 11:49 am

Just so we're clear, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever. I remain open-minded enough to admit LeBron still has time to pass him. Another title or two from LeBron along with the all-time scoring mark, and being second or third in career assists, would be a heavy case to argue. But for now, my cards are on the table. Mike is best. 

It's important to note because the following is neither an effort to discredit his career, nor diminish his accomplishments. The Last Dance reiterated what so many of us witnessed firsthand throughout the '90s. In every big spot, for nearly a decade, Michael came up huge. In swing games, road games, and closeout games. In clinchers, and in openers. Against tough opponents and easy ones. When it mattered, Michael always delivered. Always. This is not to say his resume is spotless. He had to learn how to push his teammates positively. He eventually realized the value in coaching. He had rare off-nights in his career. But time and again, Jordan called his shot, ripped your heart out, and walked away laughing. He collected MVPs, Finals trophies, defensive player of the year awards, and a peerless resume. 

The 10-part documentary was entertaining, compelling, engaging theater. It was also wildly one-sided. That is likely because of Michael's maniacal control over his reputation and everything in his orbit. Perhaps to become one of the most famous people on the planet you have to assert some authority. The overwhelming nature of that popularity probably demands it. But The Last Dance was clearly a Jordan production. He had to greenlight it. He had to rubber stamp it. He had to accept its conclusions. 

Horace Grant has been the most vocal critic of Jordan in the aftermath of this series. He strongly denies being the snitch in Sam Smith's "The Jordan Rules," the first deep public criticism of the NBA's young, magnetic superstar. In The Last Dance, Michael insists Grant was the locker room leak. Horace denies it. We have no one else on camera to corroborate either side. "I think he proved that during this so-called documentary," Grant said. "If you say something about him, he's going to cut you off, he's going to try to destroy your character."

Grant questioned many of Jordan's tales in the doc. "Ninety percent of it -- I don't know if I can say it on air, but B.S. in terms of the realness of it. It wasn't real, because a lot of things [Jordan] said to some of his teammates, that his teammates went back at him. But all of that was kind of edited out of the documentary, if you want to call it a documentary." Thank goodness for Grant, who is one of the rare NBA voices not to simply genuflect at the altar of Michael's movie. "When that so-called documentary is about one person, basically, and he has the last word on what's going to be put out there ... it's not a documentary," Grant said. "It's his narrative of what happens in the last, quote-unquote, dance. That's not a documentary, because a whole bunch of things was cut out, edited out. So that's why I call it a so-called documentary."

It's true. The Last Dance is compelling theater. It's also not a documentary that explores difficult questions, or presents two sides of an argument. It's Michael's autobiography, and it's sanitized for broad consumption. When Michael says his teammates would have all accepted one-year deals to bring the band back in '99, none of those athletes appear on camera to deny it. It's a pollyanna scrubbing of what actually took place. Scottie Pippen is glaringly omitted as he almost assuredly would have laughed at the suggestion after being underpaid for years. Steve Kerr, Dennis Rodman, and Jud Buechler all appeared in the film. None of them were asked this very central question. Why? They would've denied Jordan's claim.  

Owner Jerry Reinsdorf also admitted to being upset by Michael's portrayal of events. The man who spends much of the film waxing poetic about his greatest employee says he had private conversations with Jordan about why the team could not return as is in '99. "He knew better. Michael and I had some private conversations at that time that I won’t go into detail on ever,” Reinsdorf told NBC Sports Chicago this week. "But there’s no question in my mind that Michael’s feeling at the time was we could not put together a championship team the next year.” Reinsdorf is not asked on camera to dispute Jordan's claims. 

In the '96 Finals, the Bulls take a 3-0 series lead before George Karl switched Gary Payton defensively onto Jordan. The Glove believes he slowed down Michael enough to take the next two games of the Finals. Michael laughs off that notion in a now-famous meme. We are shown no other players or coaches who may have agreed with Payton. Michael insists he played poorly during those two losses because he was distracted by Father's Day, a reminder of his deceased father. However, the film fails to challenge that flimsy reasoning. Games 4 and 5 were played before the holiday. The Bulls actually clinched, with Michael going 22-9-7, on Father's Day. So Michael was distracted by Father's Day in the week prior, but not on the day itself? Or was it a convenient attempt at dismissing an opponent's success? 

The mysterious murder of James Jordan in '93 is a central point of his son's life. Michael is so distraught he needs to step away from the game. However, Michael's simplistic version of the murder doesn't portray how convoluted it was. The case continues to be highly contested 27 years later. Startlingly, the family did not call the authorities on their father as a missing person until he was gone for 21 days. This is not mentioned in The Last Dance. Neither is the connection to a noted drug dealer. Michael discusses the power of his father's influence, and says James always wanted him to play baseball. But when it comes to why Jordan gave up that dream in '95, no reason is presented. Was it difficult to quit your dad's dreams? Did you realize it was a mistake to leave basketball? The film simply moves on. 

Jordan insists his gambling never was an addiction, nor a detriment. No one appears on camera to dispute that notion. His mother, who is interviewed throughout this film, would've been valuable in her assessment of her son's betting. Jordan mentions during the film that at the height of his gambling he had to disassociate from shady individuals. His most questionable acquaintance was Slim Bouler, who went to jail for eight years on drug trafficking and money laundering. He is barely mentioned by name, and does not appear on camera. Jordan later admits he kept older bodyguards and protectors like Gus Lett for their wisdom. Was that a lesson he learned after younger years with deviants? The film fails to explore a connection between the two. 

Teammates that appreciated Michael's tough leadership appear throughout the series. Bill Wennington, Steve Kerr, John Paxson, and many more bit players are extensively quoted. However, Luc Longley and Craig Hodges are notably missing. Both had rocky relationships with Michael. Charles Barkley was one of Michael's best friends for nearly 30 years. He battled the Bulls in perhaps the most memorable Finals of the decade. But Jordan has had a falling out with Chuck, angry at Charles' critique of him as an owner. Barkley, one of the greatest quotes in sports history, never discusses his personal relationship with Michael or Jordan away from the court in the film.

Was Michael the reason Isiah Thomas was left off the Dream Team? Most people believe so, and would even defend Jordan's reasoning for it. But Michael denies his responsibility, and the film points the finger at Thomas' broken relationships with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and others. The film tells you it wasn't Jordan's fault. 

Michael's first wife, Juanita, does not appear on camera. She is not mentioned by name in the film. Michael's brothers appear on camera, but not to discuss Jordan's gambling habits or seedy off-court acquaintances. Michael's three children do not appear in the series until the final episode. When we finally hear from them, they only speak about how rambunctious the Salt Lake crowd was. Nothing on what their father was like during this unprecedented life of basketball success and celebrity. Family plays a central role as Jordan's mother is extensively quoted, and dad is his hero. Yet director Jason Hehir said he wasn't inclined to get the perspective of family. "I wasn't interested in the opinion of any wife or kids in this." So his kids' opinion of Jazz fans apparently is important enough, but not of their dad. No wives? Rodman's ex-wife Carmen Electra makes numerous appearances in the film. 

The Last Dance drew record ratings, and was a talk topic for the entire country for five weeks. By every measure, it has been a raging success for ESPN, the filmmakers and Jordan. But the film lacks any balance, leaving a nagging sense this was a 10-hour vanity project to remind everyone just how scintillating Jordan really was. Michael gets the final word on all topics, and if you are at all considered an enemy, you are not welcome. There is no counter or challenge to Michael's version of the events, and gaping holes left unfilled, which leaves us with questions about how much of this was merely a promotional vehicle for Jordan's legacy. It's too bad. Jordan's greatest quality is his fearlessness and embracing of all challenges. However, The Last Dance skirted giving him any new ones. 

Damon Amendolara, known by his fans as D.A., hosts “The D.A. Show,” from 6:00AM-10:00AM, ET, across the country on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. “The D.A. Show” is known for its unique perspective on sports, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, colorful listener interaction, and candid interviews with athletes and coaches. Amendolara also appears regularly on NFL Network as part of the “NFL Top 10” documentary film series, CBS television and SNY TV. He is a Syracuse University grad and native of Warwick, N.Y.