History is written by the winners
We’re here at the end of the road now. The Last Dance has been on for five weeks, but the final episodes have dropped and we have to make sense of it coming to an end.
It’s been delightful having this documentary series around. It’s a love letter to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, sure, but also a love letter to ‘90s basketball. Actually, it’s a tribute to ‘90s culture in general—heck, even '90s wrestling makes an appearance in this one—and, as someone who grew up in that era, it’s been pretty special.
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But back to '90s basketball. It’s become a common refrain that ‘90s basketball wasn’t quite as great as other eras. GOAT debaters like to say, “Who did MJ even beat?” compared to LeBron James, who faced off against the likes of Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Tim Duncan.
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But here’s a little reminder of how great but forgotten some of those ‘90s teams were. Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers took MJ’s Bulls to seven games in the '98 Eastern Conference Finals and that team was stacked. Miller was one of the greatest shooters ever seen. He retired as the NBA’s all-time leader in career three-pointers made—though that has since been overtaken. Seven-foot-4 Rik Smits was an All-Star. Dream Teamer Chris Mullin was aging but was still the team’s third-leading scorer (and shooting 44% from three-point range). Throw in a veteran Mark Jackson, a young Jalen Rose (a few short years away from becoming a 20-point scorer) and some dependable big men in Dale and Antonio Davis.
That team won’t be remembered much because they didn’t even make the Finals. A few years later, the core of that team will make it opposite Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers. But they don’t have a ring, so they don’t matter.
How about the Utah Jazz? Karl Malone retired in second place on the NBA’s All-Time career scoring leaders. His teammate, John Stockton, still holds the record for most career assists and most career steals. These guys are legends, but they don’t shine as brightly because of the absence of the ring.
There were some great players in that era, and I wonder how history would’ve remembered them, especially the Jazz, had they broken through and won once. A lot of them would end up as footnotes in Jordan’s story. But that was just a testament to how bright Michael’s star shines.
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There’s a common phrase that history is written by the winners. Michael was just so good that he seemed to be writing the narrative while he himself was still in the moment.
The Bad Boy Pistons beat him and won back-to-back championships, so MJ comes back and sweeps them en route to his own coronation. Lakers and Pistons winning back-to-back? The Bulls win three in a row. Twice. He leaves the game to retire? He comes back and Chicago sets the new record for regular season wins.
Poison his food before an NBA Finals Game? He scores 38 points and wins the game anyway. Jordan was so good that he could hijack any narrative and somehow turn it into his favor. And that’s why it’s no surprise that his final game in a Chicago Bulls uniform played out the way it did.
Again, it’s scripted so perfectly that you can’t believe it isn’t Hollywood scriptwriting magic.
Scottie Pippen, Jordan’s best teammate, suffers through a back injury that keeps him going in and out of the game. Dennis Rodman, mercurial as ever, skips practice a few days earlier to appear alongside a heel Hulk Hogan in World Championship Wrestling.
Michael, having to do a lot of heavy lifting, enters the fourth quarter already with 29 points. By the end of the game he would make 45.
And that final sequence of his was just a thing of beauty. Michael comes in and scores a layup on Chicago’s offense and brings the Bulls within one point. He correctly predicts what the Jazz call for, and he just leaves his man and strips Malone of the ball.
Then, of course, The Final Shot. Probably the most iconic image of Michael Jordan, his shooting arm raised for just a moment more, immortalizing what may have been the culmination of not only the series or the season or a dynasty, but of an entire legendary career.
If that was the last we ever saw of Jordan; he made sure it was a perfect picture.
The documentary doesn’t end there, of course. There are great moments from the hotel parties, the Grant Park celebrations, the grief ritual (they say MJ wrote a poem).
MJ is asked, “Was it satisfying to leave at your peak?” And he quickly answers, “No, it was maddening.” It doesn’t end cleanly. It doesn’t have closure. It ends on a What If.
Despite his ability to control narratives, he couldn’t do it this one last time. The Bulls are broken up. They never get to defend the crown. They don’t get the chance to go down swinging.
The Last Dance ends, leaving you a little pissed off. It leaves you wanting more. Michael wanted more. It feels like there should be more.
But I guess there may be an alternate universe somewhere, where Jordan and Pippen and Phil and everyone else come back. And maybe they win the seventh chip in the lockout-shortened season in '99. Maybe their dynasty overlaps with the next great one—the Shaq and Kobe Lakers that started in 2000.
Maybe there’s a universe out there where an aging and defeated Michael walks off the Finals floor passing the torch and shaking hands with Kobe Bryant, in a way Isiah Thomas never did for him.
Maybe that’s what closure looks like. But if we had it, maybe we never need a documentary like The Last Dance. Maybe we never get these five weeks of what felt like appointment television, something I haven’t felt since, what, Game of Thrones’ disappointment of an eighth season?
Maybe this the way it was always meant to end. And that’s good enough.
Words Mikkel Bolante
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver