I’m not a sports fan. Before the pandemic, I wasn’t glued to my TV night after night watching the latest football, baseball or basketball game. I can’t tell you the stats of any of the current or past Huskers football players. And I don’t have a collection of memorabilia that I display proudly. Yet I love sports documentaries. I proudly subscribe to ESPN+ to watch most of its critically acclaimed “30 for 30” documentaries.
When I start one of these documentary films or series, I often watch it all in one sitting. Knowing me as a movie fan, that might not sound odd. But it takes a compelling story to keep me hooked by a film when I’m watching it at home. “30 for 30” has never disappointed me. Whether it’s a documentary about professional wrestling, figure skating or basketball, it’s always compelling. The directors ESPN hires create perfectly crafted documentaries that are engaging for non-sports fans and die-hards alike.
One of my favorite “30 for 30” films wasn’t necessarily a film. “O.J.: Made in America” was an exceptional series produced by ESPN. In it, the documentarians told the story of O.J. Simpson’s rise to superstardom and his fall from grace when Simpson was accused of murdering his wife. Critics lauded it as one of the best documentaries ever produced, and it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Many films have premiered under the “30 for 30” banner since “Made in America,” but none have had as much buzz around them as Netflix’s “The Last Dance” does. In this new documentary, director Jason Hehir takes viewers behind the scenes of the rise of the 1990s Chicago Bulls and the final season of one of the greatest dynasties in sports history.
In the first episode, Hehir focuses on Michael Jordan and the frustrating response to him and his teammates after winning their fifth consecutive national championship. I was especially disgusted to see reporters hammering Jordan about his future with the Bulls and whether or not he’d retire.
The man had just accomplished the impossible by winning his fifth consecutive championship, and journalists are pummeling him with questions asking if this is the end. I know the reporters were eager for the scoop, but to not let him enjoy this moment was awful. In America, we love our sports superstars. However, we also love it when they shake things up and make different headlines. Hehir captures that unusual obsession well in his series.
Hehir also effectively transitions from 1997, when the Bulls attempted to secure their sixth national championship, to Jordan’s experiences as a young man in Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s not news to hear that Jordan didn’t start his career as a superstar, but I think his abilities are minimized too often in the series to make his rise more impressive. That said, an underdog story is always more appealing than the story of someone who dominated from an early age, so I understand that choice.
While Jordan’s part in the documentary is fascinating, his teammate’s story in the second episode is even more intriguing. Scottie Pippen was second to Jordan on the court, but his and Dennis Rodman’s names quickly followed Jordan’s in any conversation back in the ‘90s. Unfortunately, the Bulls’ manager didn’t compensate Pippen fairly for his contributions. But Hehir reveals that it’s partially Pippen’s fault. He had the opportunity to accept a shorter contract but opted for a longer contract with a minimal payout compared to those seen in the years following his deal.
The first episode about Jordan is excellent. Hehir’s use of archive footage, recent interviews, and never-before-seen footage of the Bulls from 1997 make “The Last Dance” a can’t miss event. Hehir also effectively uses music, both scores and soundtracks, to keep his documentary entertaining.
The second episode is when the series comes to life because the director shares more about Pippen’s childhood, professional history before the Bulls, and his rotten deal. When I first learned of Pippen’s mistake and where he ranked amongst his peers, goosebumps crawled up my arm. Pippen still made millions of dollars in his deal, but to know this superstar who is also responsible for the Bulls’ success made less than players he beat effortlessly is a bit heartbreaking.
I anticipate that this will not be the last time that the series emotionally draws me in. I may not be a traditional sports fan, but I will always value athletes’ stories. Their narratives ignite my passion to work harder and overcome every obstacle. And these documentaries capture moments in American culture from a different perspective. And from that perspective, we learn more about the blood, sweat and tears it takes to be a champion.