A Definitive Ranking of Every Michael Jordan Documentary

Alexis MorganFeatured ColumnistAugust 24, 2015

A Definitive Ranking of Every Michael Jordan Documentary

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    Michael Jordan is commonly referred to as the Greatest of All Time, aka the G.O.A.T.

    And for good reason. His resume of accomplishments is unmatched. Jordan is a six-time NBA Champion, six-time Finals MVP, five-time NBA MVP, 14-time NBA All-Star, 10-time NBA scoring champ and back-to-back Slam Dunk Contest champion. The list goes on.

    Jordan's relentless hard work, natural basketball ability and passion for the game influenced the sport and the world in a way we'll never see again. Night after night, No. 23 consistently rose to every challenge presented, setting the bar higher and higher with each passing season. Even after 15 years playing in the NBA, numerous endorsement deals and a starring role in his own feature film, fame and fortune never changed Mike. He carried himself with class and always wore a contagiously effervescent smile.

    As a tribute to the greatest, we watched and ranked every documentary that highlighted Michael's career. It's important to note—no matter their ranking, every one of the films mentioned in this article should be watched at least once in your lifetime.

Honorable Mention: Ultimate Jordan (2001)

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    Ultimate Jordan is a DVD boxed set featuring five of the Michael Jordan remastered documentaries listed within this article (Above & Beyond, Air Time, Come Fly with Me, Michael Jordan's Playground and His Airness). There are also a ton of special features, including Jordan's 10 greatest moves, behind-the-scenes footage and highlights from iconic games like "69 Points" and "The Flu Game."

    Ultimate Jordan is one epic compilation of all things Michael Jordan and would never make you question the G.O.A.T as the answer in the MJ vs. LeBron or MJ vs. Kobe debate again.

Honorable Mention: Space Jam (1996)

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    Space Jam wasn't a Michael Jordan documentary per se, but the 1996 comedy had too many similarities between the plot and Jordan's life to omit it from this list. (Also, Space Jam was one of the most influential movies of all time for 90's babies everywhere.)

    The Warner Bros. film portrays an alternate version of events during Jordan's first retirement from the NBA in 1993 and his ultimate comeback in 1995, albeit with a Looney Tunes twist. In the movie, as in real life, Michael Jordan announces his retirement from basketball to follow his late father’s desire for him to play baseball. It's clear he's not as great in baseball as he was in basketball. The Space Jam plot takes a turn from there and becomes pure but enjoyable fictionSpace Jam is truly a timeless classic. 

8. Michael Jordan: His Airness (1999)

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    His Airness is a combination of the earlier documentaries about Jordan’s life that takes the audience from his childhood to the final shot in the last Finals game of his career. This biopic is very similar to Come Fly With Me, using the same footage and interviews. It portrays Jordan as a player that carried himself with grace and dignity but one who also had the heart of an assassin. The amazing collection of highlights proves Jordan consistently answered every challenge.

    The last testthe Bulls were down 85-86 with seconds left on the clock in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. He ended his second run in the NBA in the most fitting fashiona game-winning shot to cap off the second Bulls three-peat and sixth NBA championship in eight years. The clip of Jordan’s 20-foot jumper with 5.2 seconds left will literally bring tears to your eyes.

    His Airness is a splendid documentary for the average Michael Jordan fan, but the film might seem repetitive or too vague for No. 23 aficionados.

7. Michael Jordan: Above and Beyond (1996)

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    Above and Beyond is a narrative about one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. It begins where Air Time left offthe start of the 1993 Bulls seasonand ends in the spring of ‘96.

    The documentary exposes the ’92-'93 season as the most grueling of Michael Jordan’s career. Travel, media scrutiny and mounting expectations took their toll on the superstar. During that time, Jordan relied heavily upon the advice of his father, James, and harbored thoughts about leaving the game for good. James was the only person who knew about Jordan's internal struggle.

    A few months after Michael won his third straight NBA title, James was murdered as he slept in his car on the side of a highway in North Carolina. An emotional Jordan talks about the ordeal and how he knew it was his time to bid adieu to the sport. Basketball wasn't a challenge anymore for the 14-time NBA All-Star. Perhaps trying baseball offered the test (and distraction) he so desperately needed.

    His time as a baseball player wound down as the MLB players’ strike heated up. This was when Jordan dropped one of the most famous press releases of all time. “I’m back.” Two words that lit up the hearts of sports fans everywhere.  Jordan regained his previous form over the next season and was able to fall in love with the game more than ever before.

6. Michael Jordan: Air Time (1993)

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    Air Time follows Michael Jordan during the Chicago Bulls' 1991 and ’92 championship seasons. Contrary to Come Fly With Me and Playground, Air Time portrays Jordan as a person and player from a 360 point of view.

    It begins at the ‘91 ring ceremony following Chicago’s (and Michael’s) first NBA Championship. The basketball phenom was in the league for eight years at this time and hit a turning point in his career. Jordan candidly narrates the controversial events surrounding the early 90’s that were influential to his career including Magic Johnson retiring from the NBA upon learning he was HIV positive.

    In 1992, a book called The Jordan Rules was published, exposing Jordan as a selfish player and leading to more scrutiny for MJ and the Bulls. Then the NBA began to investigate Jordan’s gambling habits. The negative momentum seemed to culminate into one moment on the court when Jordan lost it. He bumped into a referee and was thrown out of the game during a triple-overtime loss to Utah in ‘92. Jordan was ultimately suspended and fined $5,000.

    His Airness’ frustrating season eventually took a positive turn as he led the Bulls to a second title. Even though Air Time casts a different light on Michael, it also has entertaining moments, including a scene of the G.O.A.T. throwing a perfect 65-yard spiral, Dream Team footage and a peek inside his personal life with his kids and then-wife Juanita Vanoy.

5. 30 for 30: Jordan Rides the Bus (2010)

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    ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary special on Michael Jordan is an in-depth production on the death of Michael’s father, his first retirement from the NBA and subsequent entry into minor league baseball. This film was essential to the Jordan documentary collection; every other documentary talked about Jordan’s time as a baseball player but never portrayed it as comprehensively as 30 for 30.

    Many people thought Jordan playing baseball was a jokeand he had to address this issue over and over and over again. One of the most important things Jordan says in the film is “failure is based on perception.” He’s completely correct, because if fans look at Michael’s baseball days as failure, they’ve missed the entire point.

    30 for 30 portrays the gifted athlete’s first retirement as rehabilitation after James’ death and also as the primary reason Michael rekindled his love for basketball. After baseball, he returned to the NBA more generous with his time and offered more encouragement to his teammates.

    With that being said, the documentary illuminates how underappreciated Jordan was as a baseball player. Sure, he wasn’t Barry Bonds, but he made key adjustments over the span of just one season that takes some players three years to accomplish.

    Some fans felt Michael was somehow indebted to his audience to continuously provide basketball-related entertainment to them. Jordan Rides the Bus helps us all fully appreciate Michael’s contribution to the NBA.

4. ESPN SportsCentury: Michael Jordan (2003)

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    ESPN produced this film after Michael Jordan finished his final and heavily scrutinized stint in the NBA in 2003. SportsCentury does an impeccable job portraying Jordan’s career and personal life from the critical standpoint of the media's perspective. After watching, the audience gains stories they’ve never heard before from the people who had a front-row view of the action.

    For instance, the media protected the five-time NBA MVP more than they would like to admit. Jordan once asked beat reporters to avoid writing about the birth of his first child because it was before he married the baby’s mother. The reporters obeyed his wishes.

    And once you burned Michael, there was no going back. Sports Illustrated ran a cover story implying Michael was an embarrassment to baseball when he played for the minor leagues. Jordan never gave a comment to the magazine again (at the time the documentary aired in 2003).

    The movie depicts a fearful Jordan, one who was very image-conscious and lived in terror of “slipping up.” It further emphasizes his competitive naturehow he would bet on just about everything, was caught cheating his teammate’s mother in cards and how he wouldn’t speak to UNC former assistant coach Roy Williams for two days after he beat Jordan in a game of pool. But there’s also another side to the man, the myth and the legend. Jordan once tracked down a journalist to offer his condolences on her mother’s passing in the midst of a media frenzy.

    Michael Jordan’s ESPN SportsCentury documentary is an interesting depiction of MJ’s influence on society and culture not only in the U.S. but also on the international stage.

3. Michael Jordan to the Max (2000)

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    If it weren’t for the timelessness of Come Fly with Me and Michael Jordan’s Playground, Michael Jordan to the Max would be at the top of this list. This IMAX movie dedicated to the G.O.A.T. takes you through an emotional roller coaster. You’ll laugh and cry; you’ll feel pain and joy. As an added bonusall of the basketball clips are in HD, which gives this film an extra edge over the rest. (The soundtrack is pretty awesome, too.)

    Michael Jordan to the Max approaches Jordan’s career in a way the other docs don’t. The movie takes you through his last Finals appearance round-by-round while interlacing Jordan’s biography beginning with his pure love for basketball. Former coach Phil Jackson provides commentary on Jordan’s ability to finish, especially when the Bulls were facing elimination.

    The heartbreaking story of the death of Jordan’s father, his transition out of basketball and entrance into baseball, elicits gut-wrenching emotion. You see rare photos of Michael and his father James, and hear the story about how Jordan used to ride to spring training, look over to the empty passenger seat and have daily “talks” with James.

    Michael Jordan to the Max emphasizes the hard work Jordan put into baseball because it didn’t come as easily to him as basketball. Journalist Bob Green remembers seeing the former NBA player as the first player on the field and often the last player off. When Sports Illustrated ran a cover story that suggested Jordan was embarrassing baseball, Greene thought, “If you have children, you ought to hope against hope every day of your life that they will some day grow up to embarrass you like this.”

    At the end of the movie, Jordan reminisces the last seconds of his sixth NBA title game. His career finished with a storybook ending, a 20-foot jumper that sealed the win and solidified his place as the greatest in the history of the game. Michael leaves us with one thought. In 10  or 20 years, he wants people to say that if Michael Jordan is still playing the game of basketball Michael would still dominate. That’s prophetic, Michael, because it’s been almost 20 years and we’re still saying it.

2. Michael Jordan: Come Fly with Me (1989)

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    Come Fly With Me was the first documentary solely dedicated to Michael Jordan’s career. It’s an all-encompassing, chronological look at the superstar’s rise to success (with an awesome 80’s soundtrack).

    Come Fly With Me is the ultimate Jordan propaganda. It positively portrays his humble beginnings on his backyard basketball court to his first NBA All-Star game MVP Award in 1988. At this point, Jordan had yet to win an NBA title five years into the league.

    The narrative describes Jordan’s perseverance in proving his doubters wrongi.e. his high school coach who cut him from the varsity team and those who thought he’d ride the bench at the University of North Carolina. The documentary also touches on how Jordan’s success during his freshman and sophomore years at UNC hindered his junior season. With the help of coach Dean Smith, he was able to shake off the pressure. He shaved his head for a fresh start, giving birth to the famous bald head that eventually defined his legendary image.

    Overall, Come Fly With Me is an amazing comprehensive biopic that illustrates how Michael Jordan was, and essentially still is, a puppet master of the game.

1. Michael Jordan's Playground (1990)

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    Michael Jordan’s Playground is the greatest documentary about the Greatest of All Time. The film tells the raw and inspiring story about No. 23’s love for the game and where it all beganthe playground.

    A young player struggles with being cut from his high school basketball team the same way Jordan was infamously cut from his own high school varsity team. Boom! In drops the legend himself to give the player guidance and support.

    The six-time NBA champion narrates Playground in a way that allows the viewer to see the game through Jordan’s eyes, highlighting MJ as the complete player, including his impressive defensive influence and improvement as a passer.

    The best parts of Playground are clips that show Jordan making clutch play after clutch play when the game was on the line. He absolutely loved the final minutes, when the ball and the game were in his hands.

    The documentary discusses topics like the “Jordan Rules,” his battles with Dominique Wilkins and Joe Dumars and how the Pistons challenged him more than any other team. Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone and Isaiah Thomas also appear in the film.

    NBA players weigh in on their favorite Jordan dunk including the open floor breakaway, “in your face jam” and the ever-famous “leaner.” The effortless way Jordan dunked is equivalent to today’s graceful three-point shot of Steph Curry.

    Michael unashamedly dancing at the very end of the film solidifies his title as the G.O.A.T. Playground is a must-watch for any Jordan fan.

    Alexis is on Twitter


    What is your favorite Michael Jordan documentary? Let us know by commenting below!