Biggest Winners and Losers from Michael Jordan Documentary 'The Last Dance'

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 18, 2020

Biggest Winners and Losers from Michael Jordan Documentary 'The Last Dance'

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    JEFF HAYNES/Getty Images

    Michael Jordan took center stage as the rest of the sports world shut down in the spring of 2020.

    With the NBA, MLB, NCAA and virtually every other major sporting event and league on hiatus, ESPN bumped up the release date of its Jordan docuseries, The Last Dance.

    And it didn't disappoint.

    All 10 episodes were a nostalgic ride back to the 1980s and '90s, when Jordan seized control of basketball and seemingly the world. Each two-hour block Sunday, when new episodes aired, felt like appointment viewing.

    The biggest winners and losers from the series follow.

Winner: John Michael Wozniak

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    Of all the memorable moments that emerged from The Last Dance, the most ubiquitous may not have even come from Michael Jordan.

    Early in the series, MJ played a game with his security detail wherein the competitors tossed quarters at the wall to see who could get the closest without hitting it.

    When John Michael Wozniak, complete with his gray, curly mane, beat the GOAT, he hit him with a gesture that called back to Jordan's famous "Shrug Game."

    The GIF of Wozniak's own shrug is now everywhere.

    "It wasn't a surprise," Wozniak's son said in the report above. "It was kind of like, oh yeah, it was familiar."

    The unlikely star didn't get to enjoy his new fame, as he died from colon cancer in January at age 69. But his son can perhaps take some solace in the fact that millions now know the family name.

Losers: Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Throughout the documentary, there is really only one villain: Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause.

    The series starts off with Krause's preseason declaration to Phil Jackson and others around the organization that the 1997-98 campaign would be that team's last.

    Over the next several episodes, there is plenty of footage from the time and contemporary interviews from Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Jackson and others explaining or showing disdain for Krause.

    His negotiations with Pippen were a focus early on. The strained relationship between he and Jackson got plenty of attention. Jordan is shown poking fun at him on multiple occasions.

    In the end, Pippen does give him some credit for putting the team together, but there's no thorough redemption for Krause at any point in the documentary.

    And his boss, team owner Jerry Reinsdorf, doesn't come out looking much better. One of the key moments of the final episode features Jordan watching Reinsdorf's explanation for breaking up the team.

    Jordan remains flabbergasted to this day. Reinsdorf insists that the market value of all the players made it impossible to keep the team together. Jordan disagreed.

Winner: Michael Jordan Memes

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    Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

    Wozniak wasn't the only one who took the internet by storm during The Last Dance. After years as a mainstay in the meme space with the infamous Crying Jordan, the GOAT is back for more following this docuseries.

    Lucky for you, Bleacher Report already compiled some of the most common in a Twitter thread.

    There are the shots of Jordan reacting to other interviewees on an iPad, the various shades he was shown in throughout the series, the practice swings in the locker room while smoking a cigar and more.

    It wasn't enough that Jordan dominated the game of basketball for nearly two decades and rose to a level of fame most athletes can't imagine. Whether he wanted to or not, he wound up dunking all over the internet too.

Loser: Jordan's Opponents

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    Plenty of '80s and '90s NBA stars failed to reach the pinnacle of team success because they just happened to play at the same time as Jordan.

    Many of them got attention in 2020 that they wouldn't have otherwise had. It was fun to see clips of players like Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, the Shaq-and-Penny Orlando Magic, Gary Payton, Reggie Miller, the Stockton-and-Malone Utah Jazz and many more, but they were all at the expense of Jordan.

    On top of having their basketball pains dug up for millions of viewers around the world, all of MJ's notable opponents are essentially portrayed as stepping stones. Even Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons, who got the better of Jordan for years, may be better known for being Jordan's final hurdle than their own two titles.

    History is written by the winners, and Jordan's dominance of the '90s makes the story of the decade one that's pretty favorable to him.

Winner: ESPN

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    NBA Photos/Getty Images

    The premiere of The Last Dance scored 6.1 million viewers, an all-time record for an ESPN documentary, according to Frank Pallotta of CNN Business.

    "As you can expect, ESPN and Disney are looking for ways to capitalize on the show's success, and it seems that will now come in the form of a follow-up special," Erik Swann wrote for Cinema Blend. "ESPN sister network ABC will broadcast a one-hour special titled After the Dance With Stephen A. Smith: A SportsCenter Special this coming week. During the event, Smith and Los Angeles Lakers icon Magic Johnson will break down the biggest revelations from The Last Dance."

    ESPN has dominated Sunday nights with this series, so you can expect them to churn out plenty more Last Dance-related content.

    With the world starving for sports at a time when the sports world has ground to a halt, The Last Dance was primed to capture the attention of millions.

    Now, with fans potentially hooked on the sports documentary format, the network has more coming for each of the next four Sundays, despite the end of this look back on Jordan's career.

Loser: LeBron James

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    "That one right there made me the greatest player of all time," LeBron James said of his 2016 NBA championship in a 2018 Uninterrupted interview. "That's what I felt."

    LeBron has an argument. His lead over MJ in career wins over replacement player is already sizable (in both the regular season and playoffs), and it's only going to increase.

    Plus, 2019-20 was looking like a legitimate shot at a fourth title for the King. But then, the campaign was suspended as a reaction to the coronavirus, and LeBron's quest for another championship was suddenly replaced with what John Stockton originally worried would be a "Michael Jordan puff piece."

    For five weeks, NBA fans relived, or were introduced to, the greatness of Jordan, while LeBron's season was paused.

    The documentary doesn't destroy LeBron's argument, but it probably turns the volume down a bit.

Winners: Jordan's Teammates

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    Fred Jewell/Associated Press

    Over the course of the 10-part series, several teammates had time devoted to their own NBA stories.

    From Scottie Pippen witnessing his father's stroke to Dennis Rodman's wild life off the court to Steve Kerr losing his father at the hands of a murderer in Beirut, The Last Dance was packed with human-interest angles on these men who were often Jordan's background players.

    Their games were highlighted too, especially those of Pippen and Rodman. The former's Swiss Army knife defense and point-forward ability made him a perfect complement to Jordan. The latter may have been the greatest rebounder of all time. The basketball virtues of each were extolled many times.

    Then, there was the shooting of Kerr and John Paxson, the rugged interior play of Horace Grant and Bill Cartwright and the international flavor brought by Toni Kukoc.

    Jordan may be the GOAT, but he didn't win six championships by himself. These were all-time great teams at the heart of The Last Dance.

Losers: Jordan's Teammates

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    At the same time, there were plenty of moments when Jordan's teammates didn't come out smelling like roses.

    Pippen's ire for Krause appeared to cross the line a time or two. Time was spent on a game in which he refused to enter for the final possession. And his early-season holdout in 1997-98 wasn't portrayed too favorably.

    As for Rodman, the filmmakers didn't pull many punches about his off-court shenanigans. In Episode 10, coach Phil Jackson tells the team at a shootaround that Rodman brought dishonor to the team by skipping practice for a WCW appearance with Hulk Hogan.

    Grant is pointed to as the leak that led to the writing of Sam Smith's controversial The Jordan Rules.

    And, ultimately, every Bull who wasn't named Michael Jordan ends up looking like, again, a background player.

    Maybe they understand that comes with the territory. After all, they spent time with Jordan at the height of his powers. But most wildly talented athletes would prefer to be the star rather than an extra.

Winner: Michael Jordan

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    Prior to this documentary's release, Jordan was worried about how fans might react.

    Director Jason Hehir explained to The Athletic's Richard Deitsch:

    "I said to him, 'Why do you want to do this?' And he said, 'I don't.' And I said, 'Why not?' And he said, 'When people see this footage, I'm not sure they're going to be able to understand why I was so intense, why I did the things I did, why I acted the way I acted, and why I said the things I said.'

    "He said there was a guy named Scotty Burrell who he rode for the entire season and, 'When you see the footage of it, you're going to think that I'm a horrible guy. But you have to realize that the reason why I was treating him like that is because I needed him to be tough in the playoffs and we're facing the Indiana's and Miami's and New York's in the Eastern Conference. He needed to be tough, and I needed to know that I could count on him. And those are the kind of things where people see me acting the way I acted in practice, they're not going to understand it.'

    "I said to him, 'That's great because this is an opportunity. We have 10 hours here to peel back the onion and have you articulate all the things you just articulated to me.'"

    That intensity came through, but so did Jordan's explanation for it. He articulated his motivations well. And, in the end, everything was geared toward accentuating his greatness.

    Even the time spent on Jordan's gambling or his intense interactions with teammates couldn't derail the overall thrust of the documentary.

    This was about Jordan's greatness in each and every episode. Everything else was an appendage to that. Gambling problem? No, that was a competition problem. Brash and sometimes downright mean treatment of teammates? No, that was the game's greatest leader preparing his soldiers for playoff battles.

    And the brilliance of the documentary may shine even brighter knowing that it was, as Stockton said, a puff piece. Because, even with that understanding, it worked.