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What Sports Documentaries & Romance Novels Have in Common

ICYMI: I Watched "The Last Dance"

Not a Cinderella story, but certainly a romance.

This is the first essay in "ICMYI," a series about the trends I'm still catching up on.

Last night, partway through the last episode of ESPN's Michael Jordan docuseries "The Last Dance," I turned to my fiancé, sitting next to me on the couch. "You know," I said in the voice of a person about to impart great wisdom, swilling my open Nalgene like a vintage pinot noir, "sports documentaries are actually a lot like romance novels."

The look he gave me was probably not unlike the one you're currently directing at your screen: furrowed brows, pursed lips, and a strong case of side-eye that telegraphed, "Yeah, okay, sure."

Allow me to explain.

"The Last Dance" is ostensibly a ten-part documentary series about the 1998 Chicago Bulls. In reality, of course, it's a deep dive into that team's centerpiece, Michael Jordan, noted sneaker giant and G.O.A.T. title contender. The series covers Jordan's career from varsity team pass-up to international superstardom, with pit-stops devoted to other notable members of the '98 team; Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr. "The Last Dance" was a hot topic when ESPN dropped it in the spring of 2020; it made for ideal quarantine viewing. If you haven't seen the series itself, you've still probably seen the memes it inspired or the reaction gifs it gifted us.

Like everyone else, I started watching "The Last Dance" in the chaos of that fateful April, amidst talk of curve-flattening and tissue-hoarding and bread-leavening. Unfortunately for my Twitter feed, though, I'm not really made for binge-watching; I am a casual viewer of most content, and the speed with which my newsfeed consumes entire seasons of "Bridgerton" or "Squid Game" frankly exhausts me.

So it's no surprise that I fell off of "The Last Dance" wagon pretty early on. As with many other shows, the discourse outpaced and then eventually lapped me; ultimately, my interest in the series died with the conversation around it. But the NBA is heaving its last gasp of this cycle after a frankly disappointing series of playoff contests, series in which teams seemed to show up each night prepared to play either the absolute best or worst basketball of their lives and which of those it was seemed up to a coin flip. Teams were plagued by injuries. Blowouts abounded. Stars like Devin Booker and James Harden folded in on themselves like origami cranes. And for some reason, ESPN decided that we as a viewing audience must prefer the wannabe-cable-news chaos of Stephen A. Smith and Jalen Rose arguing over the reassuring presence of Doris Burke.

So it was that I landed on "The Last Dance," a full two years and several lifetimes after its original air date.

The series was produced by Jordan himself, which explains its relatively light touch when it comes to issues mired in controversy, particularly his short-lived baseball career, his gambling issues, and his father's murder. Jordan also gets the last word on just about every conflict; a lot of his bad behavior is seemingly explained away with talking head shots in which he says something along the lines of, "Look, I just want to push everyone to play their hardest and best game."

I enjoyed the series, even if Episode III left me wanting more episodes related to Dennis Rodman rather than Jordan himself. But for whatever reason, the last episode didn't hit me quite the way I wanted it to. In part, sure, this is due to the show's too-tidy ending, in which it sends Jordan off into the sunset at the height of his game with major fanfare and glory, refusing to acknowledge his second emergence from supposed-retirement, a very odd and often-ignored two-year tenure with the Washington Wizards, noted residents of NBA Purgatory.

Watching Episode X, I found myself simply tired, impatient. I knew the end of the story. The Bulls win it in six over the Utah Jazz, an average-if-close contest after Jordan's superheroic Game 5, the famous "Flu Game." In comparison to Game 5, the narrative drama of Game 6 felt unearned, drawn-out.

Here, finally, is where my comparison applies. It struck me as I watched that the challenge of a sports documentary is not unlike the challenge of a romance novel: you see, it's telling a story we already know, something we've heard a million times. Two genres, both built on a foundation of Cinderella stories.

The drama of a love story or an athletic contest sometimes feels ready-made for narrative. It has clear protagonists; it follows a pretty natural dramatic arc. Emotions are heightened and stakes are well-established. With all of these components built into the narrative, you might think this makes for easy storytelling.

You would be wrong.

Because of their formulas, sports documentaries and romance novels both have reputations for being rote, for being the "easy" thing to make. But those very formulas are the reason these stories are so hard to get right. In love stories, how do you keep your reader invested when they already know the ending? How do you do justice to a sports contest without simply making the viewer think, "Damn, I think I'd actually like to turn off this documentary and watch Game 5 of the 1998 NBA Finals on YouTube"?

You mean to tell me this isn't a love story? Not even a little bit?

Of course, these issues aren't identical. One of the greatest challenges of a sports documentary is that the director must find a way to replicate the seemingly irreplicable, the thrill of the live game, the heart-stopping anxiety of the unknown. How do you replicate that consuming feeling of urgency, this thing that stops us on the sidewalk in front of a sports bar on a January evening, watching through the window as the shot clock ticks toward zero and our noses and fingers turn red with the cold?

But the emotional payoff of an outstanding sports doc, like a truly good romance, can't be beat. It's about reproducing the catharsis of the experience, about embracing the comfort of the known ending without taking it for granted. A good sports documentary doesn't take your investment in the story as a given; it respects you as a consumer. It constructs for you complex characters, leopard-haired men who inexplicably skip crucial practices to swing chairs at Hulk Hogan and tenacious superstars with bad backs and criminally small paychecks. It builds subplots, identifies patterns and symmetries: heated rivalries, murdered fathers, minor slights that lead to major victories.

"The Last Dance" is far from perfect. As I've already said, I don't think the show goes quite far enough in its construction of Jordan as a nuanced and controversial figure; it might be hindered by the subject's involvement in the production. The finale's sweeping reflection about Jordan's impact on the game feels abrupt and overly simplistic -- at one point ESPN correspondent Andrea Kremer says "you have to almost appreciate his celebrity even more because he didn't have those platforms to be known worldwide"; I turned to my boyfriend and said, "Exactly! There was a monoculture! There was no social media! There was no League Pass! It was easier to be the uncontested center of attention!"

But no matter how many dunk montages a person sees, Jordan's utter showmanship remains thrilling, his skill undeniable. No one can say the hype is unearned. The show is deeply, thoughtfully constructed. The sheer breadth of the talking-heads lineup -- Jordan, Bob Costas, Carmen Electra, and two Presidents, one of whom is hilariously identified as just "Chicago Bulls fan" -- is impressive. The behind-the-scenes archival footage is surprisingly candid, and it's unquestionably fun to watch Jordan react to other interviews in real time as he views them on an iPad in front of the camera.

For all that, one moment stands out.

In documentaries, the best moments are often the most uncomfortable, moments in which we feel a sort of guilt at the camera's access, in which we think, "Maybe we shouldn't be here right now." I felt this only one time during "The Last Dance," and yet it is perhaps this image that seems to capture the man best. It happens at the end of Episode VIII, minutes after Jordan wins his fourth title, his first after the loss of his father. The camera catches him from above as he lies sprawled on the floor of the locker room, alone, still in his uniform, his face from view by a basketball into which he sobs convulsively. The image is indelible: Portrait of a Man in Mourning -- that iconic jersey, an Adonaic body, and a missing face, emotion obscured behind the athlete's instrument.


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