/ 21 May 2020

Review: Dancing awkwardly around Michael Jordan’s legacy

Indiana Pacers V Chicago Bulls Eastern Conference Finals
Michael Jordan dunks the ball against the Indiana Pacers during Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals on May 17, 1998 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. (Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)

The grandeur of Michael Jordan; those seemingly eternal, seconds-long flights into the ether, the superlative grace of his choreography, the take-no-prisoners work ethic — all these are part of how the man has been mythologised on the court.

A seemingly apolitical figure off it, the ascendance of Jordan, the cultural icon and capitalist machine, is anything but.

A National Basketball Association (NBA) phenom through the mid-1980s and most of the 1990s — a period in which he wins six league championships and retires more than once — the spectre of Jordan is ever present as America’s nightmare turns from the grey skies of Reaganomics to the pitch black of the Gulf War and beyond.

His signature Nike-backed shoe, the Air Jordan, coincides with “the summer of crack”, with the shoe instantly becoming the required money folders’ uniform, a companion piece to crack sales and the blighted ghettoes the drug ushers in.

With hip-hop entering its golden age in the late eighties and commanding global attention, Jordan hovers over much of Spike Lee’s output as Lee emerges as a black voice in Hollywood. There is the Jordan-wearing Mars Blackmon character in She’s Gotta Have It (later reprised in an Air Jordan ad). There is the furious Buggin’ Out who wants to start a race war over someone scuffing his pair of Jordans in Do The Right Thing. Then there is Jordan himself, posing with Magic Johnson in an X cap in that weird documentary segment at the end of Malcolm X, adding fuel to the flames of “X mania”.

As the nineties take flight, Jordan stands at the nexus of race, consumerism and the cultural currency signified by the widening global footprint of the NBA. He makes his first championship run in the year that Rodney King is beaten by the Los Angeles Police Department. He repeats the feat in 1992 and wins his second Olympic gold medal as Los Angeles burns in the aftermath of the unpunished beatings. He “threepeats” for the first time as Bill Clinton takes office, but is in early retirement as American television stations interrupt the 1994 NBA Finals to beam images of OJ Simpson’s low-speed highway chase.

With Jordan’s singular on-the-court antics being the pillars his cult was built on, what The Last Dance achieves over 10 episodes — wittingly or otherwise — is simply a romantic reframing of this halcyon period.

The footage corals us into the gym, the locker room and the routine of NBA season life. It’s a world whose contours we have come to know anecdotally and care little for, at least in the ways that it has been deployed to supposedly shine more light on Jordan. The access feels like a backdoor pass but it’s not, serving as a mere extension of Jordan’s on-the-court persona.

Although The Last Dance stretches this world out in panorama with the hope of keeping us intrigued by Jordan’s single-mindedness and the collisions this triggers, the end result is tedium. This is mitigated only by the stacks of mesmerising grainy footage of Jordan’s immediate effect on the league and the floodgate of post-season heroics unleashed by finally breaking through the imposing wall that was the Detroit Pistons in 1991.

The milieu of the arena — its psychology, its primordial import — constitutes the theatre of Jordan’s expression, but what cannot be contained by The Last Dance — and, therefore, is justifiably left out — is the soul of the protagonist’s performance.

Jordan’s talents were greatly enhanced by his work ethic; similarly, his economic feats benefited from his unthreatening image. This is why in The Last Dance, the most important segment in framing Jordan within his epoch is not the part where former US president Barack Obama outrightly criticises him for his apparent apoliticism, symbolised here by his refusal to back Democratic candidate Harvey Gantt (as he ran for a Senate seat in North Carolina in 1990).

It is the more loaded, reflective statement in which he traces the template of the American way. “Many times America is quick to embrace a Michael Jordan, or an Oprah Winfrey, or a Barack Obama, so long as it’s understood that you don’t get too controversial around broader issues of social justice.” It is a forgiving and experiential analysis of the irrationality and permanence of racism.

Jordan’s physical feats were largely centred around his isolation game, which borrows heavily from the freer, uninstitutionalised (read: black) aspects of the game and was later supplemented by strengthening textbook fundamentals as his body became less agile; his economic achievements also constituted a dance, in this instance with visibility and silence.

As Michael Eric Dyson writes in his essay “Be Like Mike? Michael Jordan and the pedagogy of desire”, “In making judgments about the various uses of the black body, especially Jordan’s symbolic corporeality, we must specify how both consent and opposition to exploitation are often signalled in expressions of cultural creativity.”

Although Dyson acknowledges Jordan’s body as “the symbolic carrier of racial and cultural desires to fly beyond limits and obstacles …”, he rightly argues that, at points, our hero has “perhaps not understood the differences between enabling versions of human experience that transcend the exclusive gaze of race, and disenabling visions of human community that seek race-neutrality.” Perhaps the ultimate burden of the American athlete lies in being caught between these two states.

The analogies between slavery and sports are never absent for the entirety of the few hours one might donate to watching a game. In fact, in a sport that is as overwhelmingly black as American basketball, the paternalism at the heart of the infrastructure of organised sports would be too unsettling to sit through were it not neutered by the poetic power of black genius that transformed a geeky, oddball invention into the self-contained cultural behemoth it is today.

Although the sport can now claim to bask in progressiveness, allowing players the freedom to voice their thoughts on the issues of the day without apparent ramifications, it might be useful to remember its essentially anti-black clothing policies instituted during the heyday of Allen Iverson — policies in which he seemed to embody a ghetto bogeyman deemed too unpalatable for the league.

It’s worth noting that the NBA is the site from which at least one precursor to Colin Kaepernick’s protest emerged and was quickly neutralised. In March 1996, during Jordan’s second threepeat run with the Bulls, Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf decided not to stand for the American national anthem before games, citing the history of the flag as an emblem of oppression. He was duly suspended at the cost of more than $30 000 a game, forcing him to capitulate after a few days. He eventually opted to stand with his face down during the anthem.

In a season in which he was posting career-best numbers, Abdul-Rauf was suddenly a target, with his team trading him by the following season. He became a pariah in the league’s fraternity, eventually extending his career elsewhere.

Others too have cited the icy response that plagued Kareem Abdul-Jabbar throughout his career, arguably limiting his ascendancy within NBA coaching structures after his playing career. In 1968, as part of a protest against the racial climate of America, Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, joined a group of black athletes who refused to participate in the Olympic Games. By 1971, in a move reminiscent of Muhammad Ali, Abdul-Jabbar became publicly known by his Muslim name a day after the Milwaukee Bucks won the 1971 league title. Abdul-Jabbar often puts his image down to his mistrust of the media, but knowing the fan-player dynamic and the intransigence of power, you draw your own conclusions.

I mention the above not to dictate the type of athlete and cultural figure Jordan ought to have been during his career — hell, who knows to which causes his billions of dollars were and continue to be donated to — but merely to note that had he wanted to dig a hole in his own pocket, the NBA and the country he was born in provided plenty of examples of how to fall into that booby trap. 

With The Last Dance — as narrow as its focus is — the ultimate awkwardness lies in attempting to unsee these elephants in the room for 10 solid hours, even as the semiotics of American power stare us in the face.