ESPN tweeted it the first night the documentary aired— “We all needed this.” Much like other entertainment companies who have been releasing content earlier than scheduled, ESPN brightened our self-quarantines with an early release of The Last Dance, a 10-part documentary series following Michael Jordan and the 1998 Chicago Bulls.
The documentary series—while breathtakingly executed through masterful storytelling, perfectly scored music, and impressive celebrity involvement (see President Obama’s humble subtitle in Episode 1)—is more than just a great form of content. It’s giving us what we’re missing from sports, in a time where sports fans don’t have much else.
With sports channels reduced to throwback content and circuitous debates around COVID’s impact on live sports, The Last Dance has saved sports fans in four clear ways.
(1) Sports Excite Us
For a sports fan, nothing measures up to the adrenaline and thrill of a live sporting event. With nearly every live sport sidelined at the moment, there’s been a gap in the thrill sports gives us that throwback content can’t quite compete with. The Last Dance, while telling the story of a team’s journey over 20 years ago, injects fresh, modern takes from athletes and others who tell their story in a way the world has never heard it before.
We hear Michael Jordan’s point of view on rivalries, buzzer-beaters, team dynamics, and more in a raw, often shockingly transparent, way. And while we’re all missing the excitement live sports gives us through action, this documentary is exciting us through that transparency, something that is perhaps just as exciting as the live action. It’s one thing to remember a game where Jordan made the game-winning shot—it’s another thing entirely to learn what his opponent said in his ear minutes before.
(2) Sports Transport Us
The escapism that sports offers fans is one of the most compelling reasons fans stay connected so intently. Whether it’s Monday Night Football, an event that makes Monday’s just a bit more bearable; or March Madness, a month-long period that excuses basketball addiction for some of the most jarring and unexpected games in all of college basketball; or even the World Series, the strategically powered 7-day duel that we wait nine months for, sports create a space separate from the burdens and stresses of the rest of the world. From the minute The Last Dance begins on Sunday evenings, it grabs viewers by the collar and pulls them directly into the drama, the energy, the whirlwind of the Bulls’ season for two straight hours, leaving us at a loss for words when it’s over.
And beyond transporting us out of reality for a moment, The Last Dance has masterfully transported us back in time 20 years. From the iconic music selection (see the reaction after the first episode to LL Cool J’s I’m Bad), to the shots of some of our favorite sports reporters early in their careers (Bob Costas has come a long way…), this documentary puts viewers in the middle of a historic drama bursting with nostalgic references, reminding us all of simpler times.
(3) Sports Connect Us
Sports inherently create a social bond between players, coaches, organizations, and fans. From team colors, jerseys, or rituals to game-time, pre-game debates, or post-game interviews, we’re pulled into something that feels bigger than ourselves, satisfying our basic human need of belonging. In the past few months without sports, it’s felt dark and quiet as sports fans live without the thing that bonded them together. But aside from The Last Dance’s unprecedented popularity (as the most-watched ESPN documentary series of all time), what’s really connected people is the community online.
After months of being separated from our loved ones and friends, it’s been questioned whether online interaction can serve the purpose that in-person connection did. But what I’ve seen over the past few months, and experienced personally, is a different level of connection—drive-by birthday wishes, massive extended family Zoom meetings to say hi to grandparents, live-streamed weddings that all loved ones can see, parents joining their kids’ Tik Tok challenges. There’s something about the sheer magnitude of opportunities to connect online, getting us out of our physically limiting silos, that is connecting us in a new way, making us all feel a little less alone during this time. Across the nation, we’re all tuning in on Sunday nights to watch The Last Dance, but afterwards is where the magic happens. After, we see the trending hashtags, group chats, memes, and collective inside-knowledge humor that have brought people, not just sports fans, from all walks of life together.
(4) Sports Inspire Us
The impressive physical prowess sports fans witness in every single game is hard to ignore. It’s what makes highlight videos so popular—we love seeing humans perform at the highest level possible. But what makes The Last Dance so different is the MJ factor. We’re not just watching a talented basketball player in his final year with a winning team—we’re witnessing the pinnacle of the human mind, body, and spirit. Jordan had one of the most accomplished sports careers of all time, but what prevails above everything is the competitive drive he held in everything he did.
I’ve seen comments online after episodes from people saying they’re inspired to go workout again, to rediscover their love for sneaker culture, to try and master a skill after failing again. As talented as these athletes are, we as humans recognize ourselves in them. Beyond the obvious talent gap, we recognize the drive we once had, the focus, the grit. And in looking back, we don’t remember the pain; we remember the victory, the feeling of reaching a goal we had set out to accomplish. The indomitable human spirit Jordan displays in this series is so captivating, it’s giving us the push we need to make it through this time together.
The Last Dance isn’t just for the basketball fans. It’s not even just for the sports fans. This is for the humans that could use some excitement right now, to be taken away from the stressors of life for a couple hours, to feel a part of something bigger than themselves, to feel inspired to chase success in whatever they set their minds to.
This documentary isn’t about a final run at a championship. It’s about the triumph of the human spirit. And yes, it’s exactly what we need right now.