One thing that’s fun to do during lockdown is try on some new personalities for size. You may as well lean in and commit, since they’re being foisted on you anyway. I never planned to be “woman who spends six hours making minorly different versions of bechamel sauce”, for instance, or “incapable of reading for more than three minutes at a time” or, most harrowing of all, “living sullenly alongside my mother while I turn 30”. So while I’m at it, I’m giving a few other wildcards a go. This is why, for the past week, I’ve been texting friends and acquaintances and would-be lovers to say: “Hey, are you watching this Chicago Bulls doc? I’m a sports guy now!”
The Last Dance is an ESPN miniseries (also airing on Netflix) about the career of basketball star Michael Jordan and his final season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-98. The documentary crew had complete access, so as well as game footage and interviews with Jordan and his teammates, we see locker-room goofing off and strains.
We see Scottie Pippen drinking a beer after a game with captivatingly profound enjoyment. We see gargantuan egos rubbing up against each other before dissolving into good-natured teasing. We see the odd general manager Jerry Krause being relentlessly pilloried by Jordan for his height, weight and social awkwardness, and then insisting to camera that it’s the organisation that’s great, not just Jordan. He wants to dissipate some of the hysteria, to flatten out his achievements so that they belong to the team and to management, but of course he can’t, because Jordan is Jordan.
One of the most astonishing things about the series is to see the creation of the sports celebrity as we know it now. There had been famous American athletic icons before Jordan – Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Muhammad Ali – but Jordan was the first to grasp the totality of his stardom and monetise it to the relentless degree that is normal today. His glamour made Nike into one of the foremost brands in the world, and then he sold his image to Gatorade, McDonald’s, Wheaties and Coca-Cola. His marketability transcended the NBA, and even the US. He had adoring fans, ready to be sold to, all over the world. Compared to some of his contemporaries – eccentric Dennis Rodman, say, or lovable and gregarious Magic Johnson, or even the winningly laconic Pippen – Jordan is a curiously uncharismatic figure. This worked in his favour. His personality, his USP, was purely and singularly that of the winner. He was the best at being the best, and that included being the best at making money. His ascending talent was perfectly confluent with his commodification in a way he nurtured with great intuitive intelligence. When Reebok sponsored the American Olympic team in 1992, Jordan hid the logo on his kit by draping an American flag over his shoulders, elegantly evading brand conflict with Nike.
Jordan was heard to have responded “Republicans buy sneakers too” when challenged about his apoliticism. Rumoured to have been a misattribution for years, he finally cops to it in The Last Dance, but says he won’t apologise for a throwaway joke to teammates. He is taken to task for not publicly supporting the African-American Democrat Harvey Gantt over racist Republican Jesse Helms in a 1990 North Carolina US Senate race (Helms won). He is more vocal now, speaking out against Donald Trump’s attacks on protests by the quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the basketball star LeBron James. But, he says, in his heyday, when people criticised him for not supporting Gantt or for holding his tongue about Rodney King, an African-American beaten by police officers in LA, he was focused on basketball, busy being the best.
Why should a figure such as Jordan be automatically lined up to provide political dissent if it isn’t naturally forthcoming?
Hearing such criticism from the likes of his teammate Craig Hodges, who put his career on the line to voice his politics, is one thing. When Hodges suggested that the Bulls and LA Lakers sit out the opening game of the 1991 season in protest at racial inequalities in the MBA, Jordon told Hodges he was “crazy”. “What’s happening to our people in this country is extreme,” Hodges responded. But when the tutting is coming from white journalists, it gets a little maddening. Whatever his politics now, back then Jordan was acting in accordance with his personality. If we want to encourage the possibility of public dissent, we equally shouldn’t demand it of athletes who have no inclination to, purely because of their race. If white celebrities are allowed to be blank-slate apolitical commodities who bear no burden of confronting the world’s injustices, which they certainly are, then black celebrities must be, too.
Beyond the money, though, and the movies and magazine covers, there is finally just the movement. The Last Dance is full of reality-defying moments so majestically improbable you can’t help but grin dopily at the screen, leaning in to check how it could have happened. Jordan grins, too, in the moments after he executes something especially unlikely, or one of the last-second triumphs he has an uncanny knack for – luxuriating in yet another instance of knowing he is better than anyone else alive at what he is doing, a pleasure completely alien to the rest of us.
It’s miraculous to see a body move the way Jordan’s does; he kept making me think of the Robert Lowell line: “Clearest of all God’s creatures, still all air and nerve.” At the best of times, let alone now, I feel my body as the slow, incompetent executor of my mind’s desires. I think of them as two separate entities that bristle against one another. To watch Jordan is to see physical movement not as an action directed by thought, nor as separate, but as its own distinct kind of thought in and of itself.
This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion