Besides a new understanding of Michael Jordan, 'The Last Dance' offered an all-important reminder
Bob Costas knew how to be present.
In the seconds that followed Michael Jordan’s iconic shot over Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, the NBC announcer understood the gravity of the moment.
“That may have been the last shot that Michael Jordan will ever take in the NBA. If that’s the last image of Michael Jordan, how magnificent is it.”
Did it matter that Costas ultimately was wrong because Jordan decided to play for a couple of years with the Washington Wizards? No. What mattered was he was present. As a stunned Utah Jazz crowd came to grips that they witnessed the greatest player of all-time put the exclamation point on his illustrious career, Costas delivered what should have been the poetic ending.
That play put an exclamation point on ESPN 30 for 30’s “The Last Dance.” Heading into Sunday night, we as viewers knew that we’d get closure. If you were like me, you kept looking at the clock hoping that time would slow down knowing that the best source of sports entertainment in the midst of this quarantine was coming to its 10-hour conclusion.
If we take away something from the highly-anticipated documentary — other than Scott Burrell took it like a champ — it’s that being present is a valuable thing. We don’t always get closure, but we can always be present. The irony is that closure, in whatever form it comes, often serves as the reminder to be present.
As sports fans, we’re programmed to always look at what’s ahead. It’s safety. It’s promise. It’s hope. It’s a belief that what’s coming will always be better than what’s happening.
In college football, that comes in many forms — an elite recruiting class, a new head coach, new facilities, etc. Being present for a college football fan is next to impossible. That’s not to say that fans don’t appreciate their teams, but think about it. There’s an 8-month offseason to discuss what it’ll take to be the 1 team out of 130 to be left standing when the confetti falls. Even fans of the great teams like 2019 LSU, 2012 Alabama or 2008 Florida spend their seasons fearful of that 1 game that’ll ruin everything.
The struggle to be present is real. Some people handle that better than others. In the final episodes of “The Last Dance,” it was Rare Air author Mark Vancil, who hit the nail on the head.
“Most people struggle to be present. People go and sit in ashrams for 20 years in India, trying to be present. Do yoga, meditate, trying to get here, now. Those people live in fear because we project the past into the future. (Jordan) is a mystic. He was never anywhere else … his gift was that he was completely present. And that was the separator.”
We didn’t need a 10-hour documentary to tell us that Jordan didn’t think like the rest of us. We did, however, need a reminder of why he used that to his advantage.
That’s not some way of saying “young people spend too much time on the internet instead of watching their team.” (Trust me. It’s not. You reading this column helps keep a roof over my head.) Could we appreciate sports more if we collectively made a better effort to be present? Absolutely. Closure doesn’t present itself in black and white, especially not in college football.
When Tennessee beat Florida in that rare early-December game between the 2 rivals in 2001, Gator fans didn’t know that it was Steve Spurrier’s last game in The Swamp (at least as the Florida coach). When Penn State beat Georgia in the 1982 Sugar Bowl, plenty of Dawgs fans didn’t know that was Herschel Walker’s last game in college.
Closure rarely — if ever — appears with an all-time great producing a show-stopping send-off moment. It’s often too late that we realize what closure is. By then, we’ve already dissected the next star or the next path to a title.
Watching the final episodes of “The Last Dance,” the Bulls don’t win that title if they can’t live up to that mantra. All the concern over their respective futures would have torpedoed a team that really didn’t have much room for error in that stage of their run. As cliché as it was to continue to spew “one day at a time” lines, the fear of the unknown would have derailed the vast majority of teams in that spot. Shoot, maybe any Jordan-less team would have lost control of that moment.
Just imagine that. Think about going into Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals and answering questions about this being “it.” Everyone could see the closure around the corner. Jordan answered questions about if his team, the one he spent 15 years turning into one of the greatest dynasties we had ever seen, was 1 bad game from launching a rebuild to inevitably send the franchise back into the basement of the league. It takes a different kind of human not to let that burden creep in.
Jordan was indeed a different type of human. He lived in the present by always looking for ways to motivate himself, whether that was making up a story about LaBradford Smith or not letting a rookie like Bryon Russell get the slightest dig in. Jordan lived for the present. I mean, remember that headache story?
Twenty two years later, it’s still wild to think a dynasty with a season-long mantra of “The Last Dance” could function at that level with such an uncertain future. And sure, it wasn’t perfect. Between the slow start, Scottie Pippen’s heated contract negotiations and Dennis Rodman missing practice during the Finals for his blossoming professional wrestling career, “best for last” wasn’t quite how that team became defined.
All that mattered, though, was getting to ring No. 6. Even Jerry Krause, who infamously said in the beginning of the season that Phil Jackson wasn’t returning even if the team went 82-0, was shown in the documentary after that 1998 title saying that that he didn’t want to talk about the future. The late former Bulls general manager took heat throughout that season for being too caught up in the future, and not being willing to squeeze every last day out of the dynasty he helped build.
The more lasting image that night in Utah, however, was Jordan sitting down at the piano table back on a private floor of the team hotel. Champagne flowing, Jordan puffed on his signature cigar as a handful of media members crowded around him. Without a care in the world, cameras showed Jordan existing in his own bubble until a reporter asked the question that was on everyone’s mind.
“Ya got another one in ya?”
Without hesitation, Jordan offered up a response that mere mortals like us might not ever understand, no matter how hard we try.
“In the moment, man. Get in the moment and stay here.”
Easier said than done, MJ.