The “Last Dance” Fans Debate: Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James

Michael Jordan seemingly has everything. He toppled almost all of his foes as a player. There was his individual greatness. Team greatness. Much business greatness.

So why, after all these years, would Jordan, who rarely gives interviews, take part in a lengthy documentary series rehashing his epic time with the Chicago Bulls?

It’s the legacy.

What emerges in “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary series produced by Netflix, ESPN and Jordan that had its premiere on Sunday night, is what amounts to an extended defense of Jordan’s career as many are considering the contributions of the 21st century’s best basketball player: LeBron James. At least in the eight parts ESPN allowed journalists to screen. (On Monday, ESPN said the first two episodes on Sunday averaged 6.1 million viewers in two hours on ESPN and ESPN2, making it the most highly viewed documentary in the network’s history.)

Consider the most contentious debate in the N.B.A., which the show is now recharging, intentionally or not:

Jordan or James? Who is the best of all time? Six rings, or three? Oh, but Jordan couldn’t do it without Scottie Pippen and played in a watered down league. Yeah, but LeBron couldn’t do it without Wade and Bosh. And the league is soft now. No, the league is better now! Jordan never beat a team as good as the 2016 Golden State Warriors! Yeah, but Jordan didn’t lose to the 2011 Dallas Mavericks!

Jordan hears these conversations loud and clear, even though he won’t publicly partake in them.

“I think he’s made his mark,” Jordan said of James at a news conference in January. “He will continue to do so over a period of time. But when you start the comparisons, I think it is what it is. It’s just a standup measurement. I take it with a grain of salt. He’s a heck of a basketball player, without a doubt.”

But the timing of his agreeing to cooperate with the producer Mike Tollin is apt: As Tollin said in an article in The New York Times last week, Jordan’s cooperation to participate in the documentary and greenlight the release of the long-hidden footage came on the same day that James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were celebrating winning the N.B.A. championship in 2016. That is some grain of salt.

“I take a redeye to Charlotte for a meeting, I turn on ESPN in the morning as I’m getting dressed, and there’s the Cavaliers’ parade as I’m heading in to see Michael,” Tollin said of his first face-to-face meeting with Jordan and his business advisers Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk. “He said yes in the room, which doesn’t happen too often in my business.”

Maybe this is coincidence. But Jordan has managed his image to the finest detail. A documentary is, in theory, supposed to provide an unvarnished look at a person or its subject. But “The Last Dance” is not that. Michael Jordan’s production company, Jump 23, is a partner in the project. Commissioner Adam Silver, who in the 1990s was the head of NBA Entertainment, told ESPN that a condition of allowing the film crew to follow the Bulls around during the 1997-98 season was that none of the footage could be used without Jordan’s permission. Optically, very little of this is unvarnished.

Sam Smith, the veteran N.B.A. writer who wrote a critical portrayal of Jordan in his 1992 book, “The Jordan Rules,” wrote a piece last week in which he said he asked the director of the film, Jason Hehir, whether he went to Jordan for permission to interview him for “The Last Dance.”

Smith wrote, “So the director dithered a bit and somewhat shyly answered, well yes, they asked Jordan if it was OK to interview me.” The director, in Smith’s telling, said Jordan told them he didn’t care who they talked to. “Michael being Michael,” Smith added.

Even if Jordan gave the greenlight to everyone, clearly his approval was on the team’s mind if what Smith said was correct. (A spokesman for ESPN said Jordan did not personally approve which people could be interviewed.)

Hehir gave a quotation recently to The Athletic, in which he recalled Jordan discussing his treatment of a teammate, Scott Burrell: “When you see the footage of it, you’re going to think that I’m a horrible guy.” Yet much of the interactions that you see with Jordan and his teammates in the series show present the image Jordan has long cultivated for himself: competitive and willing to win at all costs — hardly anything that will make basketball fans think less of him. If anything, that relentless drive to win will endear him more to fans.

I am reminded of that viral clip of Jordan and Tom Brady playing pickup basketball with other unidentified players from 2015 in the Bahamas.

“Hey, man, you guys still have YouTube?” Jordan, in his early 50s, says to one of his defenders after making a flawless jumper over him. “You better put on Michael Jordan for real.”

That’s what “The Last Dance” is: Jordan reminding us who he is, or was, as James’s legacy emerges. Not just as a basketball player, but culturally. Would a documentary about James’s career attract multiple former presidents and A-list celebrities?

The series eventually goes over some of the less savory aspects of Jordan’s legacy. But even then, he and several of his defenders are given ample time and space to explain them, or paint them in a more favorable light, such as Jordan’s bullying of Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ general manager, about whom Jordan made cracks about his weight.

When teammates are described in unflattering situations, including drug use, Jordan and the documentary team make clear that he steered clear. As Jordan says, he didn’t go to clubs. He didn’t smoke or drink (at the time, he notes, though a glass of what appears to be bourbon sits next to him during some interviews).

“I was looking just to get some rest, get up and go play,” Jordan says. In other words, you should Be Like Mike.

That’s by design. The documentary is a product for Jordan. And Jordan doesn’t attach his brand to something that doesn’t benefit him personally.

He said it himself.

“Because you can always put your name on something, but most of the things that I do — practically all the things that I do — are very authentic in terms of my involvement,” he told Cigar Aficionado in 2017, after he gave the documentary the go-ahead. “I don’t want to just lend my name to a product. Because at the end of the day, that product is always going to represent my DNA. So I like to have some interest, I like to have some input, I like to have some participation. There’s nothing that goes out with my name on it that we don’t oversee, we don’t deal with.”

That doesn’t mean “The Last Dance,” even as a hagiography, doesn’t have its compelling moments. The series is effective in emphasizing that Jordan is one of the greatest athletes who has ever walked on this planet, in case we forgot.

It seems that no one wants to remind us more than Jordan himself.

Marc Stein contributed reporting.

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