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The Last Dance – the touch of the team

The Last Dance is far more than a documentary on how Michael Jordan drove the Chicago Bulls to six-time NBA Championship success; it resonates on a human level and reemphasises the critical value of ‘the team’ to success.

The COVID-19 lockdown has birthed aspects of life that one might never have imagined all those months ago, anxiously manoeuvring for room on the crammed morning Central Line.

Virtual quizzes, once the laughable suggestion of the WhatsApp ‘techie’, have replaced the pub to become commonplace. Setting the late afternoon phone alarm to watch the latest update from Boris et al has become almost religious doctrine, and engaging with the latest TikTok challenges have opened up a new source of embarrassment for children across the UK, watching in horror as friends DM links to their parent’s latest dance routine.

But perhaps above all else during those mundane periods between Russian Revolution trivia and toilet roll challenge attempts, has been the thirst for binge-worthy content, and one programme has undoubtedly risen above them all to take the lockdown crown. Quickly swat away any thoughts of ‘that b*tch Carole Baskin’, because it has been the emergence of what is undoubtedly the greatest sporting docuseries of all time, The Last Dance.

For those of you who have not yet witnessed the spectacle that is The Last Dance (what’s wrong with you?), the series follows the incredible six-time NBA Championship winning Chicago Bulls in that famous final season, and one man in particular – Michael Jordan. It’s taken me just ten hours of basketball binging to have evolved my vocabulary to understand phrases such as ‘First Guard’, ‘Alley-oop’ and the wrong way to say defence, and to have unashamedly purchased a classic 1998 MJ 23 jersey, which I’m almost certain I will never put to real use.

The enthralling series follows the iconic Michael Jordan as he reflects upon his time in Chicago, through his first NBA Championship, his personal tragedies and professional gripes, his initial retirement and switch to baseball, and through tremendous grit and individual sporting brilliance, his sixth NBA Championship title in eight years.

I finished it during lockdown and it quickly became the centre of annoyance in the WhatsApp group as I lamented the end of the most remarkable recollection of sport I have ever seen. There are so many factors that make it so gripping: the priceless behind-the-scenes interactions; the recollections of MJ’s teammates; the sheer sporting brilliance of the Bulls in what they did; and perhaps even my newfound understanding of just how big Michael Jordan was at the time. After all, having been seven at the time of his retirement, my knowledge of him had been largely drawn from his collaboration with Bugs Bunny.

This series goes further than others I have seen, further than just a brilliant story of sporting genius; it resonates on a human level. What stands out most from the entire series is the critical importance of the function of ‘the team’ and of how Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson, in particular, were able to drive the players to become arguably the greatest sporting dynasty ever.

And I hope that eyes won’t roll uncontrollably as I try to link this to professional life, because it undoubtedly has relevance.

The series highlights the impact that Chicago Bull’s coach Phil Jackson had on the players that formed that formidable era. Indeed, spoiler alert, it was the decision to cull Jackson from the ’99 season set-up that led to ‘The Last Dance’ itself, that led to Michael Jordan announcing for the second time he would not be playing again for the Bulls, unless Phil Jackson was the coach.

Not only was it his undoubted ability as a coach, with the transformative introduction of their innovative ‘triangle’ plays (I won’t go so far as to say I understand the complexities of basketball tactics now…), but his player management that made him so respected by those who fought for him. Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan were both leaders of that team, and a large part of their success was in managing the personalities of those that played for them, and that is certainly something to take from the series – to function as a world-beating team, it is critical to understand and play to people’s individualities.

Take Dennis Rodman for example - a maverick in every sense of the word, the man who we see in the series often struggling with his own identity. A nonconformist, many in the NBA may not have dared touch him with a barge pole, but Jackson recognised through the flaws his undoubted defensive abilities. Jackson, and Jordan, were able to manage the personality, understanding Rodman’s unique nature. They gave him, what would be considered in elite sport today, a ridiculous level of freedom, in the knowledge that this was the best way to get the required performance out of him. Jordan recalls with a wry smile many occasions where Rodman’s outlandish behaviour, not least a ring appearance with Hulk Hogan, was followed by an incredible display on the court.

Other players too required management prowess. Scottie Pippen, the undoubted Samwise Gamgee to MJ’s Frodo, battled through personal contractual disputes with the Bulls to become the second-best basketball player of the era, behind only Michael Jordan. Refusing to play at points due to clear frustrations, the support of Jackson, Jordan, and his other teammates, helped him to recognise his value in the team as the essential superstar backup to the King, putting them above his own personal gripes. He even went so far as to play as an effective decoy in the final sixth championship game against the dangerous Utah Jazz, battling with an injured back to help the Bulls get over the line.

Steve Kerr too recollects with reverie Jordan turning to him in the final championship game of the 1997, fifth title, season – “You ready?” he remembers Jordan asking, to his clear surprise as Kerr was given the key role in the final play. Kerr, like many others in the team, notes throughout the series MJ’s drive to make his teammates succeed, bordering for some close to bullying. But all of them look back in that series on the impact he had on them, that his insatiable drive to bring his teammates to his level made them far greater players than they might have been otherwise. For the superstar of the team to have put his complete faith in Steve Kerr to make that final basket, in the dying seconds of the championship game, is testament to the importance Michael Jordan placed in the ability of the team around him.

Effective leaders and team players seek to bring out the best of each and every individual. Stringently following the typical ways of doing things, following the everyday rules and treating each team member as the same pawn in the chess game might produce a functioning team, perhaps even one with some success.

But the best teams, sport or otherwise, are those that understand the individual strengths and weaknesses of their team members. They know the professional capabilities of all of their team and work on the individual motivators that best drive their abilities. It is with an in-depth understanding of the personalities of your teammates that the success of a world-beating team must be built on.

If The Last Dance teaches us anything, it is that whilst his drive and ability were priceless, the Chicago Bull’s success was built on more than just one great man, but a team of unique, interlinking, personalities, and one great coach tying it all together.