We’ll Be Talking About ‘The Last Dance’s iPad Forever
Michael Jordan parlayed one of the greatest careers in NBA history into an even more lucrative gig promoting all kinds of brands, from Gatorade to Hanes underwear to his trademark Nike sneakers. To the best of my knowledge, Jordan’s never promoted tablet computers, but if Apple was smart they would look at the reaction to the just-concluded documentary series The Last Dance and immediately sign MJ to an iPad endorsement deal.
When we remember The Last Dance in the future, we’re going to talk about Jordan and the iPad. At various points throughout the ten-part series, director Jason Hehir hands Jordan a tablet and lets him watch and then react to other interviews featured in the documentary. The clips Jordan watches on camera include his mother reading a letter he wrote her in college, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf offering his rationale for breaking up the 1998 team despite winning three championships in a row, and Seattle SuperSonics guard Gary Payton talking about the physical beating he gave Jordan during the 1996 NBA Finals.
I’ve read several complaints about Hehir’s iPad technique from a few of The Last Dance’s critics— that it’s tacky or too simple for this epic documentary filled with unseen documentary footage from Jordan’s championship run. I totally disagree. Jordan had many great teammates throughout his NBA career, and most of them are featured in the documentary. But that little tablet provides Jordan with his most meaningful onscreen assists in The Last Dance. Giving it to Jordan was Hehir’s most ingenious decision.
For one thing, now we know why Jordan lost so much money at gambling: The man has absolutely no poker face whatsoever. Whatever Jordan feels when Hehir hands him that iPad gets plastered right across his face. Whether he’s entertained or enraged, mystified or amused, it all plays out with no apparent filter. No wonder the dude made such an effective co-star for the Looney Tunes in Space Jam; his facial expressions are almost cartoonish in size.
The Last Dance’s iPad is more than just a window into Jordan’s emotions, it’s also a way for Hehir to utilize one of Jordan’s defining traits as a player: His ability to turn almost anything into motivation. What separated #23 from his NBA competition was his determination to win at all costs, and his knack for finding whatever he needed to fuel himself to push through any obstacle until he found victory.
Over and over during The Last Dance’s ten hours, Jordan describes the personal insults and slights that he used to succeed. If someone made Jordan look bad for a few minutes on the court, he would return the favor tenfold. If Karl Malone won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award, Jordan became determined to beat him one-on-one in the Finals, and prove he was more valuable. If Adidas didn’t want to be in the Michael Jordan business, he’d help turn Nike into the biggest sneaker company in the world.
Even seemingly insignificant slights were enough to send Jordan over the edge. At one point, he describes an altercation with Utah Jazz forward Bryon Russell. During Jordan’s first retirement, he went to visit the Jazz, where Russell joked “Why did you quit? You know I could guard you.” Russell, a rookie at the time, was obviously joking. It didn’t matter; Jordan returned to the game and beat the Jazz two years in a row in the Finals — hitting the game-winning shot over Russell in 1998’s Game 6.
In other words, Jordan was a master of reactive play. He could channel whatever came at him right back at others — even if what was coming at him would be considered minor by anyone else. Handing Jordan that iPad allows the MJ of 2020 to react the same way the MJ of 1998 did. It also shows that some of the grudges he harbored back then still haunt him to this day, even with all of his wealth and success. The way these tiny wounds fester within his psyche offers another window into his win-at-all-costs mentality.
That iPad’s also important to understanding The Last Dance’s shifty structure, which keeps bouncing back and forth between the Chicago Bulls 1998 season and different points in the past. That unusual back-and-forth flow has been criticized by some as superfluous, and a means of stretching out The Last Dance beyond its natural length. And I will admit that after the first four episodes — which each focused on Jordan, Scottie Pippin, Dennis Rodman, and Phil Jackson, respectively — I began to wonder exactly what all the time-hopping was adding to the film.
The first minutes of The Last Dance’s final episode explains everything. As Jordan walks into practice before Game 1 of the 1998 NBA Finals, Rare Air author Mark Vancil explains the secret of Jordan’s success. “Most people struggle to be present,” he says. “Michael’s a mystic. He was never anywhere else. His gift was not that he could jump high, run fast, shoot a basketball. His gift was that he was completely present. And that was the separator.”
That’s the separator for The Last Dance as well. Jumping around in Jordan’s life tears down the barriers between then and now and turns his entire career into one perpetual present. The iPad isn’t just a cheap gimmick or a meme factory; it’s the window into all those different moments. The leaps between past and present don’t work without it.
Some viewers might not make these connection, but they’re going to notice The Last Dance’s influence all the same. Jordan and the iPad have already taken on such a life of their own that I suspect we’re going to see a distinct rise in scenes in documentaries where interview subjects get confronted with other interviews on camera — even if shoving an iPad into someone’s hands makes less thematic sense as it does in The Last Dance. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we someday look at this series as a turning point in documentaries specifically because of this technique. And if I was Apple, I would do anything to get Jordan for a sponsorship deal. They already make an iPad Air.
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