Last Sunday, ESPN debuted episodes 1 and 2 of The Last Dance, the long-anticipated, moved-up, 10-part docuseries on Michael Jordan and the late-’90s Bulls. We meet modern-day Jordan right away. He states his name, then pauses, trying to recall the exact years he played in Chicago—as if the years, months, days, hours, minutes that he wore a Bulls uniform don’t consume him still. Jordan looks like a retired person. Not in the way that an NBA player does after hanging it up at 40, but the way my uncle does at home. In his favorite armchair, with a cigar and some dark liquor to his right. Like someone who has a story to tell, if you have a minute to listen. Jordan is 57 now. It took two decades to get him in that armchair.
A film crew (funded by the NBA) followed Jordan and the Bulls through their 1997-98 three-peat quest, the final season of their storied run. Chicago was imploding from tension, and the crew caught every character, angle, and behind-the-scenes moment. The access was, as The Last Dance describes it, “unprecedented.” Though there was a catch: The footage could only be used with Jordan’s permission. So for years, it collected dust in a vault in Secaucus, until June 2016. “Michael does not want to be a statue,” Last Dance director Jason Hehir told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “He doesn’t want to be looked at as something in the past.” Nostalgia means it’s over. So convincing Jordan meant having the right pitch (the documentary should be about the Bulls’ 1997-98 season, not just MJ), and the right pace (multi-episodic sports docuseries were becoming more popular), and the right timing (LeBron James had just done the unthinkable, overcoming a 3-1 deficit to topple the Warriors in the Finals).
“[Jordan] was ready to tell it,” Shelburne wrote, “right after another player (LeBron James) and another team (the Warriors) got dangerously close to challenging those legacies.”
LeBron’s career has always been measured against Jordan’s legacy. Jordan, apparently, spends as much time as the rest of us examining their juxtaposition. But the LeBron tell-all documentary 15 years from now would be much different. He hasn’t had a true “last dance” yet. He’s just switched partners a few times. Before the 2019-20 season began, LeBron was 34, one year younger than Jordan was when he packed it up a second time. I imagine the next time LeBron leaves a team, he’ll also be leaving the league. Things change—just ask Cleveland—but just a month ago, LeBron was gushing about the idea of being a Laker for life. The LeBron exit that most parallels Jordan’s in 1998 was in 2014 with the Big Three Heat. It wasn’t his first goodbye and it wasn’t his last or even second-to-last, but those what-ifs are the stuff of docuseries.
LeBron’s side table will have red wine. The interview list will be longer, but the dirt will be less substantial. Try reporting a story on LeBron once; every source knows better than to dish if a tidbit can be traced back to them. The exclusive footage won’t be as intimate, either, though there are bigger swarms of media now than there ever were in Jordan’s day. The pressure the two faced will be similar. Pressure followed LeBron his entire career. He went to Miami to have the success that people demanded from him, the success that he couldn’t have in Cleveland, only for the validity of that success to be questioned. He couldn’t even win alone!
It was controversial when LeBron left Cleveland the first time in 2010, in part because of the Television Special That Shall Not Be Named, but it was understandable given his unique situation. He needed a team worthy of his talent. There was no Jerry Krause drafting Scottie Pippen or bringing in Dennis Rodman. Both times that LeBron left Cleveland, there was no longer anything there for him. In 2010, he had outgrown the team. In 2018, he had outgrown the franchise. LeBron had delivered the championship he promised, but there was no hope of a dynasty. Leaving Miami in 2014 didn’t have the sting of betrayal—he wasn’t from the city, wasn’t drafted by the team, and brought two titles to town despite overwhelming scrutiny—but leaving Miami also left the most on the table.
“When LeBron made that call, I saw a dynasty fly out the window,” Heat president Pat Riley said last year. “I knew that that was a 10-year team.” It’s unclear when LeBron decided that he wanted out, or why. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the Heat were “expecting” him to go after team representatives met him in Las Vegas and negotiations went nowhere. LeBron’s people call that inaccurate. They’ll say, according to Windhorst, that the final decision was made the day before it was announced in Sports Illustrated. Windhorst reported that LeBron didn’t even tell Dwyane Wade, his best friend and Heat teammate, when they were together on a flight in the hours before the news dropped.
Losing the 2014 Finals might have made the decision for LeBron. Losing in five to the Spurs proved the Heat were mortal, even with Wade, LeBron, and Chris Bosh, and brought Riley’s “10-year team” projection into question. He did re-sign Bosh and Wade. Bosh was signed to a five-year, $118 million max deal—he’d play 97 games for Miami before blood clots forced him into early retirement—and Wade took another pay cut to stick around. Still, the Heat floundered after LeBron departed. Miami paid too much for players who contributed too little; their stars fought health issue after health issue; they tried to grow organically; they asked for patience; they turned to the draft. They were the post-Jordan Bulls condensed into a couple of seasons. What Jordan and LeBron had to grapple with when deciding to stay or go was the ruin their absence would create. If you have them, you’re a title favorite. If they leave, you might be screwed for the next five years.
In Return of the King, a book written by Windhorst and Dave McMenamin, the two authors argue that LeBron might not have left South Beach if the Heat had won that series against the Spurs. “The idea that losing the Finals drove James out of Miami isn’t new, but this account does answer a key question,” they wrote. “Did losing the Finals give James the out he needed to leave the Heat, since no one would have been able to leave after winning three straight championships?” The argument would be cleaner were that true. But some exits are predetermined, by players and by the people running their teams, three straight championships or not. The man in the armchair will tell you that.