clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Ringer Streaming Guide to NBA Nostalgia

What should you watch now that ‘The Last Dance’ is over? There’s no shortage of must-see NBA documentaries to help fill the time.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After five weeks and a 10-hour runtime, The Last Dance is over without any promise that the NBA will return soon. The documentary didn’t fill the absence of Ja Morant’s posters or the playoffs, but it did make the case for using this time to catch up with the past. Here’s a streaming guide of NBA documentaries to rediscover the league in the meantime:

Supplemental to The Last Dance

Bad Boys (2014)

Streaming on ESPN+

If there was one true villain in The Last Dance—no black eye mask or maniacal laugh, but everything else—it was Isiah Thomas and the late ’80s, early ’90s Detroit Pistons. That team—known unaffectionately as the Bad Boys—was the bully of an already-combative era in basketball. (The clear runner-up for villain of The Last Dance is Jerry Krause. Though he did break up the Bulls, he didn’t try to physically break people, which gives the Pistons the edge.)

Bad Boys provides a closer look at the supercharged “us vs. them” mentality that brought that team together. “We may lose the game,” Rick Mahorn says in the documentary, “but we ain’t gonna lose the fight.” (Mahorn was once referred to as “the baddest Bad Boy of them all” by announcer George Blaha.) It’s bizarre to see former players speak so candidly about their collaborative intention to hurt other people. Bill Laimbeer’s blunt interview alone led to the general public despising him all over again in 2014, when Bad Boys was released.

Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (2010)

Streaming on HBO Go

Before Jordan vs. Bird or Jordan vs. Magic, the rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson consumed the league and the two stars. The ’80s belonged to Boston and Los Angeles, two powerhouses that rotated championships and were led by adversaries. Courtship captures the unique relationship between the two stars—contrasting the flashy face of the “Showtime” Lakers with the pride of Boston, the Hick from French Lick— while also exploring race relations in the cities they represented.

Rodman: For Better or Worse (2019)

Streaming on ESPN+

In For Better or Worse, David Robinson says Dennis Rodman’s career eventually became “more about performance art than performance.” The film spends less time on Rodman’s basketball skills than his lifestyle and struggles away from the game, which appropriately represents him. For a five-time champion who was essential on each title team, it’s incredible how far Rodman could diverge from of the game while he was still playing. Director Todd Kapostasy juxtaposes Rodman’s traumas with his victories, his shattered familial relationships with his close friendships—including former coaches, teammates, and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un—and his substance abuse with his production on the basketball court. Rodman’s been a spectacle his entire career; in For Better or Worse, he’s a sympathetic character. For an otherwise unfiltered and comprehensive look at Rodman’s life, the film does not mention any of Rodman’s multiple domestic violence arrests.

Pair with Brian Phillips’s excellent review of For Better or Worse here.

Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks (2010)

Streaming on ESPN+

The few times Reggie Miller appears in The Last Dance, it’s to play provocateur. (Also once to equate Jordan to a vampire.) Winning Time encapsulates that side of Miller and shows it through the hate of millions of New Yorkers. It’s necessary to remember him as Reggie Miller The Player, not Reggie Miller The Broadcaster, because one is far more fun, and the other I usually mute. I prefer the Miller who wrapped his hands around his neck while staring down Spike Lee, the Miller who exasperated Patrick Ewing, the Miller who scored eight points in 8.9 seconds against New York in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals.

The Other Dream Team (2012)

Available to rent for $2.99 on Amazon

While Jordan and the Dream Team redefined Olympic basketball in Barcelona, the 1992 Games also represented systemic change for Lithuanian athletics. After years of Soviet rule—when Lithuanian athletes were forced to compete for the Soviet teams—Lithuanians could finally participate independently under their own country’s name. Their story inspired the Grateful Dead to sponsor the men’s basketball team, which didn’t have the necessary funds to reach the Games after regaining their independence. Team Lithuania (featuring Arvydas Sabonis and Šarūnas Marčiulionis) eventually faces the Unified Team, made of 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics. The film features Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, and a young Jonas Valanciunas before the 2011 draft.

Jordan Rides the Bus (2010)

Streaming on ESPN+

If you’re looking for more on Jordan’s gambling scandal, the upsetting public reaction to his father’s passing, and his hiatus to pursue his baseball dreams, Jordan Rides the Bus goes into greater detail.

Before Jordan

Free Spirits (2013)

Streaming on ESPN+

Free Spirits is a quick watch that packs a franchise’s entire existence into 50 minutes. The Spirits of St. Louis were a notoriously wild ABA team from 1974-76—drugs, partying, a player hitting his former teammate with a tire iron, more drugs—that likely wouldn’t have gotten away with its antics in the NBA. In the documentary, ABA historian Terry Pluto likens the NBA to a symphony, and the ABA to jazz. Or, Pluto says, “early rap music—we just didn’t know what it was.”

The documentary features young Bob Costas, Mike D’Antoni, Moses Malone, Julius Erving, and the story of the savviest business deal in sports history. When the NBA denied St. Louis entry in the 1976 merger, Spirits owners Ozzie and Daniel Silna negotiated a settlement of $2.2 million—less than the Kentucky Colonels, the other ABA team that didn’t make the cut—on the condition that they would also receive one-seventh of the national TV revenue from each of the four ABA teams that were admitted for as long as the NBA existed. As we know now, and the Silnas apparently knew then, television rights are very lucrative. In 2014, the NBA bought the Silnas out with a $500 million settlement on top of the $300 million the brothers had already made. Plus, an additional small annual stream of money. Elite negotiating. We salute them.

When the Garden Was Eden (2014)

Streaming on ESPN+

Before Phil Jackson was the Zen Master, he played alongside Walt Frazier as a Knick in the Garden. This documentary is proof of what the future would never suggest: that the Knicks were once excellent, that they reached the Finals three out of four seasons in the ’70s, that they won it all twice, and that fun could be more abundant than loss. There was no free agency—therefore, no free agents to miss out on. There were no Dolans—therefore, no JD & the Straight Shot performances to open shows at the Garden. MSG is still considered the Mecca because of its history. If you can believe it, some of those memories were good.

After Jordan

Iverson (2014)

Available to rent for $1.99 on Amazon

Before, during, and after Allen Iverson’s career, his reputation was clouded with misgivings and misunderstandings. Zatella Beatty’s Iverson addresses the 76ers legend’s most contentious moments, including That Soundbite, in order to remember the guard more clearly as a player, a change agent for NBA culture, and an adored personality. When executive producer Mike Tollin introduced Iverson at Tribeca Film Festival, he said, “As a lifelong Sixers fan, I can say that Wilt won us a title, Doc won us a title, and Allen won our hearts.”

This Magic Moment (2016)

Streaming on ESPN+

If you’ve become obsessed with some of the what-if questions in The Last Dance, Shaq and Penny Hardaway’s Magic teams offer a handful for ‘90s basketball. (The first being: What if Nick Anderson made those free throws?) Three years into its NBA existence, Orlando won back-to-back draft lotteries in 1992 and 1993, then reached the Finals in 1995. It was like someone put an expansion team into an Instant Pot and out came a fully-formed playoff contender. Had it not been for an injury, an ego, some free throws, and one Lil’ Penny commercial, the Magic’s glory might’ve lasted longer than a moment.

Women of Troy (2020)

Streaming on HBO Go

My favorite interviews in The Last Dance were recollections of Jordan’s outlandish performances. Women of Troy tells those stories about Cheryl Miller, whom Doris Burke describes as a “bad motherfucker” in the doc, and the exploits of the mid-1980s USC women’s basketball team. The story should be triumphant, but the Trojans were met with ensuing racism on USC’s predominately white campus, along with sexism and a familiar reality in women’s sports that, once college was over, there wasn’t a professional league to join before the WNBA was launched.

Bonus! Bizarre Movies With NBA Player Cameos

The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979)

Available to rent for $2.99 on Amazon Prime

By far the greatest sports movie of all time, Fish has everything: Dr. J in a starring role, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a team astrologist who doubles as a coach, a deep appreciation for Pisces, a trainer blowing smoke in his players’ faces while tending to injuries, a child driving a Bentley around Pittsburgh, and a love scene in which Julius Erving seduces a woman by doing a routine shootaround. After the Pittsburgh Pythons’ team chemistry becomes unsalvageable, the team trades everyone except Dr J., a Pisces, and holds tryouts for an entirely new roster made of fellow Pisces; astrological compatibility ensues.

Forget Paris (1995)

Streaming on Amazon

Rarely do romantic comedies have NBA-adjacent plots, though you can’t say I haven’t tried to connect the two in the past. Forget Paris is about an NBA referee, Billy Crystal, falling in love with a woman he meets in Paris. Their relationship has its ups and downs and downs and ups and, as far as Crystal’s rom-com appearances go, it’s no When Harry Met Sally. However, the cast is rich with NBA players, many of whom yell at Crystal.

Some superstars are featured, but otherwise, it’s a Rite-Aid brand Space Jam: Marv Albert, Bill Walton, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Dan Majerle (a redeeming performance after seeing Majerle bullied by Jordan in The Last Dance), Kevin Johnson, Paul Westphal, Sean Elliott, Patrick Ewing, Tim Hardaway, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Laimbeer, Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin, Charles Oakley, Kurt Rambis, John Starks, Isiah Thomas, Spud Webb, Marques Johnson, David Sanborn, and Rush Limbaugh (????). What a terrible note to end on.