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TV Wrap - In The Last Dance, Jordan's political silence is another emblem of the 1990s

Were he playing the game today, Jordan might not be afforded the chance to stay silent and say that “Republicans buy sneakers too”.

File photo of Michael Jordan.
File photo of Michael Jordan.
Image: Imago/PA Images

MANY OF US watching The Last Dance have no memory of Michael Jordan playing for the Chicago Bulls, but in these dark and narrow days, why wouldn’t you want to drench yourself in ’90s America?

The 1990s might well have been the West’s last decade of innocence – it seemed like there was finally nothing to be worried about.

We were between existential crises: the Cold War had ended and we didn’t have to fret about nuclear fallout, while the scale of the climate crisis had yet to widely take hold.

So if you are too young to miss most of the 1990s, then you might feel nostalgic for the future it promised, which was much more bright, earnest, and exciting than the present we’ve been lumbered with.

And what better avatar for this bright new age than that dunking starfish icon of Michael Jordan, soaring limitlessly through the air?

The Last Dance captures this colourful, optimistic image of the 1990s by filling the front-of-house footage with so much fun. Much of it is loose, daring and audacious: the dynamism of the on-court action is cast in perfect step with the cadence of 90s hip-hop; Denis Rodman and Phil Jackson’s more outgoing side are accentuated; it’s filled with dunks and grins and high-fives; while much of the ephemera are over-the-top, from the large cigars to the comically oversized suits on oversized men.

Jordan and the NBA are consciously cast as symbols for 90s America, as Adam Silver expressed in episode five by describing Jordan and the ‘92 Dream Team as one of the “first examples of sport sold as culture”, who in turn were selling Americana to the rest of the world.

In Jordan’s case, he was selling Nike, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, and later Gatorade.

Episode five addresses – if not dwells – on the silent price Jordan paid for those money-spinning contracts, which he himself pithily summed up when asked why he would not publicly endorse Harvey Gantt in his bid to become the first African-American from North Carolina to serve in the Senate.

Republicans buy sneakers too.

Jordan defends that line in the documentary by saying it was delivered off-hand to a couple of team-mates, and says that he donated money to Gantt’s campaign. He acknowledges that his not being outspoken on civil rights is “not going to be enough for everybody”, and is still lightly irked at the fact the public have preconceived ideas as to what he should be doing.

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Barack Obama, in words leavened with more than a hint trace of tragic experience, explains Jordan’s pact with Americana.

“Any African-American in this society that sees significant success has an added burden. A lot of times, America is very quick to embrace a Michael Jordan or an Oprah Winfrey or a Barack Obama, so long as it’s understood you don’t get too controversial around broader issues of social justice.”

Capture Barack Obama, speaking in the Last Dance.

Americana did it first with OJ Simpson, by casting him in a Hertz commercial running through an airport filled only with white people, then they did it with Jordan and they would do it with Tiger Woods too.

Jordan’s agent David Falk is a talking head in the series, and it’s a pity it doesn’t include a contribution from him to this topic.

“Celebrities aren’t black”, he once told the New Yorker. “People don’t look at Michael as being black. They accept he’s different because he’s a celebrity.”

The series has shown little interest in exploring any racism encountered by Jordan: he mentioned an experience of it from his youth in an early episode and the series quickly moved on.

This isn’t to chastise Jordan for not being outspoken on politics and civil rights, but his keeping schtum looks a luxury of the era from the angle of our present moment, as America’s malevolent racist energies have been stirred by Donald Trump. 

LeBron James, for example, can’t be afforded ambivalence in an age when racist graffiti is daubed on the walls of his home. “No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough”, said James in response. “Racism will always be a part of the world, a part of America.”

In these moments of The Last Dance, the ’90s seem less an age of innocence than an era of complacency.

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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