If you possess a working Internet connection but haven’t yet seen ESPN’s The Last Dance, I’m concerned about you. The 10-part series, which chronicles the career of basketball legend Michael Jordan and the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls, dropped this spring and immediately sent the basketball world into a frenzy. Former players, current rising stars, and fans of all ages were universally captivated by Jason Hehir and team’s immaculate story of basketball’s greatest — and among those fans were me and my dad.
I thought of Jordan as a kind of mythical figure. That’s how my dad talks about him
The Bulls won their fifth NBA championship the year I was born, but they haven’t been all that great since. Still, some of my earliest sports-related memories are of lying on the living room floor and watching NBA games with my dad, whom I get my obsession from. Although I have a very vague recollection of watching Jordan’s last game as a kid in 2003, not having seen Michael Jordan’s heyday myself, I’ve always thought of Jordan as a kind of mythical figure. That’s certainly how my dad talks about him, scoffing at the way people my age lionize Kobe Bryant and LeBron James (though he does begrudge that LeBron gives Jordan a run for his money, and has been less of a jerk in the process).
I’ll be the first to admit that my relationship with my dad was not the easiest growing up. I’m stubborn, hot-headed, and very opinionated, which are all things I get from him. No matter how much grief I’ve given him, though, we’ve always connected on sports. As I got older, the frequency of the NBA got harder and harder to follow closely as my life slipped into a haze of academic responsibilities, but I’d still carve out time to obsessively watch the far less viewing time-intensive college basketball. When I went to college, nothing changed – if anything, we just had another team to root for, albeit one that only made the tournament for the first time while I was in school and has struggled to rebuild ever since (Go ‘Cats).
I felt more disconnected from sports, from my parents, and from myself, than ever.
But, last year, in my first year out of school, I was suddenly working intense hours instead of being in the stands every weekend for college football or at home for spring break. During the marathon first two rounds of March Madness games, I was completely disengaged. My dad still live-texted me his reactions throughout the day, keeping a largely one-way conversation going. I could feel his sadness when I would tell him that I was working too late to watch a game he was excited about. I was sad too — it felt like I was losing a part of myself.
Instead of eventually learning to find balance, this past fall I moved to Dubai for 6 months for work. Though I found streams online and tried to stay up to watch a few matchups, the time difference was rough and ultimately, I’ve realized I should probably put my physical health above my love of sports (something college-me never comprehended). Unable to regularly talk to my family without jumping through hoops because of the time difference and the lack of traditional VoIP services, my depression, like Jordan himself, came out of retirement. I felt more disconnected from sports, from my parents, and from myself, than ever.
Then the pandemic happened. Suddenly, I found myself stranded in Dubai, and unable to return home to San Francisco as planned. By some miracle, the single commercial repatriation flight to the US ended up being to Chicago, which was close enough to my parents’ home in Wisconsin that I was able to temporarily move back in with them.
And so, 20 years after I first laid on our living room floor to watch the NBA with my dad, I found myself on the same floor again. As soon as he heard that I was coming home, my dad had agreed to miss out on the immediate hype and wait to experience The Last Dance with me. Together, we watched Jordan’s career arc, all the way back to his UNC days. There were over 100 interviews conducted for the documentary, but even “Former Chicago Resident” Barack Obama’s interview didn’t hold the same weight for me as hearing my dad’s reflections on the era. He’d been a Bulls fan since he came to America because of Jordan. To see him relive the big games, and listen to him laugh about how old some of his old favorite players looked – which made him feel even older himself – was extremely special.
No matter how long it’s been, sports are still my happy place,
But the most special part of The Last Dance didn’t even have to do with the magic of Jordan-era basketball. Hearing Jordan talk about his own father figures, and being reminded of my eternal basketball crush (and former Jordan teammate) Steve Kerr’s father’s tragedy had me tearing up. Their gut-wrenching stories, in sharp contrast to the trash-talking, ruthless picture of Jordan the world has come to know, just made me appreciate my dad even more. It made me reflect on how, as I’ve gotten older and we’ve both been able to take a step back and treat each other like adults, he’s become one of my best friends. We still argue, but there’s still a deep love for each other, grounded in mutual respect. He’s the first person I call to talk about books I’m reading, the daily ways in which American politics frustrates me, and, above all, anything and everything related to sports.
After watching The Last Dance, I feel fairly certain about 3 things: 1) Michael Jordan is petty as hell and unquestionably a jerk, but the most successful jerk of all time. 2) For better and worse, there will never be another Jordan, or another era in sports history, that has the same chaotic, captivating energy that surrounded him. The man changed the sport forever, and we’ll always find ourselves comparing the new greats to him. 3) No matter how long it’s been, and no matter how disconnected I’ve felt, sports are still my happy place, and there’s no one I would rather watch them with than my dad.
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