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How The Last Dance Retold History While Time Stood Still

author
Ian Stonebrook

The lights were out on the Chicago Bulls dynasty in June of 1998. After a 62-20 farewell tour and gut-wrenching postseason run, Michael Jordan jumped on a private plane, still smelling like sweat, cigars, and champagne.

Leaving the sport’s biggest stage right behind him, fans were in the dark as to what was next for the Bulls and what was next for Mike.

On the day following Game 6, MJ was quite literally in the dark. Up before sunrise once landing in Austin, TX, the man who just dropped Byron Russell and sunk the Jazz was bombing buckets of golf balls on a starlit driving range before playing 36 holes. After completing two rounds, he’d hop a bus half an hour south to San Marcos where he’d partake in 40 minutes of unpaid action in a charity hoops game. Surrounded by his trusted inner circle, the only stars surrounding MJ as he faded to black were the ones in the Texas sky as he hopped back on his plane later that night.


Whether MJ knew or not, the Bulls dynasty was destined to be done and six rings would soon be the measuring stick for every athlete that followed him. The Chicago club would dissolve before the lockout-shortened season with the team’s celebrated starters and Zen Master coach all going their separate ways. Aside from a short stint in DC with the Wizards and the occasional promotional pop-up for his sponsors, MJ would fully step out of the spotlight, regaining the privacy once stolen from the world’s most famous favorite. History would tell MJ’s story without his active existence, placing all his accolades into the record books, his highlights on YouTube, and creating even more fan folklore as to what exactly happened behind the scenes of the rockstar Chicago Bulls.

Almost two decades after hitting that famous Last Shot, MJ’s silence surrounding his rise, run and exit from Chicago would suddenly all change.

After years of asks, Michael Jordan finally agreed to speak on his storied run with the Bulls in a long-form documentary format. Signing on in April of 2016, word soon surfaced that the film’s producers had access to over 500 hours of unseen footage from MJ’s tenure with the team. Because of this, an all-new docuseries full of unarchived footage would play as a Pandora’s Box full of uncensored scrimmage sequences, locker room roasting and team bus bullying from the worldwide run of the 1990s Chicago Bulls.

So, just what was it like to play for The Beatles of Basketball? The veil was set to be removed in the coming years with no one knowing just how perfect the timing would prove.

Agreeing to go in on all the facets of his career that come up in every barbershop debate had around basketball, Mike’s sudden willingness to speak to producers coincided with a moment when the noise around roundball royalty was suddenly shifting. At the time of signing on in April of 2016, names like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were being yelled louder in GOAT conversations when considering MJ. To that of his Bulls, the surging Golden State Warriors were also rewriting the narrative on exactly who reigned as the best hoops team ever assembled.

Perhaps Michael Jordan took that personally.

Releasing the first trailer for what would be known as The Last Dance on December 25, 2018, the preview clip fittingly aired at the same time LeBron’s Lakers were facing off against the Oakland ensemble of Steph, Klay, KD, and Draymond in a nationally televised game.

For the remainder of the 2018-19 season and into the following year, the game’s current stars would all add to their resumes while director Jason Hehir would cut up over 10,000 hours of interviews. Scheduled to air in the summer of 2020 after the NBA Finals, Hehir and his team were on a tight deadline with the weight of a network, an icon, and a legacy all on top of them.

And then the world stopped.

Weeks after NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago – the first time the Windy City hosted the midseason spectacular since Michael Jordan’s 1988 master class – the Coronavirus proved present enough in the United States to shut down the league and close the country. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months as people entered quarantine worldwide. No longer able to attend games or chop it up at the bar or barbershop, the world was forced to turn to their TVs and tech as the only way to connect with the very literal outside world.

With all live sporting activities at a halt, ESPN rushed Hehir and his team to compile, complete, and move up The Last Dance. Having the first eight episodes done ahead of the new April launch and finishing the final two in real-time as the earlier episodes aired, a TV spectacular formed from four straight years of hard work, 13 seasons in Chicago, and 22 years since The Last Shot was finally ready to take place with the whole world watching.


On April 19, 2020, fans across the country of all ages got all dressed up with no place to go on, celebrating the first episode of The Last Dance as if it were Game 7 of the NBA Finals. 

“I broke out classic Jordans,” recalled SoleSavy community member J.Rock. “Banned 1s, Bred 11s, Concord 11s, Flu Game 12s.”

With remote in hand and heat on feet, wings were delivered and devoured as the world watched the introductory installments both together and apart in a fashion unlike any event before or since.

Separated by social distancing, fans from all over connected online to talk about the historic story everyone was watching. According to CNBC, Twitter reported over 11 million Tweets about The Last Dance on the night it debuted. 

“I’ve watched it at least five times,” admitted SoleSavy community member Michelle. “I even went back and watched a bunch of related 30 for 30s. I think COVID made it better to watch live with social media.”

Yes, even after a 22-year gap since Mike laced up Air Jordan 14s in Utah, the buzz was back around the Bulls like it never left.

By telling the tale of a team torn apart after their cinematic Game 6 in 1998 –  which still stands as the highest-rated NBA game in TV history – basketball fans birthed from the days of Bill Russell ranging all the way to those that have grown up with Steph Curry congregated on couches to soak in the story of MJ and the Bulls. Abundant in audience yet oozing with niche nostalgia, The Last Dance delivered a deeper narrative and new nuance to what had become a folklore legacy by unearthing facts and footage few had ever heard or seen. 

For fans, the timing couldn’t have been better.

“I never missed an episode,” said SoleSavy community member Johnny. “It was literally the quickest two hours of my week. Just to be able to unplug from the craziness of the unknown of what was happening during the pandemic was a two-hour exhale from the turmoil of the times.” 

Johnny was not alone as SoleSavy members Carlos A and James both credited The Last Dance as a timely distraction from the pandemic. The storied series gave fans the ability to detach from reality, connect to fellow fans and dive deeper into the ‘90s nostalgia of the Chicago Bulls.

 


As an audience of all ages watched with their phones and laptops by their sides, the resurfacing Bulls buzz built an even larger appetite for Air Jordans and championship era Chicago gear. Whether it was jerseys of the throwback variety, retro release sneakers, or game-worn relics that sell for more than some houses, The Last Dance hit at a moment where the entire world was shopping online and securing smiles through UPS deliveries and few other outlets.

The hype as they say was real. In an article by Complex tracking the excitement around The Last Dance and its influence on Bulls gear, Mitchell & Ness reported that on the day the documentary debuted and on the Monday after, visits to their site grew by 102% while revenue went up 283% when compared to traffic and sales over the previous ten weeks. 

Similarly, Footwear News found that GOAT sales around Air Jordans jumped by 68% that same week while StockX stated that even Pippen-related merch and sneaker sales soared by 50% since the premiere. 

“I loved the series but the only downfall was every classic Jordan price skyrocketed,” noticed SoleSavy member Grant. “Chicago 1s doubled in price after the airing.” 

An economist from StockX compared the rise in retro sales for Jordan Brand after The Last Dance to that of the halo effect around New Balance when new endorser Kawhi Leonard led the Raptors to an NBA Championship and won Finals MVP. The biggest difference was that this live event was pulling from the past and that Jordan Brand already ranked atop the site in sneaker sales, thus proving how much the documentary truly moved the needle.

“One thing it did make me do was research the backstory of different colorways and models,” noted SoleSavy member Christina R on the impact The Last Dance had on her.


Throughout the month-long series, The Last Dance served as a spike for sneaker sales and a catalyst for conversation. With the NBA season in limbo, fans debated and discussed the documentary as if it were the actual NBA Finals. Much like Scottie Pippen’s Nike Air Pippen 1 PEs, the air was removed from the on-court product with no bubble in sight. Like Pippen, fans instead opted for Zoom as the only connection to the game, product, and people they love. 

As much as Michael and the Bulls were celebrated by fans of all ages, controversial narratives from the past were brought back to the surface because of The Last Dance. From Scottie Pippen’s financial issues with management to Isiah Thomas being left off The Dream Team, old issues became new debates to an actively engaged audience. Even on the footwear front, Sonny Vaccaro found himself upset and left out of history when his interview wasn’t used in the final version of the documentary.

When it was all said and done, The Last Dance reported record ratings for a documentary with roughly 5.6 million people tuning in for each episode. When the finale debuted on May 17th, 2020, 20 out of 30 Twitter trending topics had to do with the documentary. The inspirational docuseries rerouted retail for all involved, with Jordan Brand sales going up 38% over the timespan that The Last Dance aired, ultimately finishing an otherwise treacherous 2020 with an industry outlying 15% rise in revenues.

Not only did The Last Dance break the internet and explode sales for Air Jordans, it reconnected a love for the game across generations.

“It was really fun to relive that time from my childhood,” shared SoleSavy member Tyler. “I was pretty young – probably 8 or 9 back then – but I distinctly remember watching the 1998 Finals with my dad. I just knew it was special, even then. I ended up being able to watch the last few episodes of The Last Dance with my dad which was special.”

While childhood Jordan fans got to relive Mike’s magic with new footage and adult eyes, the reach of the documentary was much wider than those that grew up in the late ‘90s and meant much more than just reliving the past. Perhaps most importantly, the documentary — and the year 2020 as a whole — provided Michael Jordan with the opportunity to introduce himself to a new audience and rewrite the narrative on his perceived wrongs of the past. 

From a marketing standpoint, Michael Jordan’s reign as a global icon expanded incredibly. When it came to connecting with the youth, MJ’s Q-Score — a metric for popularity — hit a high score amongst teenagers, many of which weren’t even born when he played his last game as a Bull. 

“It was really cool being able to share an important part of my childhood with my teenage son,” reflected SoleSavy member B_Error. “Watching him gain respect for why MJ is the GOAT and why the shoes he is so enamored by are as important to me as they are to the rest of the world.”

To that point, teenagers were bidding on OG Air Jordan 1s produced in the mid-80s, while retro releases like the “Fire Red” Air Jordan 5 and “Flint” Air Jordan 13 were selling through and selling out across the country. The impact proved just as true overseas, too, as Jordan Brand revenue more than doubled in China throughout 2020, reaching almost $1 billion in the country alone. 

“I had zero Jordans before watching,” admitted SoleSavy member Rohan. “Now I have five pairs.”

Michael Jordan’s introduction to a new audience provided him the platform to inspire change and growth on the public perception side. According to Forbes, MJ himself took no personal proceeds from The Last Dance, donating expected earnings of $3 to $4 Million to charitable causes. In that same spring, the often silent on social topics superstar pledged $100 Million between himself and his namesake Jordan Brand to fight racial injustice following George Floyd’s death.

As 2021 approaches its midway point, the fight for equality and against COVID-19 remains a focal point. Looking back at a year no one could’ve expected, Michael Jordan returned to the spotlight as a winner at a time where so much had been lost. The Last Dance introduced his intensity, team, and greatness to a new generation. All the while, he redeemed his name regarding the generosity and social standings, also upping his credentials as an NBA exec by drafting LaMelo Ball in the lottery.

Since The Last Dance debuted one year ago last April, MJ still makes headlines thanks to earning reports of his namesake and stories shared on podcast interviews by his famous friends and arch-rivals alike. Just like June of 1998, Jordan has drifted back to black, fading out of everyday public view, speaking openly to those in his inner circle but addressing the media only through PR statements.

The dynasty days of the 1990s Chicago Bulls will forever live in fan folklore, now accessible through Netflix with nuance and detail that won’t just recall one moment in hoop history but also a standstill moment in world history. Mike and his teammates’ glory days will never return, but thanks to The Last Dance, they will never be forgotten.

“I had read a lot about those old Bulls teams — Jordan in particular — and grew up watching them,” reflected SoleSavy member Guyentin. “I knew he was ruthless, unforgiving, determined, and a cold-blooded killer on the court. The documentary showed it in a vivid and raw way that I hadn’t seen before. It reaffirmed that he is the GOAT.”

***
Join the discussion and learn how to cop sneakers for retail with the world’s most tight-knit, online sneaker community, over at SoleSavy today.


Image 1 via Deseret News
Image 2 via ESPN

Image 3 via Mitchel & Ness
Image 4 via SIFP
Image 5 via AP Photo/John Swart/Yahoo Sports
Image via The Undefeated

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