The most significant moment of pure, in-the-moment joy I’ve experienced so far in 2020 is watching Michael Jordan watch Gary Payton brag about how well Payton guarded Jordan during the 1996 NBA Finals. Even if you didn’t watch The Last Dance, the 10-part documentary about the Chicago Bulls’ journey to the 1998 championship, you’ve seen the moment in still form in memes all over your Twitter feed or in reaction images in your group chats, especially if your group chat includes me. In the first frame, Jordan cradles an iPad in his massive hands, his face contorted with bewildered skepticism. In the second, he throws his head back in a fit of raucous laughter.
The laugh is delightful without context—a reaction image for the ages, though admittedly not well-suited to this specific moment in time; the comedy mask to the tragedy mask of the Crying Jordan meme—but a fuller frame of reference takes it to a different level. This is a masterpiece in the canon of pettiness. Payton’s moment of pride means absolutely nothing to Jordan; from his perspective, Payton’s defensive play—widely considered among the best of the era—is not an accomplishment but an actual joke, something he can’t help but laugh at. The controlled, professional “I had a lot of other things on my mind” that Jordan follows up with does little to soften the blow of his uncensored reaction.
Roughly a full third of The Last Dance consists of hilarious shit-talking heads like this,1and the five consecutive Sunday nights in which it aired live on ESPN as part of the 30 for 30 series each provided a glorious two-hour respite from 2020. The network capitalized on the excitement by chasing The Last Dance with another straight month of new chapters in the documentary series: Lance, a two-part examination of Lance Armstrong’s career and fall from grace; Be Water, which examines Bruce Lee’s legacy; and finally, Long Gone Summer, an account of the 1998 MLB home run chase. For me, these weeks weren’t just a pleasant break from our pandemic-induced sports drought but a welcome return to Sunday night appointment TV, something I believed had been eroded by the expanded popularity of streaming series and definitively put to bed once Game of Thrones ended in the spring of 2019.
But unlike slogging through the final season of Game of Thrones, these Sunday nights were actually fun. Maybe I simply miss sports—and I do, a little bit, even though I feel terrible about loving them under the best of circumstances and even guiltier now watching every American professional league try to balance health and profit. But if my enjoyment of these documentaries were just about missing sports, any new 30 for 30 would have scratched the itch—and that’s not the case. Lance was fine, but Armstrong’s aggressive honesty pulled me in with the promise of hot gossip only to repel me with his lack of contrition and humility. As a Milwaukee Brewers fan with a low tolerance for image-laundering campaigns, Long Gone Summer was little more than a way to pass the time.
Maybe I just have a limited capacity for investment in narratives involving performance enhancing substances. But even that, while probably true, doesn’t explain why I was so smitten with The Last Dance and Be Water. Neither film presents a revolutionary approach to the sports documentary; we’re not in O.J.: Made in America territory here. Instead, both fall into well-worn patterns that would grate if the material itself weren’t so good. They weave archival footage and present-day interviews into a nonlinear story that gives the impression of multiple, complex voices but never actually disrupts the narrative fans already know and accept. The previously unheard and unseen content is phenomenal, but not paradigm-shifting. And their larger themes—the pairing of obsessive drive and unparalleled talent; deep questions about mortality and legacy, especially as they pertain to fathers and fatherhood; the loneliness of fame and the pressure of becoming a pop culture stand-in for an entire community—aren’t unexplored territory in the 30 for 30 series, either.
A healthy person might love these movies for that technical and emotional predictability, for providing stability in these uncertain, terrifying times. I’m not a healthy person. I love them because they celebrate our vast potential for pettiness and the incredible things we can achieve when we embrace the most spiteful, fiery parts of ourselves. I’m mad all the fucking time lately;2the one long-term writing project I’ve put a substantive dent in over the last four months is my mental list of people I will never, ever forgive. Though I’m incapable of focusing on most tasks for more than five minutes at a time, I only take short breaks from feeling furious to feel ashamed of the way that my rage is both so intense and so useless. Anger is something I’ve worked to curb for years—my family is overcrowded with bad tempers, some more terrifying than others, and I never wanted mine to be one of them. But my goal was never to suppress my rage. It was to make use of it. Of course I find comfort in Be Water and The Last Dance, two stories of people transforming anger and frustration into superhuman accomplishments—of doing the impossible because of, not in spite of, their spite.
“I’m sure he was a very challenging person. He was full of fire and intensity,” Shannon Lee says of her father Bruce as Be Water nears its final moments. The description is both a jarring counterpoint to the deeply soothing vibe of the film and a tidy summation of everything we’ve learned about its subject to this point. Lee’s tragically short life was defined by an incredible amount of drive. But that drive was directed toward a path that didn’t really exist until he forged it, which proved to be an exercise in constant frustration—frustration that was amplified by Lee’s (justifiable) unwillingness to concede certain points that were woven into the structure of the nations in which he lived and the industries in which he worked.
Be Water strives to disentangle that complicated set of personal and cultural knots, taking intense care to situate both Bruce Lee the person and Bruce Lee the icon in the highly specific times and places in which they emerged. It casts a wide, nonlinear, geographically sprawling net, so you could almost miss the fact that the genesis of Lee’s engagement with martial arts is that when he was a teenager in Hong Kong his parents urged him into formal training in the hopes that this would redirect the combative energy that he’d frequently been funneling into street fights. On the one hand, it worked; he became Bruce Lee. On the other hand, it didn’t; the street fight habit continued. Lee’s parents sent him to the United States, where he lived in San Francisco and then Seattle, continuing to hone his unique style and craft when he wasn’t working in restaurants or taking college classes. At the same time, he developed an Asian-American political consciousness that he carried with him into his emergent Hollywood career, refusing to take on stereotypical, offensive roles after what should have been a career-making stint on The Green Hornet which ran between 1966-1967. Effectively unemployable in the United States as a result of that ideological commitment, he returned to Hong Kong to make The Big Boss in 1971—a surprise hit—and Fist of Fury in 1972, which reflected both Lee’s and the audience’s anger about the continued colonial occupation of Hong Kong.
The latter film’s success reopened the door to Hollywood projects and continued Lee’s professional growth. But its immediate, enthusiastic local reception, as Be Water positions it, is the culmination of everything that he strove to do: to create art that lived up to his ideological and technical standards, and in doing so, to provide collective catharsis for larger racial and social injustices. Those are admirable ideals, but Lee’s approach to enacting them—inextricable from his perfectionism and his protectiveness around his creative integrity—was often difficult for those he worked with. The contrarian streak that catalyzed his career remained intact until its end, and his death at 32 foreclosed on the possibility of his less sunny tendencies folding into a tidy, solid narrative.
Be Water doesn’t provide explicit answers to bring us closer to one. It holds the question of what might have been at a distance, and does so to somewhat disorienting effect; to stay in the realm of what actually was means engaging with inconsistencies and incompletions. To provide a firm foundation, the film often tilts its focus to that which can be decisively known—Lee’s on-screen work and the contexts in which he created it—and sometimes the man himself feels amorphous as a result. I’m tempted to say that it doesn’t tell us what to make of Lee’s temper and stubbornness, but that would be a gross oversimplification. Instead, I think it encourages the viewer not to feel too strongly about his anger—to think of it as neither a point of shame nor a point of pride, but rather a small piece of the sprawling ecosystem that made Bruce Lee’s legacy possible, inseparable from both the events that inspired it and the events it inspired.
The Last Dance is much more decisive in its approach to its subject’s anger. If the story has a moral, it’s that the secret to becoming a legend in your field is taking things personally. I’m only kind of joking; the series is, in part, an investigation into what set Michael Jordan apart from his peers, and it turns out the answer isn’t so much his mythic, borderline sociopathic competitiveness, but his ability to hyper-focus that competitiveness onto very specific targets. He wants to win just as badly as he wants his opponent to lose. From his older brother to any person Jerry Krause liked, from Karl Malone to food poisoning, there was nothing Jordan would not aim to destroy through sheer force of will. Though his teammates weren’t safe from Jordan’s ire, his oppositional consciousness was the heart of the team’s culture. And that culture leveled up during the 1997-98 season, as the Bulls aimed to win it all mostly to spite Krause, the general manager who was determined to disassemble this unparalleled team, to save money and assert his power by finding cheaper, younger, equally talented replacements.3
It helped, the documentary suggests, that the Bulls’ roster was populated predominantly by men who carried a lot of complex feelings for which they needed an outlet. In 1991, Scottie Pippen signed a relatively modest but stable contract that would more than keep himself and his working-class Arkansas family afloat—and, by 1997, he found himself locked into an agreement that undervalued his performance to an obscene degree, and at odds with a boss who refused to renegotiate. Both Jordan and Steve Kerr’s fathers were murdered by strangers; afterward, Jordan was plagued by rumors that his father’s murder was intertwined with his own gambling. Dennis Rodman was Dennis Rodman, and thus chronically picked apart by the American public. In short: a lot going on there. I can’t imagine anyone but Phil Jackson, a delightful Zen weirdo, having the capacity to lead all these complicated personalities into becoming not just a team with a baseline level of cohesion, but one of the greatest teams in NBA history.
But I really can’t imagine that their final season together would have taken the same shape if they hadn’t been united against the looming threat of being separated, if they hadn’t wanted to defeat their boss as badly as they wanted to defeat their opponents. The championship is significant in its own right—the Bulls’ sixth in eight years and the culmination of their second three-peat—but it lives in the team consciousness as a means to an end that will never be realized. The core tension isn’t whether they’ll win it all, it’s whether they’ll succeed in using the championship as leverage. That’s not much of a nail-biter: if victory is a proof of concept for keeping the team together, it’s being presented to a stakeholder who’s never going to buy in because the cost of investing is admitting he was wrong. A record-breaking collective effort—all that talent, all that physical and emotional sacrifice, all that work—still isn’t enough to inspire an immediate shift in entrenched institutional power. But it’s thrilling to watch them insist that it should be, to witness them assert their shared worth directly at someone who’s determined that he’s worth more and lay the groundwork for long-term vindication as a result.
The fundamental appeal of watching sports documentaries—especially those that examine icons like Bruce Lee and the ‘90s Bulls—is the chance to live vicariously through having the talent and determination required to become the all-time greatest at what you love most. But the best examples of the form are those that remind us that these sweeping cultural legends center around protagonists who share our mundane flaws, who disappoint those they care about, who aren’t immunized against suffering and self-sabotage any more than the rest of us normals. They’re aspirational icons, but they’re still people—people who never transcend their bad tempers, surly attitudes, and/or well-tended grudges of varying degrees of rational justification, but instead find a way to assimilate them into their self-motivation.
In other words, once-in-a-lifetime athletic superstars: they’re just like us—often, specifically, just like the worst parts of us. Which is reassuring, in a way; the thing holding us back from record-breaking, culture-resetting achievements isn’t our glaring personality flaws. And maybe transforming anger into something productive rather than destructive is just as mythic and unattainable for me as the rest of it. I’m willing to concede that it’s probably a little delusional to think that my rage could not only fuel my hard work, but also lead to a result that other people enjoy and connect with—that I could transmute my temper into a force for strengthening bonds rather than severing ties. But it’s a fantasy I want to believe, and, like any other victory that looks impossible on paper, it’s not going to realize itself.
All sports, professional or otherwise, are Bravo-esque reality dramedies at heart, but after the International Tennis Federation, no league houses as many outsized personalities and chaotic aesthetic choices as the NBA.
What reasonable person isn’t?
For those of you who don’t follow the NBA: This strategy did not pay off.