George Solomon on ‘The Last Dance’

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George Solomon on ‘The Last Dance’
May 21, 2020

Leave it to Michael Jordan, who hasn’t played in the NBA in 17 years, to dominate the Covid-19 sports scene by being the runaway star of the recent ESPN 10-part documentary “The Last Dance,” which covered Jordan’s remarkable six championship seasons with the Chicago Bulls.

The well-executed, slickly-produced documentary, each about one-hour in length, included so many sidebars (Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson and Jerry Krause, to name four) that nearly every sportscast followed each two-hour episode with additional interviews related to topics covered in the documentary.

The week after the final show on May 17, ABC even devoted a full-hour to follow-up questions with Stephen A. Smith hosting a number of guests, including Whoopi Goldberg and Magic Johnson, praising the production and, of course, Jordan. Over five Sundays, Scott Van Pelt on Sports Center peppered ESPN’s Michael Wilbon and Jackie MacMullan with questions about the just witnessed two episodes, as well as a revealing interview with the outspoken Charles Barkley.

Barkley, over the years, has been a friend of Jordan, but lately a critic of Jordan’s 10-year ownership of the Charlotte Hornets that has grown significantly financially over the years without producing many favorable results on the court. Barkley’s criticism seems to have annoyed Jordan, who also was a target of former teammate Horace Grant’s unhappiness with a brief portrayal of the Bulls’ off-the-court activities early in Jordan’s career and the depiction of Scottie Pippen.

But that criticism seems mild when compared to Emmy-winning documentarian Ken Burns’ pointed remarks in The Wall Street Journal about two of Jordan’s business colleagues, Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk, having a hand in the production and Jordan having a final say in the process. Such relationships minimize the journalism of the effort, Burns correctly observed.

But few professional observers joined Burns in the criticism, even though there were no questions asked of Jordan now that he’s an NBA owner himself or his one year as president of basketball operations and minority owner of the Washington Wizards (2001) before returning to the court for his final two seasons with the Wizards (2001-2003). After the 2003 season, which Jordan still averaged 20 points a game and sold out MCI Arena for two seasons for a 37-45 team, the late Wizards owner, Abe Pollin, fired Jordan, refusing to allow him to resume running the team. Jordan has seldom, if ever, discussed the dismissal.

While these issues were not in the realm of Jordan’s tenure with the Bulls, considering the entire “Last Dance” production lasted nearly 11 hours, a few additional questions seemed reasonable to ask. At least from a journalistic standpoint.

Still, “The Last Dance” crushed such Covid-19 sports offerings as horse racing from Fonner (Neb.) Park and Gulfstream (Hallandale), UFC fights, old NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA championship games, bowling, Korean Baseball, NASCAR at Darlington, S.C. before no fans and taped rodeo events. We, of a certain age, watched every pitch in black and white of Don Larsen’s perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 World Series, knowing Shirley Povich was in the press box at Yankee Stadium that day. Interviews on the MLB-Network by Bob Costas of Larsen and catcher Yogi Berra were welcomed afterthoughts.

The 2019 MLB World Series film of the Nationals winning all four games in Houston proved that actually happened, although with each passing week, the memory of it fades.

At least a number of websites, led by The Athletic, have produced good journalism. I particularly appreciated Brittany Ghiroli’s piece on the former MASN pregame and postgame duo of Ray Knight and Johnny Holliday and the relentless reporting of Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich. Newspapers, many them burying sports in the back of the paper, were dutiful trying to keep up with professional sports timetables and how college football will work in the fall – if at all.

Personally, Sally Jenkins’ Washington Post column on patience, using retired tennis champion Chris Evert as the example, seemed perfect for the day, as did Tyler Kepner in The New York Times on Willie Mays and The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell’s column on “nothing” that made me think of “Seinfeld.”

“Like most outlets, we’re constantly trying to report how leagues, schools, conferences and athletes are responding to sports being shut down and discussions and plans for its return,” explained Peter Barzilai, who runs the sports operation at USA Today. “Our Bob Nightengale has been out front on MLB’s plans. We also recognize that readers want to unplug from all the tough news and just want to read about sports.

“The bottom line, it takes a lot of creative effort of our staff, exchanging ideas and being willing to try whatever.”

Barry Svrluga, a Washington Post sports columnist, has the job of writing about topics that haven’t included the normal drama of end-of-season playoffs.

“There are just regular events that you build your week around that aren’t being held,” he said. “You then fill in around those news developments or issues or whatever.

“Now, frankly, the bar for a column is much lower. I wrote a piece the other day about college football needing a unified leader during these times. That’s something I’ve thought about for a long time, but never felt strongly enough to make it a priority during a regular week. Now I have to write it just to help me feel like I’m contributing to our sports report.”

***

Pepper Rodgers, a good friend of mine and many other sports journalists, passed away on May 14 in Reston, Va., after a fall that caused additional medical issues.

Rodgers, 88, was a star quarterback and place-kicker for his hometown Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets from 1950-53, helping his team go 32-2-3, win two SEC titles, the Orange Bowl and the Sugar Bowl. We met when Rodgers was the offensive coach at Florida (1960) where I was a student; he became head coach at Kansas and was twice named Big Eight Coach of the Year. Moving to UCLA he was twice PAC-8 Coach of the Year before a six-year run at Georgia Tech where he compiled a 34-31-3 record over six years before being fired.

“They only had to change one letter in the Atlanta Journal headline, from when I was hired and then fired,” Rogers said. “Georgia Tech Hires Pepper Rodgers to Georgia Tech Fires Pepper Rodgers.”

Rodgers moved on to coach Memphis in the U.S. Football League, tried unsuccessfully for years to obtain an NFL team for Memphis. He landed in Washington in 2001 as Vice-President of Football Operations for the Redskins, negotiated the hiring of Steve Spurrier, his former quarterback (at Florida) and assistant coach (Georgia Tech), When Spurrier left the Redskins in 2003, so did Rodgers, who retired and remained in Reston.

“My philosophy in coaching was I looked for people who could do the job and were fun to be with after the game,” he said. “That’s the way I saw life in coaching.”

Rodgers was one of the last college football coaches who welcomed reporters to open practices, encouraged interviews with his players, inside or outside the locker room, including women reporters, answered the phone when a reporter had a question and always provided good copy. He’ll be missed.

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