‘The Last Dance’ as choreography; or why Larry Bird and John Wayne are different

Michael Jordan in "The Last Dance."
Michael Jordan in "The Last Dance."Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Have you been watching “The Last Dance,” the Michael Jordan documentary on ESPN? The final episodes, nine and 10, air May 17.

Jason Hehir’s film is very good, if not as good as another ESPN documentary it’s drawn comparisons to, Ezra Edelman’s eight-hour “O.J.: Made in America” (2016). In a way, comparing them is unfair, since “The Last Dance” is a sports documentary, and “O.J.” is a sports documentary the way “The Godfather” is a movie about importing olive oil.

At any other time, the sports part of “sports documentary” might be seen to limit the appeal of “The Last Dance.” It now becomes a virtue, with organized sports gone for two months and counting. If you can’t watch actual NBA games, you can watch “The Last Dance.” You can also watch rebroadcasts of NBA games, of course — that’s where Larry Bird and, yes, John Wayne come in — but we’ll get to that.

“The Last Dance” game footage is stunning. We’re talking about Michel Jordan, who is to highlight reels what Vito Corleone is to making offers that can’t be refused. But most viewers will have seen much of the footage before.


The more you watch the more you appreciate two other things: the extent to which “The Last Dance” is a character study (in other words, more than just a “sports” documentary); and how expertly it’s been put together (ditto). If the previously unseen footage of Jordan and his teammates behind the scenes is the big selling point, the real achievement is how skillfully the filmmakers have handled a very complicated chronological structure. So, yes, a balance between sports and documentary, athletics and art.

This is where we pause to note how much basketball and the movies have in common. Both are forms of entertainment. Both have stars, and those stars play (a position or a role). Both involve performing, cutting, shooting, and scoring, even acting (in basketball, that means trying to influence a referee). And to go beyond the movies but stay within the realm of art, basketball really is a kind of improvisational ballet — the last dance as constant dance — only in Air Jordans instead of toe shoes.


One of the benefits of watching rebroadcast games is being able to focus more closely on the sheer artistry of the players. You can take your eye off the ball — as you can’t really when you don’t know the outcome — and appreciate the endlessly inventive choreography of the other players. “Away from the ball” takes on a whole new relevance. Still, that appreciation remains within the context of a game no longer being played in real time, which is to say in the past.

Here arises the great and insuperable difference between basketball and movies. Art exists in its own grammatical tense, the eternal present. Even though we’ve all seen Marlon Brando topple over amid his tomato plants, Don Vito remains forever “is” never “was,” because he’s a fictional character. The dance may be over, but it’s never the last one.

Sports doesn’t have that. It exists in a present of nearly unique intensity — “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat,” as the intro of “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” used to proclaim every Saturday afternoon — but then it becomes past. It can be a much-cherished past, but past it is. Over. Done. Once the betting line is closed, the game has become obsolete. Art, even bad art, is never obsolete.


Raymond Burr in "Perry Mason."
Raymond Burr in "Perry Mason."CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Watching rebroadcasts is like watching old episodes of “Perry Mason” or “Columbo.” You always know who’s going to win. (Next month HBO rolls out a new “Perry Mason” series, with Matthew Rhys doing the Raymond Burr thing.) Outcome was never the point of those very popular series. Burr never loses, Peter Falk always gets the right suspect. The pleasure lies in the how and why and who, not the what. Sports does offer a lot of how and why and who (so much of “The Last Dance” is the overwhelming who-ness that is Michael Jordan), but all take a distant backseat to what. Outcome is the end-all and pretty close to entirely the be-all.

Which brings us back to Larry Bird and John Wayne, with a specific, indelible moment from the career of each to illustrate this difference.

It’s the first game of the 1981 NBA Finals. Bird sends up a jumper from near the top of the key. It doesn’t go in. That’s OK, since he follows up the shot, gets the rebound, shoots again, and this time it goes in. So? So what that description leaves out — and why the shot is on any list of candidates for most memorable Larry Bird basketball moment — is that he gets the rebound with his right hand, while still in midair switches the ball to his left hand, and then shoots, also while still in midair.


Robert Parish, Larry Bird, and Kevin McHale during a November 1991 Celtics victory over  the Washington Bullets at Boston Garden.
Robert Parish, Larry Bird, and Kevin McHale during a November 1991 Celtics victory over the Washington Bullets at Boston Garden.Stephan Savoia/AP/File

But no matter how many times you watch it, it always stays the same. That “same” is amazing, it’s fabulous. It’s so amazing and fabulous that even a Houston Rockets fan would likely agree (the Rockets were the Celtics’ opponent in the series). But part of the reason a Rockets fan would agree isn’t just Bird’s virtuosity. It’s that the issue is long settled. The play is concluded. What you’re watching is repetition, not renewal.

With Wayne, the moment occurs in John Ford’s western “The Searchers” (1956). Wayne’s character is consumed with rage and guilt because Comanches killed his brother and sister-in-law and took away his niece and adopted her into the tribe. He vows to track her down and wreak vengeance. What form will that vengeance take?

Natalie Wood plays the niece. Of course he finds her. He’s John Wayne. “In ‘The Searchers,’ " Jean-Luc Godard once wrote, “when John Wayne finds Natalie Wood and suddenly holds her up at arm’s length, we pass from stylized gesture to feeling, from John Wayne suddenly petrified to Ulysses being reunited with Telemachus.’’ That may sound a bit rich. Watch the scene and see if you still disagree.

John Wayne played Ethan Edwards in the 1956 film "The Searchers."
John Wayne played Ethan Edwards in the 1956 film "The Searchers."Warner Bros. via AP

The more pressing question is what does Wayne do next: execution or reconciliation. The answer seems obvious now. What kind of movie star would kill a young woman, let alone one as adorable as the young Natalie Wood? The answer didn’t seem obvious then. Remember the reflexive moral calculus concerning Native Americans and other indigenous peoples that Hollywood perpetuated and handsomely profited from for a good half century.


So Wayne makes his choice. That’s one of the things movie stars do: They choose. To act onscreen is also to act in the set of circumstances being presented to the audience. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what that choice is. If you haven’t, I won’t spoil it for you.

But even if I told you, that might not matter, since every time I’ve seen it, even though I know perfectly well what’s going to happen — I’ve seen it happen, multiple times — I wonder all over again what he’s going to do. It’s something about the weight of that moment, the totality of the decision, the gravity of Wayne’s presence — and how the scene is about renewal (or at least its possibility) rather than repetition. That’s the difference between sports and art — or, if you prefer, life and art. In one, game over means just that: game over. In the other, the game is never over. It’s not even a game.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.