Elijah C. Watson
ESPN’s epic Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance, gave us the best memes of 2020, the most hellish year ever.
Twenty-twenty will surely be remembered as one of the worst years of all time. The coronavirus upended everything we might’ve had planned going into the new year; our government actually believed that the majority of the country’s citizens could stretch a one-time $1,200 check beyond a month (and expect them to do that again with yet another check that’s half the first one); the concept of mask-wearing to protect not just ourselves but those around us actually became a point of contention among the country’s most ignorant; and celebrities offered empty gestures instead of opening their purses (we didn’t forget, Gal Gadot).
And, yet again, memes were here to comfort us. Memes have become integral to the fiber of internet culture; it’s its own language, helping to convey and translate how we’re feeling at any given moment in a way that many people resonate with. Memes are also absurd, but we needed the comedic absurdity of memes this year in a way that we haven’t needed before. Those bit-size laughs that help us get through a moment or maybe even a day. Memes helped us get through this hellhole that was 2020.
There was one particular cultural moment this year that not only provided a distraction for us during the early months of the ‘rona because of its content and because of the memes that it birthed. I’m talking about The Last Dance documentary, the 10-part miniseries that chronicled the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls during the team’s championship-winning 1997-98 season.
The docuseries was well-received for the deep dive it provided on such an important moment in sports history. From Jordan’s legendary “Flu Game” to Dennis Rodman’s 48-hour vacation in the middle of the Bulls’ 97 season, plenty of ground was covered throughout. And although Scotty Pippen may not have been a fan of the series, a lot of basketball fans were, with The Last Dance averaging 6.71 million viewers.
But the legacy of The Last Dance isn’t just in its storytelling and how it filled a much-needed void for sports fans, but in the memes it unintentionally created. The series led to the creation of a handful of memes that are still being used as the year comes to an end. Of course, the first one of these that comes to mind is of Jordan looking at an iPad screen exasperated. The moment came from a scene where Jordan watched Detroit Pistons guard (and long-hated rival) Isiah Thomas explain why the Pistons left the court after Game 4 of the 1991 playoffs against the Chicago Bulls without shaking hands. Prior to this, the “Bad Boy” Pistons were the heavyweights in the Eastern Conference during the late ’80s, and they got there by being overly physical with their opponents.
“During that period of time, that’s just not how it was passed,” Thomas said. “It just wasn’t. You can go back and look at any of those old games or whatever. When you lost you left the floor.”
In response to Thomas’ comments, Jordan looks on in disbelief at the screen.
But that wasn’t the only Jordan-holding-an-iPad meme that came from the series. In another episode, Jordan was given an iPad where he proceeds to watch a clip of Gary Payton talking about guarding Jordan during the 1996 finals between the Bulls and the Seattle Supersonics. Recounting the matchup, Payton said that he didn’t back down from Jordan (unlike other players) and tried to tire him out. In response, Jordan once again offers another look of disbelief before offering a slight change and breaking out into laughter.
“The Glove, I had no problem with The Glove,” Jordan said in response, using Payton’s nickname. “I had no problem with Gary Payton. I had a lot of other things on my mind.”
In an interview with Vanity Fair, director Jim Hehir spoke about the Payton moment, saying:
I expected him to defer to a poker face. And to maybe say, off-camera, “Hey, you know, I wanted to laugh out loud when I saw Gary Payton saying that.” But for him to be so candid and so unguarded and so honest in those moments — I mean, if you listen in the mix, you can hear the camera crew laughing, because part of it is just the humor of watching him respond the way he responds. And part of it is the pure joy of seeing that this is going to be documentary gold.
Alongside these was another standout that became one of the best memes of 2020 — the “and I took that personally” meme. Jordan uttered a version of that phrase throughout to describe a slight, like when ex-Seattle Supersonics head coach George Karl didn’t exchange pleasantries before a Finals game or pretending that LaBradford Smith told him “Nice game, Mike,” as motivation.
Other notable people within Jordan and the Bulls’ orbit also contributed to The Last Dance‘s collection of memes, such as eccentric figures like Rodman and John Michael Wozniak, the latter of which was Jordan’s security guard.
In a notable scene from the third episode of the documentary, Rodman breaks down how he mastered the art of rebounding — from having his friends shoot from different distances and parts of the court to watching how professional players released the ball on their shots.
“I’d just sit there and react, react. I just practiced a lot about the angle of the ball and the trajectory of it,” Rodman explained in the scene. “You got a Larry Bird, it’s gonna spin. You got a Magic [Johnson], it’ll maybe spin. When Michael shoot over here, I position myself right there. Now it hit the rim, it’s boom. Click, go back this way. Boom, here, here. Click, go that way. Boom, that way. Click here, this way. So basically I just start learning how to put myself in a position to get the ball.”
It’s the latter half of that quote — “Click, go back this way. Boom, here, here” — that was transformed into a meme, with the clip being used in a number of ways.
As for Wozniak, his meme transformation came about in the series’ sixth episode, when the security guard plays a game of quarters against Jordan and wins. Not only does Wozniak proceed to beat Jordan on the first try, but he also hits the athlete with a flawless imitation of Michael Jordan’s famous shrug. The meme also doubled as a tribute of sorts to Wozniak, who had passed away in January this year from colon cancer.
So, The Last Dance didn’t only birth the next great Jordan meme after “Crying Jordan,” but also was behind the best memes of 2020. But, of course, there were some other standouts, too, and as we honor them we can only hope that next year brings some levity to the chaos of this year, and that the next batch of memes that come only add to that.