How ‘The Last Dance’ Changed Sports Docs Forever

The shooting form that has inspired a generation—and will no doubt inspire countless more to come—was forged on a smooth, leveled concrete basketball court on a 16-acre property just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, where Steph Curry spent most of his childhood. It was the summer of ’04, better known to the Curry family as summer of tears. In less than a decade, Steph would break the NBA record for most 3-pointers made in a season (again, and again, and again), but back then he still dreamed of playing in college one day, as a rising high school junior who has yet to hit any visible growth spurt, never mind the pros. His father, Dell, who remains one of only 50 players in NBA history to shoot 40 percent from behind the arc during his career, knew how to make it happen. He also knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Genetics had given Steph touch, and a lifetime of watching her father in the pros meant Steph knew the importance of consistent, gooseneck follow-through. It was everything in between that was the problem. Literally shooting from the hip, young Steph needed all the strength he could muster for a proper lane. The ball would leave his fingertips at chest level. At his stature, it literally wouldn’t fly against higher competition. He had to completely rebuild his mechanics.

For the next three months, a 16-year-old Steph would adapt to a new form that would one day lead to a revolution. But for the three months that Dell notes in Stephen Curry: Underrated, Apple TV+ and the A24 documentary, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+, saw Steph banned from filming outside the paint. He needed to develop the muscle, the memory, and the muscle memory to bring his release above his forehead, lest the allure of distance destroy his form. He would shoot right around the rim, day after day, until the mechanics were burned into him. Until the precise alignment of the upper body that was essential to his flow, the one-move jumper was as innate as breathing. There were tears of frustration aplenty – Steph himself admits it was the only time in his life he hated basketball.

The ban on deep shots during Steph’s training was almost a footnote in the first half of the documentary, but it was all I could think about by the end of the screening at Toronto’s Hot Docs international festival in early May. It’s one hell of a creation myth: A long summer of tortured repetition — stripped of what he’d soon become the world’s best at — established the dynamic architecture for one of the most gratifying expressions of skill in all of sports. That’s what a sports documentary is for, right? Expanding a mythology?

It would have been enough for the Doctor to dwell on the brilliance of Steph’s shooter. After all, the film opens with a retelling of his old scouting reports, read by Hall of Famer and fellow sharpshooter Reggie Miller, with accompanying footage of a mid-December game at Madison Square Garden in 2021 in which Steph set the new career record for 3-pointers. The 3-pointer itself is central to understanding his impact on the NBA, but despite the occasional allusions and parallels to the Warriors’ 2022 championship run, the documentary isn’t about Curry’s NBA career at all. (Though, from interviews producers have done during media junkets, it appears that was more the result of a lack of NBA access than any overriding narrative decision). Underrated serves as an oral history of Curry’s miraculous time at Davidson College, with the film loosely tied to the 15th anniversary of Davidson’s iconic Cinderella run to the Elite Eight in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. It’s nothing too revelatory, but it’s a pleasant reminder of the unexpected phenomenon that Steph became at the college level—before he irrevocably shifted the NBA’s paradigm. But much of it — of what Curry, now 35, means to basketball Today– is found between the lines i Underrated; I walked out of the theater with no new prevailing myth about Curry to cling to, just the same fact I had walked into the theater with: He’s the greatest shooter ever. It must be hard to find a perfect end to a career that is still ongoing. I suppose I should blame Michael Jordan for such expectations.

It’s been three years The last dance transported the world back to 1997, to a safer space in the public imagination than the present. It may well be remembered as one of the most important documentary series of the century, if only for its unique reconstruction of time at a moment in human history when keeping track of hours and days felt like a losing battle (never mind all the footage of Michael Jordan kicking ass). The last dance existed in the vacuum of an indeterminate present when the prospect of live sports had vanished instantly, and a reintroduction to the dynamic at play in Chicago served as a surrogate. Dock, I wrote at the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns, was “the league’s most compelling document in time; in our new social habitus, what we see exposed by Jordan and the Bulls is as present as it gets.” To The last dance inspired a cottage industry of heritage-affirming sports media is not surprising. What is surprising is how quickly the form has been distorted and accelerated, and how today’s athletes have begun to executive-produce their legacies at the same time as their actual games, rather than waiting for their stories to be told to them.

As influential as The last dance is in the current sports media landscape (it has led to similar vanity streaks with the likes of Derek Jeter, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Walton), in most respects it simply adheres to well-established standards of the format. ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has been a gold standard for more than a decade, but each of these films crucially had an outsider’s perspective framing the narrative, while quite a few post-Dance profiles give the subject ultimate control over how their legacy is portrayed. These documentaries are a way to relive an athlete’s primacy, but only within the framework of selective memory – at a certain point the spark dulls, especially if the doc starts to smell a bit like retroactive propaganda. Chasing the success with The Last Dance –or more specifically, what made it so important – is an impossible task.

Every sporting legacy since has walked along a generation gap in how media should be consumed. When a young Mavericks fan with YouTube access can easily equate the previous night’s Luka Doncic highlights with 11-year-old footage of a barely-teenage Doncic playing youth tournament basketball, should documentary bear the responsibility of being monolithic today? The last dance arrived in 10 parts, and in its jumps across time and place it tried to construct something approaching finality – akin to a Ken Burns docuseries. Jordan’s goal was to deliver the final word on his greatness in an era where post-release album edits, re-masters and AI upscaling have made the term “final” subjective.

What I found remarkable about Underrated was that, beyond its tight title and flimsy NBA parallels, the documentary was astute does not finally. Why would that be? For Steph, whose multimedia company, Unanimous Media, produced the documentary, burdens of completionism do not apply. A simple desire to relive his college days is a reasonable driving force – that A24 wanted to distribute the project was the icing on the cake. Tracing Steph’s roots back to the Davidson race (the film also includes footage of student-athlete Steph fulfilling a promise to her mother by graduating in 2022) is enough — for now. Unlike Jordan’s career, Curry’s is still unfolding. Even after 14 seasons, Curry remains a top-five player in the NBA. Time is an adversary, but it’s one he can still gracefully evade in the present without propping up the past as a shield. There is also a self-awareness in the document that keeps it grounded: How do you take an A24-distributed Steph Curry doc seriously when he has appeared in the same year corny Subway ads that literally spoofs the entire sports documentary genre? Well, counterintuitively, by including daily footage of a zombified Curry staggering onto a Subway commercial set, groggily delivering lines on two hours of sleep.

Still, you could say Curry played it safe and went a more conventional myth-making route. Some of the league’s other tentpole figures have managed to turn their lives into biopics before ever hanging up their sneakers. Giannis Antetokounmpo, a Disney/Marvel character in the flesh, fittingly adapted his family’s story into a Disney movie last year. Last month, LeBron James reversed his halcyon years at St. Vincent–St. Mary into a teen movie. Because what’s the point of waiting?

About the same time as that The last dance had a captive audience in 2020, a motif had emerged on TikTok extolling the virtues of romanticizing one’s life — a concept that bled into the brand new pop-psych expression: protagonist syndrome. “You have to start thinking of yourself as the main character,” says a disembodied voice-over, used in countless TikToks over the years. “Because if you don’t, life will continue to pass you by. And all the little things that make it so beautiful will continue to go unnoticed.” The league knows who its protagonists are. And it’s become abundantly clear to stars like Steph, LeBron and Giannis that in this era they occupy, they don’t need to finish a story to start telling it.

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