Michael Jordan is just as prominent as a meme as he is a basketball icon.
With the ESPN documentary series “The Last Dance” sharing new interviews and never-before-seen video of Jordan’s career, meme makers have never had so much fresh Jordan content to play with.
“‘The Last Dance’ is kind of a perfect meme artifact. Its target audience is incredibly internet literate and especially meme literate, because sports fans are all about inside jokes,” said Matt Schimkowitz, senior editor at the website Know Your Meme. “Now you have eight or 10 episodes of internet fodder that everyone is talking about at the same time.”
The series about Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ journey to winning six NBA titles during the 1990s premiered April 19 and wraps up with its final two episodes Sunday.
An average of 5.8 million viewers tuned in for each of the first six episodes (the ratings for the two most recent episodes haven’t been released yet), making “The Last Dance” ESPN’s most viewed documentary series, according to the network. The 10-part series has become a hit among sports fans and newcomers alike.
“I don’t usually do a lot of sports jokes, but it almost felt like the Super Bowl, where it’s bigger than sports and just something every single person is watching,” said comedy writer Ben Rosen, who has created several “Last Dance” memes. “It definitely felt that way on Twitter, where my timeline was full of ‘The Last Dance’ memes as soon as it started airing. So it was fun to join in.”
Arguably, the most popular meme to come out of “The Last Dance” so far is “Laughing Jordan,” a juxtaposition from the iconic “Crying Jordan” meme.
During an interview in the eighth episode, Jordan is handed a tablet, on which he watches former Seattle SuperSonics point guard Gary Payton claim that his defense during the 1996 NBA Finals tired out Jordan.
Jordan makes a series of bewildered expressions before throwing his head back in uproarious laughter.
“It’s just so entertaining to watch him react to footage of other people in the documentary, [and] they included a lot of those reactions, which meant there were a ton of great screenshots to repurpose for other things,” Rosen said.
A similar image from the series, which shows Jordan looking skeptically at the iPad in response to comments by Isiah Thomas, a former All-Star point guard for the Detroit Pistons, has also gotten the meme treatment.
“It’s a big change from the typical Jordan memes, which are just, like, either he’s dunking or he’s crying, which is, like, all we had, but now we have a whole spectrum of Jordan memes to use,” Schimkowitz said.
Before “The Last Dance,” Jordan was already prominent in the meme world. “Crying Jordan,” an image of Jordan crying during his speech at his Basketball Hall of Fame induction in 2009, is one of the internet’s most treasured memes.
Jordan referred to it himself as he tearfully eulogized fellow NBA star Kobe Bryant at Bryant’s memorial this year.
“Crying Jordan” is in the highest echelon of memes in part because of Jordan’s stature not just in basketball but also in American pop culture and because of how rare images of him genuinely emoting became after his final retirement in 2003, Schimkowitz said.
“He didn’t really do a lot of interviews in the last 15, 20 years,” Schimkowitz said. “This is kind of a real opportunity to see footage of him in situations that we’ve never really had the opportunity to see him in.”
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Having a wealth of video of Jordan’s expressions throughout the series has also contributed to the creation of a slew of images that fit into a genre called “reaction memes,” which are exactly what they sound like — images used to convey emotional responses.
“Essentially, what’s happened with memes that people use through ‘The Last Dance,’ it’s a way of humanizing him and making Michael Jordan more accessible,” said Shane Tilton, an associate professor of multimedia journalism at Ohio Northern University.
Another meme format seized on from the series puts fake subtitles over still images of video from the documentary — a style that Rosen has used, propelling several of his tweets to viral status.
“That documentary thing of cutting around to a bunch of people all telling one story is a really fun format to play with,” Rosen said, adding that juxtaposing Jordan’s serious demeanor with something silly is ideal for memes.
In addition, the fake subtitled pieces capitalize on another facet of Jordan’s personality that has been highlighted in the series and has been an avenue for meme creation: his relentless desire to win.
“As a comedy character, he’s so maniacally driven and focused, to this mythic level, so there’s a lot to play with there. You can make up crazy stories that feed into that, or you can play against type,” Rosen said.
The new video isn’t the only meme-worthy content “The Last Dance” has produced. A clip of a 1993 interview, in which Jordan wears sunglasses while addressing rumors about his gambling habit, piqued the interest of meme creators.
Although Jordan has been the most memed subject during the series, he’s not alone. Former teammates and rivals have also gotten memetic treatment.
A clip of an animated Dennis Rodman discussing the art of rebounding became a reaction meme after the third part of “The Last Dance” aired April 26. Also from that episode, a clip of former Cleveland Cavaliers player Ron Harper stringing together a slew of curse words while discussing a famous game-winning shot made by Jordan began circulating online after it aired, according to Know Your Meme.
But just like his skill on the court, Jordan is unmatched when it comes to memes, and his reflections in “The Last Dance” have generated an unavoidable discussion in the internet’s native language of memes, Tilton said.
“‘The Last Dance’ put a perspective on the humanity of Michael Jordan, and when you have any type of public figure that no longer has this sort of perfect image … then the memes are the ways that communities talk about those figures,” Tilton said.