All of Dorktown’s documentaries try to find a narrative in the world of sports. Their Seattle Mariners series challenges viewers to find beauty and inspiration within what’s often the most looked-down-upon team in Major League Baseball (“enjoy the team for what it is, not for what it could be”). Captain Ahab‘, their series on Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Dave Stieb, covers a man who endured criminal under-appreciation and unthinkable heartbreak on a journey where he still achieved personal growth and success, almost as if Stieb had a supernatural teacher trying to impart on him the lessons of patience and endurance.
And then there’s The People You’re Paying to Be in Shorts, their feature length look at the 2011-2012 season of the NBA Charlotte Bobcats, in which one possible takeaway is that sometimes, all you can do is laugh. While pain is unavoidable in sports, the five-and-a-half month long span where the Bobcats only won 7 games while losing the remaining 59, goes beyond torture, beyond horror. It achieves a state where it becomes a black comedy, where the punchline is that the worst team in basketball history was run by arguably the greatest player in the sport’s history, Michael Jordan.
Dorktown’s strengths are on full display here yet again: surprisingly little footage of actual people on the court, a superb soundtrack, and a completely honest appreciation of the men in the titular shorts whose job(s) it is to go out and get their asses handed to them. Players who started out as immigrants and worked their way into the highest tier of the sport, veterans using their last opportunity to stay in for one final season, and the coaching staff who’re desperately trying to keep the wheels from falling off; The People You’re Paying pays respect to everyone involved, throughout the metaphorical (and in some cases, regrettably literal) carnage. Even the one person here who arguably should be viewed as the antagonist of the story, Michael Jordan himself, gets a fair amount of credit.
Despite being someone who’s well documented to be incredibly petty and un-virtuous when he could’ve made a difference (such as refusing to call Nike out for its overseas labor practices when his silhouette was plastered onto the shoes they made), Michael Jordan is still recognized as a team owner who wants the Bobcats to bring joy to Charlotte rather than simply post a profit, even going so far as to have the organization invest in the local community through humanitarian causes. That said, his part in the Bobcats’ downfall is laid out clearly: he initiated a lockout over how much revenue should be split between players and franchises, he was responsible for a shortened season that made the Bobcats bounce all over the map and left them with no time off to fix their own problems, and that lockout demoralized players who grew up idolizing Jordan. The 2011-2012 season is a situation of Mike’s own making.
The pain of that season is illustrated by point differentials for each individual game, as the ‘Cats go on multiple losing streaks finishing deep in the red (or in this case, orange, given it’s their mascot’s color scheme). As the losses mount with the occasional victory to break up the monotony, the narrators do a fantastic job of detailing what’s happening off the court, from locker room drama to the personal lives of players and especially Jordan feeling the growing disappointment and animosity of a city he’s letting down.
There’s also a steady stream of humorous and human moments, like the realization that Charlotte’s mascot and orange & white color combination are the exact same as the Bobcat industrial skid loader (perhaps the most un-athletic vehicle ever created by man), along with recognition of the Charlotte sports writers who had to cover this sinking ship and did so with undeniable professionalism, some of whom are sadly no longer with us (I’d also like to take this opportunity to express my condolences to the Silas family). As funny as this season is in retrospect, Dorktown has nothing but genuine respect for the people who had to live through this train wreck, in and outside the stadium.
A perfect storm of injuries, incompetence and nonexistent player morale ultimately results in a 23 game slide that nets the Bobcats the worst season in NBA history. What made this especially painful are the special circumstances concerning this season, as not only would just one more win have saved them from this fate, but due to the shortened schedule, the ‘Cats often faced teams without stars in the lineup, as playoff hopefuls benched their best players as to give them some needed rest.
The worst seasonal record of all time though isn’t the ultimate insult; no, it’s the 2012 NBA draft, and Anthony Davis. Charlotte’s one silver lining should’ve been getting the most ping-pong balls in the lottery, and it would’ve been a poetic moment for them: after all that pain, at least they’d get the unicorn who could turn their franchise around. Instead, in the second to last drawing, when the Bobcats could taste Davis donning the orange jersey, they are “gifted” second place, and have to see AD go to the New Orleans Hornets, the same Hornets who (and I shit you not) was Charlotte’s previous NBA team. Like I said before, all you can do is laugh at the ridiculous cruelty of the situation.
The funny thing is though, no one really remembers the Charlotte Bobcats; true, it’s due to them never achieving anything worth a damn, although Charlotte regaining their old Hornets mascot certainly helped pave over a chapter of their history that they’d want to forget. Michael Jordan is still a powerhouse brand unto himself, though he’s known more for his shoe line than for running a team that went 7-59. Hell, I’d argue his most well known failure isn’t even this, but the time tried to break into major league baseball.
If there was one indicator that “comedy is tragedy plus time” in this situation, it might be that less than a year after Dorktown published The People You’re Paying to be in Shorts, Jon Bois asked Mike if he could “just leave…. You can leave, can’t you?” Shortly afterwards, Jordan finally stepped away from the team. As extremely unlikely as it is that MJ was watching YouTube one night and saw this video pop up in his recommendations, no punchline could’ve topped this potential scene: Mike at his computer, mumbling “alright, bet”, and actually stepping away after all this time.