Where there once was live sports, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a need for alternative programs. ESPN, thankfully, had a trick up their sleeves aside from reruns and virtual drafts. “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary series on Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, was originally scheduled to release June 2. However, in the wake of the virus, ESPN pushed up the release date and aired the first two episodes on April 19. Now the network’s most successful documentary, “The Last Dance” has temporarily become a monoculture for sports. The extensive and often surprising archival footage provides viewers with an inside look on one of the greatest teams and athletes in sports history. After four episodes, here are a few things we have learned about Jordan and the Bulls’ dynasty.
Michael Jordan’s Reintroduction
In the nearly 20 years since Jordan’s final retirement, his legend remained as constant as his mid-range game until just recently. With the passage of time, a new generation of players has emerged. Today’s young NBA stars, like New Orleans Pelicans’ Zion Williamson and Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Dončić, were born after Jordan’s last championship. There was a time when players wanted to be “like Mike.” Now, Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James is the guiding light for young players. Jordan’s legacy was never truly in danger, but the future of basketball rests with players who never had their own personal “MJ” experience.
The first four episodes have served as a crash course on Jordan’s greatness. Although centered on the 1997-98 season, his final in Chicago, the documentary follows a nonlinear timeline. Throughout the four episodes, we have seen snippets of Jordan’s early career: his time playing for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he hit the game-winner in the 1982 NCAA National Championship game. Later, we see highlights from his legendary 63-point outburst against the Boston Celtics in the 1986 playoffs, a performance that famously induced NBA superstar Larry Bird to say of Jordan, “I think he’s God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
Jordan is notoriously relentless, noted by his peers and coaches for his uber-competitiveness and unwavering confidence throughout the documentary. Roy Williams, an assistant during Jordan’s college years, asserted that “Michael Jordan is the only player that could ever turn it on and off, and he never frickin’ turned it off.” Former Bulls Head Coach Doug Collins recalled his first game coaching Jordan against the New York Knicks in 1986. Collins had sweat through his shirt and chewed his gum into a powder before Jordan assured him he was not going to lose his first game. The second-year player went on to score 50 points at Madison Square Garden. Only one of Jordan’s first six championships has made its way into the documentary thus far, but viewers were instantly reminded of the preternatural qualities Jordan possessed. In short, the documentary has thus far detailed the beginning of Jordan’s transcendent rise, or when “Mike became Michael.”
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Every Story Has Its Villains
With Jordan hailed as an iconoclast hero, “The Last Dance” does not shy away from identifying his enemies: the Detroit Pistons and former Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause.
The Pistons were the Goliath Jordan could not conquer. In both 1989 and 1990, the Bulls met the notorious “Bad Boy” Pistons in the playoffs. The Bad Boys earned their name by way of their bruising, violent defense. To ensure victory, the Pistons installed “The Jordan Rules,” a system designed to stifle Jordan’s impact and, if need be, “knock him to the ground.” Throughout the series, Jordan was battered, pestered and hounded to his breaking point. In back-to-back years, the Pistons eliminated the Bulls from the playoffs on their way to two consecutive championships.
In 1991, the Bulls team devoted itself to strength training, an investment that paid off as the Bulls beat the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals that season. Jordan had conquered his demons, finished off the Bad Boys for good and asserted control over the Eastern Conference that he would not relinquish. To this day, hate brews between the players of each team. Interviews with Jordan and Pistons star Isiah Thomas were noticeably tense. Although he now outshines the Bad Boys, Jordan let everyone know that “the hate carries over even to this day.”
With the Pistons in the rearview mirror, Jordan’s new nemesis became Krause. Krause was the general manager of the Bulls from 1985 to 2003. Diminutive and outspoken, Krause was responsible for drafting forward Scottie Pippen, hiring head coach Phil Jackson in 1989 and acquiring forward Dennis Rodman. Despite Krause’s acquisition of those three championship cogs, Jordan and Krause were constantly at odds. At one point in the documentary, Jordan poked fun at Krause’s height and weight during a practice, asking if he needed diet pills or the rim lowered. Krause’s mantra was “organizations win championships,” to which Jordan scoffed at this, firing back that players are really the ones who win the games, not the people in the front office.
Krause and Jordan’s deteriorating relationship set the stage for the swan song that was the 1997-98 season. Before the season even began, storm clouds loomed. “The Last Dance” title sequence contains an audio clip from Krause where he declared that season would be Jackson’s last as the coach of the Bulls. Jordan was vehement he would not play for another coach — if Phil left, Jordan would follow. This sparked a year-long power struggle between Jordan and Krause, and by season’s end, both Jordan and Jackson were gone, as were Pippen and Rodman. “The Last Dance” presents Krause not as the architect of the dynasty but as the source of its demise.
In releasing this documentary, Jordan has reinserted himself into the spotlight. The world has responded, relishing every frame of footage, every insane Rodman story, every game-winning shot. For all his greatness on the court, Jordan’s accomplishments are in the past. He continues to be the scale to which current NBA players are measured, but he cannot win any more championships or score any more points. If the first four episodes of “The Last Dance” have proven anything, it’s that Jordan took command of everyone and everything around him, from the locker room to the city of Chicago to the entire world. For those who were lucky enough to watch him live, it’s a reminder of the fear he struck in opponents, the hopelessness they felt guarding him and the unbridled joy of watching the greatest basketball player ever. For those not old enough to witness any of his championships, “The Last Dance” substitutes as the “Michael” moment they never had.