“The Last Dance” is over, and in a world where live sports barely exist, the conclusion of ESPN’s docuseries sends us back to a place without appointment television. The show’s impact was certainly heightened by the fact that it wasn’t competing with anything else, but ten hours later, it’s hard to classify the trip behind the curtain of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls as anything but great television.
The penultimate episode begins in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, a bloodbath of a series against the Indiana Pacers.
“If I had to pick a team that gave us the toughest time in the East, Indiana was probably the toughest, outside of Detroit,” Jordan said.
Chicago won the first two games of the series but Indiana won Game 3, setting up what Bob Costas identified as the series’ most memorable game. The Bulls were up by one point when Scottie Pippen stole an inbound pass, and was fouled with 2.9 seconds left. But he missed both free throws, and Reggie Miller hit a jumper with less than a second left on the clock.
The crowd went wild, but coach Larry Bird looked extremely concerned.
“He knew what we all knew, and that was they had Michael Jordan with time still on the clock,” Jalen Rose said.
Jordan got the inbound pass, double clutched, took the shot, and … missed by a “millimeter,” as Miller described from standing under the basket. He thought it was going in, and that fact, coupled with Bird’s visible fear of him taking another shot, showed how great he was even in defeat.
The show jumps back to the 1997 Finals against the Utah Jazz, where Jordan had two more scores to settle. What was the biggest motivating factor for Jordan going into that series?
“Karl Malone winning the MVP,” Jordan said. “I’m not just saying he wasn’t deserving of it, but it just fueled the fire.”
Then, Bryon Russell. “When I was playing baseball, Utah was in town to play the Bulls,” Jordan said. “I go and say hello to John [Stockton] and Karl [Malone]. This kid Bryon Russell comes up to me and says, ‘Why you quit? You know I can guard your ass.’ I said, ‘Karl, you need to talk to this dude.’ From that point on, he’d been on my list.”
Yes, like Arya Stark from “Game of Thrones,” Michael Jordan had a kill list, and Bryon Russell was firmly on it. In Game 1 of the ’97 finals, with the game tied at 82 in the closing seconds, Jordan matched up against Russell. He took the shot. He hit it. Game over.
Game 5 of that series was Jordan’s infamous “flu game,” but this episode tries to rebrand that moniker. No, Jordan did not have the flu, it was food poisoning that made him physically unwell. The culprit? “He ordered a pizza,” said George Koehler, Jordan’s personal assistant. Yes, the greatest basketball player of all time was nearly taken down by a pizza.
“When the pizza came, there were four or five guys outside the door,” Koehler said. “It’s very rare that you get five delivery guys from the pizza place.” Jordan’s trainer, Tim Grover, said: “I have a bad feeling about this.”
“I ate the pizza, nobody else ate the pizza,” Jordan said. “I wake up at about 2:30, throwing up left and right.”
Jordan had an IV hooked up to him, didn’t eat anything all day, “couldn’t hold anything down.” He decided to play, but was clearly unwell. “Every time out, he was just gassed,” said David Aldridge. The Jazz got out to a huge lead, but he kept coming. “He was like the Terminator.”
With less than a minute in the game, Jordan hit the game-winner. He played 44 minutes, scored 38 points.
“No matter how sick he was, he was still the best player in the world,” Pippen said.
The episode gives a brief, touching glimpse into the life of Steve Kerr, one of the Bulls’ most important role players (and currently the head coach of the Golden State Warriors). Kerr’s father Malcolm was a professor of Middle East history and politics at UCLA, and then became president of the American University in Beirut. Steve got a last-second scholarship at Arizona, while his parents and siblings joined his father in Lebanon.
One night, Malcolm Kerr was shot and killed by gunmen outside his office. Kerr coped with the tragedy by sinking himself deeper into basketball.
In the closing seconds of Game 6 of the 1997 Finals, game tied, Jordan was double-teamed. He passed to Kerr, who had an open jumper. He hit the shot. The Bulls won their fifth championship.
At the championship parade, Kerr had jokes.
“There have been some misconceptions about what actually happened,” he said. “When we called timeout with 25 seconds to go, Phil told Michael, ‘I want you to take the last shot.’ And he said, ‘Phil, I don’t feel real comfortable in these situations. So maybe we ought to go in another direction. Why don’t we go to Steve?’
“So I thought to myself, I guess I have to bail Michael out again.”
Back to the Pacers series. Indiana forced a Game 7, just the second time that had happened to the Bulls in their dynastic era. Jordan guaranteed a victory then delivered.
Jordan was very close to security guard Gus Lett, who was suffering from cancer. He returned to the United Center from a leave of absence for Game 7.
“I wanted to win this game for Gus,” Jordan said. They did, and MJ gave Gus the game ball.
The final episode covers the 1998 Finals against the Jazz and everything that happened after. After splitting the first two games, Chicago destroyed Utah in Game 3. Utah scored 54 points, which at the time was the lowest-ever single-game total in the shot-clock era. “This was actually the score? Is this the final?” Utah coach Jerry Sloan joked after the game.
Then, Dennis Rodman did Dennis Rodman things. He didn’t show up to a media session, and it turned out he went to Auburn Hills, Mich. to appear on “Monday Nitro,” a WCW wrestling program.
Speculation was that the Bulls would be disturbed, but they knew who Rodman was, and they didn’t care. Chicago’s media relations team snuck him out a back gate to avoid the reporters outside during the ensuing practice, and he had a dominant performance in Game 4. He even nailed two clutch free throws, despite shooting just 58.4 percent for his career.
Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals was perhaps the most dramatic game of the Bulls’ run in the ’90s. Pippen had suffered a back injury prior to the game, and after dunking in the first play of the game, he was in serious pain. He went to the locker room, forcing an exhausted Jordan to shoulder more of the load.
Pippen gutted it out and returned to the court, although mostly as a decoy.
“Anybody that had the notion that said Pippen is a soft player is patently absurd,” said Bulls trainer Chip Schaefer. “He’s as tough a player, tough a competitor, as anyone I’ve ever worked with. What he did in Game 6 is extraordinary. I know so many players that would have tapped out without hesitation in that situation.”
Chicago was down three with under a minute left.
“Michael Jordan, at this advanced stage of his career, has to carry the team, has to play extra minutes in a grueling series. That last sequence in that final half minute-plus, is one of the greatest sequences you’ll ever see in any sport,” said Bob Costas.
Jordan ripped down the court for a quick bucket. Then he recognized they would run a play to Karl Malone, and stripped the ball from him. He eyed Jackson, who didn’t call a timeout. He trusted Jordan to finish the game on his own.
“I knew he was going to shoot this f–ker. He is not going to pass this f–king ball,” Dennis Rodman said. “John Paxson? Steve Kerr? Hell no. This is his time.”
Facing Russell again, he hit perhaps his most iconic shot of his career. It would also be his last. And no, he did not think there was a push off.
“Bulls–t,” Jordan said. “His energy was already going that way.”
Chicago held their sixth victory parade in eight years. Fans chanted, “One more year!” One fan said they would ride owner Jerry Reinsdorf out of town if he didn’t bring everybody back. (Much to Bulls fans’ chagrin, Reinsdorf is still there today.) Jackson mentioned Jerry Krause’s name in his speech, which was greeted by boos.
Of course, Jordan did retire. Chicago traded Pippen and Kerr and released Rodman. Reinsdorf offered Jackson the chance to return, but his relationship with Krause had deteriorated beyond a point of no return.
Could the Bulls have stuck around for another year? Jordan thinks so, and blames Krause and Reinsdorf for disassembling the team when he believed they didn’t need to.
“If you asked all the guys who would have won in ’98, Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler,” he said. “We gave you a one-year contract to try for the seventh. Do you think they would have signed it? Yes, they would have signed it.
“Would I have signed for one year? Yes, I would have signed for one year. I had been signing one-year contracts up to then. Would Phil have done it? Yes.”
Everyone agrees Jordan is among the greatest of all time. Many think he is the greatest. If he had come back and won another championship, or two, would he stand even higher on his pedestal?
The “greatest of all time” argument is one that will probably never go away. But with “The Last Dance,” the younger generations now have context to how great Jordan truly was. It’s fair to say that at least to some extent, the LeBron James crowd now has a tougher argument to make.
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