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Monday, May 18, 2020

The 1997-98 Chicago Bulls' "Last Dance"

"We could have won seven." Michael Jordan, with the last word on the Chicago Bulls' "Last Dance"

A major reason that Michael Jordan came back to the NBA in 2001 is that, as he later put it, he still had an "itch to scratch." That itch, that burr in Jordan's saddle, developed because the Chicago Bulls' dynasty did not reach its natural conclusion--the Bulls were not dethroned, nor did the principal figures who created that dynasty collectively agree to leave the game; the dynasty screeched to a halt because Jerry Krause's oversized ego convinced him that it made more sense to run off the game's greatest player, the game's best coach and the game's best second option in order to build a team from the bottom up and install his fishing buddy Tim Floyd as the team's coach. It should be emphasized that while Krause is most often mentioned as the villain in this drama, team owner Jerry Reinsdorf--Krause's boss--could have stepped in and stopped Krause, so Krause should not receive all of the blame.

After winning six championships in an eight season stretch, Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen earned the right to dictate their terms of departure--and they each would rather have either kept the run going until someone beat them, or win some more rings before riding off into the sunset. That is how the movie is supposed to end; the gunslinger hero either wins that last battle or he dies a noble death.

When Rick Telander asked Jordan why he would come back and risk ruining the "perfect ending" he forged by hitting the game-winning shot in the 1998 Finals, Jordan snarled, "What perfect ending? Who said it was a perfect ending? If you listened properly for that whole year, I said if Phil Jackson would be there, I would keep playing."

ESPN's much-anticipated 10 part series titled "The Last Dance"--which is what Phil Jackson labeled the upcoming 1997-98 season after Krause made public his team demolition plans--provided context, background, and behind the scenes footage from not only the Bulls' sixth championship run, but also the events that led up to that season. In the final episode, Jordan reiterated the point that he had made to Telander: Jordan did not feel happy about leaving at his peak, and in fact he would have signed a one year deal to go for his seventh championship.

I have addressed the breakup of the Bulls in depth twice, and that history is worth reviewing before turning our attention to "The Last Dance."

My December 14, 2015 article titled Terri-Bull: Premature Breakup of the Jordan-Pippen Bulls Demonstrated Why Tanking Does Not Work analyzed how difficult it is to build a championship team from scratch--which is one reason why a championship team should not be prematurely dismantled--and corrected some of the revisionist history that had been asserted about how Krause broke up the Bulls:
In November 2004 Colangelo was the chairman and CEO of the Phoenix Suns, who went into Chicago and drilled Krause's hapless Bulls 94-74. Colangelo said, "The concept of taking your championship run and then going all the way back and starting over again? There's no guarantees. You gotta be lucky. You can't afford any mistakes, bad drafts. Your picks don't turn out to be big time-players? You've got a problem. So, in my opinion, you stay as competitive as possible for as long as possible. If you back up the truck, you never know. Look, in my almost four decades in sport, I never had the pleasure of having that (Jordan-style) dynasty. Knowing me as I do? I couldn't break it up."

Becoming really bad in order to become really good is not just counterintuitive; it does not work. Colangelo is right: in any endeavor, "you stay as competitive as possible for as long as possible." Krause's demolition of the Bulls' dynasty is a cautionary tale that should be taught in business schools and should be mandatory homework for anyone who becomes a sports executive.

It is easy to refute the revisionist history--propagated by none other than Krause and Bulls' owner Jerry Reinsdorf--that Krause had to do something because Jackson, Jordan and Pippen did not intend to stay around. In a July 24, 1998 Chicago Sun-Times article by Jim O'Donnell titled "Phil's agent has fill of Reinsdorf tactics," Phil Jackson's agent Todd Musburger reminded the world who broke up the Bulls and how he did it:

"Phil's not coming back. That has long been clearly understood. It's been understood since last July, when Jerry Krause told Phil, 'You can go 82-and-bleeping-0 and you're not coming back. This is it for you and the Chicago Bulls."

Think about that. I have heard of an owner or a GM threatening to fire a coach if he does not win a certain number of games but who tells a coach that he will be fired even if the coach wins every game? Krause was so eager to prove that he was the brains behind the Bulls' championships that he ripped apart a dynasty in order to build a championship team from scratch in his own image--and the aftermath of that foolish decision was so disastrous that it lent a lot of credence to the speculation that instead of being a brilliant talent evaluator he was a solid GM who lucked into having Michael Jordan and then put some good pieces around Jordan.

What prompted Musburger to speak out to O'Donnell on that particular day? During the Bulls' televised press conference announcing the hiring of Tim Floyd as director of basketball operations, Reinsdorf said that the path was still open for Jackson to return as coach and that Floyd would only be the coach if Jackson decided not to return. In other words, one year after telling Jackson he was fired no matter how well the team did in the next season, Reinsdorf and Krause tried to act like the hatchet job never happened.

Musburger declared, "That's why what I heard on the TV Thursday from Reinsdorf was incredible. And what really made my blood boil was that, if nothing else, Phil left in dignity. After all he went through in his final 12 months around that team, all he did was win one last championship, and then fulfilling the expressly stated wishes of Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf, he left. No final cheap shots, no besmirching of any reputations, nothing. Simple, quiet dignity. And now they were going to dredge his good name back up to rewrite history once again and drag him through this."

Musburger called it "obscene" that Reinsdorf hijacked a day that should have belonged to Floyd and concluded, "I guess as the work day ended, the thing I was most happy about is that the more dimensional members of the media no longer need a road map when it comes to any of the convoluted paths chairman Reinsdorf and his associates may lead them down. The chairman's ways and means are too well-known by now. But why he couldn't allow Tim Floyd to have his moment without having once again flail at Phil's wonderful legacy with the Bulls remains beyond my comprehension. Thursday simply should have belonged to Tim Floyd."

In his July 24, 1998 Chicago Tribune column titled "Jackson should've called their bluff," Bernie Lincicome wrote that the press conference announcing Floyd's hiring "is so hollow it echoes." Lincicome urged Jackson, "Hey, Phil, you should have called their bluff. Asked for $12 million and demanded they exile Tim Floyd to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. for the duration. I have a map. And a floor plan."

Lincicome continued, "Is this any way to kill a dynasty? There never is a good way, but I'll take the end of the Celtics over this. Larry Bird lying on the floor in a back plaster. Kevin McHale hobbling on one foot. Robert Parish rooted like a lamp post. How is this ending? With lies and dares, and, to use Reinsdorf's own words, 'fairy tales.'"
In Jerry Krause Built (and broke up) the Bulls' Dynasty, I eulogized the man who helped build the Bulls' dynasty before he inexplicably destroyed it:
"Few GMs have enjoyed the success that Jerry Krause did. 6 rings says it all. To me, his track record is absolutely Hoophall worthy."--Scottie Pippen, after learning of Jerry Krause's death

"He's been around a long time and won championships. They had a dynasty, now they have a coffee shop."--Charles Oakley, speaking of Krause in 2002, when the post-dynasty Chicago Bulls went a league-worst 21-61

Two quotes by two players who knew firsthand what it felt like to be signed--and shipped off--by Jerry Krause serve as fitting epigraphs for Krause's life and career. Krause, who passed away at the age of 77 on Tuesday, deserves more credit than he often receives for building the Chicago Bulls' 1990s dynasty; he assembled all of the pieces around Michael Jordan for the first three-peat (including a marvelous coaching staff) and then when Jordan came back from his baseball hiatus Krause built an entirely new supporting cast (other than Pippen) for the second three-peat.

Sadly, Krause also deserves the blame (along with owner Jerry Reinsdorf) for breaking up the Bulls' dynasty. I have heard of coaches being told "Win (x amount of games) this year or you are fired" but, until Krause, I had never heard of an executive telling his coach that even if the team went 82-0 and won the championship he was gone--but that is exactly the message that Krause delivered to Phil Jackson prior to the Bulls' "Last Dance" championship in 1998.

Krause relished the challenge of proving that he could win without Jordan but that was foolish pride; the Bulls deserved the opportunity to, as the saying goes, come back "with their shields or on them" in 1999, as opposed to Jordan, Pippen and Jackson being exiled from the city that they had placed on the basketball map. Jackson would go on to win five more championships as a coach, Jordan came out of retirement to be an All-Star during the season that he turned 40 and Pippen recovered sufficiently from back surgery to be a key member of a Portland team that came within one bad fourth quarter in game seven of the 2000 Western Conference Finals of perhaps derailing Jackson's budding Lakers' dynasty before the Lakers won three titles in a row.
ESPN's "The Last Dance" pulled back the curtain to provide a fascinating look at what life was like for the Bulls at the top of the mountain when they simultaneously basked in the success of winning two titles in a row (and five in seven years for Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Scottie Pippen) while also chasing a sixth title amidst the turmoil of realizing that their run would end even if they won the championship. "The Last Dance" not only covered the 1997-98 season, but it also examined the background and history of the Chicago Bulls franchise, as well as the background and history of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Phil Jackson.

The first two episodes of the series traced Michael Jordan's development from a lanky 5-10 player cut from his high school varsity team to the North Carolina freshman who hit the game-winning shot in the NCAA Championship game to the NBA Rookie of the Year to a championship-winning iconic figure. One constant with Jordan was his work ethic; at every stage of his life, at every stage of his development as a player, he outworked his teammates, and he outworked his competitors.

Jordan's resentment toward Krause and the Bulls' front office began during Jordan's second season. Jordan had suffered a broken foot that caused him to miss most of the 1985-86 campaign. By the time he felt ready to return, the organization was content to sit him out the rest of the way, miss the playoffs, and collect a Draft Lottery pick. Jordan wanted to play. He had vowed to reach the playoffs every season, and he aimed to fulfill that vow. The organization applied a strict minutes restriction on Jordan down the stretch, the Bulls barely qualified for the playoffs, and then the organization lifted the minutes restriction. Jordan responded by hitting the soon-to-be NBA champion Boston Celtics with a 49 point outing and then a playoff record 63 point game. The Celtics won the series 3-0, but Jordan had staked his claim as the best player in the league. The musical selection of L.L. Cool J's "I'm Bad" to be the soundtrack for Jordan's 63 point masterpiece was quite fitting; when the song begins with the voiceover saying "Calling all cars" you can picture Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, and Bill Walton expressing a similar sentiment while facing the daunting task of guarding the player who Bird referred to as "God disguised as Michael Jordan." The media may have been slow to concede the point that Jordan was the NBA's best player, but--as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird made clear during "The Last Dance"--the players who shared the court with Jordan understood exactly how great he was.

Keep in mind that if Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause had gotten their way, fans would have been robbed of Jordan's 63 point playoff game the same way that Reinsdorf and Krause robbed fans of seeing whether or not the Bulls could have won the 1999 championship.

It is very instructive to watch how Jordan scored in the 63 point game, or in any of the vintage highlights for that matter. Jordan attacked the hoop from all angles, his footwork was impeccable, he had a deadly jump shot out to about 20 feet, and he was a very good free throw shooter. Jordan did not need a "Eurostep"/travel move to get open, he did not hook his arm around the defender's arm to try to trick referees, and he rarely shot three pointers--yet he was as efficient as he was unguardable. Seeing Jordan score like that in a more physical era and at a time when the court was not spread out with three point shooters is a vivid reminder of how unstoppable Jordan would be in today's softer era with little defensive paint presence and the court spread out with three point shooters. A team shooting 20-60 from three point range may be more mathematically efficient than a team shooting 29-60 from two point range but the latter is more fun to watch, and is more likely to be part of an overall championship equation (which includes not only shooting efficiency but also floor balance, defense, team chemistry, and other elements that are not valued by many "stat gurus").

All of that being said, it is important to remember that Jordan posted a 1-9 record in playoff games without Scottie Pippen. "The Last Dance" details how Pippen emerged from humble beginnings in Hamburg, Arkansas to become one of the greatest players in NBA history. Viewers who are too young to remember the 1990s may be surprised to see and hear just how important Pippen was. That point was reinforced at the start of the 1997-98 season when Pippen was out of action as he recovered from foot surgery. In the previous season with a healthy Pippen, the Bulls started out 34-5, finished 69-13, and won their second title in a row; the Bulls sans Pippen for the first portion of the 1997-98 season started out 6-5, and they were 24-11 when he returned to action. The Bulls went 36-8 the rest of the way with Pippen in the starting lineup (they went 2-1 in games that he missed), and they won their sixth title before Krause accomplished his goal of dismantling the team of the 90s. Pippen was not as great as Jordan, but Jordan would not have become who he became without having Pippen by his side. Jordan is the first to admit that, even if Pippen's critics are reluctant to give Pippen his due.

"The Last Dance" provided a great reminder that these players are not just numbers on a stat sheet or a salary cap spreadsheet; they are immensely skilled, sensitive human beings who gave their blood, sweat, and tears to the pursuit of excellence. Any executive and/or "stat guru" who thinks that there is a formula that can enable one to move around players like chess pieces or poker chips and thus achieve championship success misunderstands not just sports but life. Maybe the Bulls saved some money in the short term by not renegotiating Scottie Pippen's contract when he was the second best player in the league but not even one of the top 100 paid players in the NBA. The Bulls organization won that battle. How many championships has that Bulls organization won since getting rid of Jordan, Pippen, and crew? How many free agents are eager to play for a franchise that disrespected the players who built such a wonderful championship legacy?

Episode three focused on Dennis Rodman, who won two titles with the Detroit Pistons--beating Jordan's Bulls in the playoffs along the way--before playing a vital role for the Bulls' 1996-98 championship teams. Rodman was an introverted student of the game who wanted everyone to think that he was an extroverted person who just ran around the court like a crazed fool. Jackson termed Rodman a "heyoka"--a Native American term for a "backward walking" person who is a kind of jester or contrarian--and the two bonded as fellow maverick non-comformists. It is beautiful to see the way that Jackson provided structure for Rodman while also giving Rodman a lot of freedom and leeway. Jackson understands that all people have value, and that not everyone can or should be expected to fit in with the so-called "normal" way of doing things.

Jordan said, "Dennis is one of the smartest guys I played with. He understood defensive strategy with all the rotations and he had no limits in terms of what he does." In Rebounding tips from Dennis Rodman, Larry Miller and Ollie Taylor, I described Rodman as "a Phi Beta Kappa student of basketball who seemingly wants everyone to believe that he is the class clown." Rodman does not like to publicly talk about his rebounding techniques, and his autobiography I Should Be Dead By Now devotes little space to that subject, other than noting that Rodman applied judo concepts to rebounding: as I paraphrased Rodman's explanation in the aforementioned article, Rodman "would interlock his arms and legs with his opponents until he could determine where the ball was going to go and then he would use his quickness and agility to untangle himself and get to the ball." During a one on one interview many years ago, Steve Kerr confirmed to me that Rodman spent a lot of time studying game film/video, but that Rodman did not want the public to know about this.

"The Last Dance" provided a well-balanced portrayal of the Chicago Bulls-Detroit Pistons rivalry. Most reports about the Pistons' infamous 1991 "walkoff" after being swept by the Bulls neglect to point out that the Boston Celtics did the same thing after losing to the Pistons in 1988; you may be familiar with the oft-shown footage of Kevin McHale slapping hands with Isiah Thomas, but it was Thomas who approached McHale while the Celtics--including Larry Bird and Robert Parish--fled to the locker room before the game ended without congratulating the Pistons. "The Last Dance" noted that the Bulls had shaken hands with the Pistons after losing to the Pistons in 1989 and 1990, but there is a weird double standard applied against the Pistons for their 1991 "walkoff" because the Celtics are never criticized for poor sportsmanship regarding their 1988 "walkoff" after the Pistons dethroned them. The double standard goes much deeper than just the two "walkoffs," though. As I mentioned in The Celtics Were the First Bad Boys, the Pistons built their roster and formed their attitude in order to overcome a very physical Boston team:
The Pistons were not the NBA's first "Bad Boys" or even the baddest of the bad. The Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Boston Celtics were a brutally physical team--think back to McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis in the 1984 NBA Finals and M.L. Carr undercutting Julius Erving in the 1980 Eastern Conference Finals and the way that their whole frontcourt mauled the Philadelphia 76ers' frontcourt in game seven of the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals while the officials swallowed their whistles. Erving was one of the classiest players in pro basketball history, someone who rarely received technical fouls and never got into fights--but during a November 1984 regular season game he took a swing at Bird after getting frustrated by Bird's roughhousing tactics (and verbal taunting, something that Erving never did on the many occasions that he outplayed Bird and other players). James Worthy put it best during "Bad Boys": "We knew that they (the Pistons) were a good team, a very physical team, but 'Bad Boys' was something that, nah, they didn't get much respect from us. Playing against the Celtics--it didn't get any tougher, no one got any badder. You could call the Celtics 'Bad Boys' back in the early '80s."

Erving's 76ers overcame the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1980 and 1982 despite the Celtics' rough tactics and then in 1983 the 76ers brought in Moses Malone as the final piece to their championship puzzle; although the 76ers had proven that they could circumvent the Celtics' physical tactics without changing their own style, they needed Malone to match up with the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The Pistons followed a similar path in the mid to late 1980s, adding Rick Mahorn, John Salley and Dennis Rodman in order to match up with the size, strength and physicality of the Celtics' frontcourt--but the idea that the Pistons did something fundamentally different from what the Celtics had been doing for years is nonsense. The Celtics taught the Pistons how to use physicality to gain an edge and win championships but then the Celtics got mad and lost their composure when they received a dose of their own medicine.
This narrative does not fit the narrative that the NBA and many media members portray, but it is nevertheless the truth. As a fan, I prefer the way that the 76ers and the Bulls played to the way that the Celtics and the Pistons played, but I understand why Isiah Thomas and other Pistons still feel disrespected more than 30 years later. Thomas is a vastly underrated player who was the central figure as the Pistons rose from being a 21-61 doormat in 1980-81 (the season before he joined the team) to being back to back champions in 1989-90, and Thomas' teams beat the Celtics, the Bulls, and the Lakers in the playoffs during that era. You do not have to like the Pistons, but the Pistons deserve respect as a championship team built from the ground up that more than held their own against some of the greatest teams in NBA history.

After the Bulls dethroned the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, they beat Magic Johnson and the L.A. Lakers to win the NBA title. The Lakers won game one on a Sam Perkins three pointer, but then the Bulls took four straight victories. Pippen's smothering defense against Johnson was a major factor, foreshadowing the significant role that Pippen's defense would play throughout the Bulls' subsequent title runs.

Episode four focused on Jackson, who was the perfect coach for this group of talented individuals. He knew how to push Jordan without alienating Jordan, and he knew how to get the most out of everyone else, from a Top 50 player like Pippen to an eccentric Hall of Famer like Rodman to role players who he prepared mentally, emotionally, and physically to provide support to the team's superstars at key moments. Great players want to be coached, and they respect coaches who push them to new heights. The respect and loyalty that Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman feel toward Jackson stems from the way that Jackson treated them. As Red Auerbach once said after being asked about how to handle certain players, "You handle animals, but you deal with people."

Episodes five and six explored several topics, starting with some glimpses of the beginning of the Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant friendship, a friendship whose extent the general public did not know about or understand until Jordan gave a powerful eulogy for Bryant at the public memorial service for Bryant. Jordan and Bryant faced off in the 1998 All-Star Game, with Jordan winning the MVP, and giving Bryant an open invitation to reach out to him if he ever needed advice or help; as Jordan memorably recounted during his eulogy for Bryant, Bryant accepted Jordan's offer, and often sought out Jordan for advice not just on basketball but on other matters as well. Bryant was interviewed for "The Last Dance," and he explained that he dislikes the comparisons that are often made about him and Jordan. Bryant said, "What you get from me is from him. I don't get five championships here without him, because he guided me so much and gave me so much great advice."

"The Last Dance" examined Jordan's role on the 1992 Dream Team. It has often been reported that Jordan refused to join the team if Isiah Thomas was on the roster. Jordan denies issuing that ultimatum, but he also makes it clear that he and other players would not have felt comfortable with Thomas being included. It is unfortunate that Thomas was denied an opportunity that he had earned based on his performance; as Thomas has often said, "I fit the criteria": at the time the Dream Team was selected, Thomas had led the Detroit Pistons to two championships, trailing only Magic Johnson (five titles) and Larry Bird (three titles) among his active peers. Jordan had won one title, and he won his second title just prior to the 1992 Olympics.

During the Dream Team's intense practices, Jordan showed that even among alpha males he was the "alpha alpha male," leaving no doubt that he had supplanted Johnson and Bird as the sport's top player.

Jordan and Pippen resented that during the early 1990s Krause was pursuing young Croatian player Toni Kukoc. As Jordan put it, Krause was placing Kukoc "ahead of his own kids," meaning the Bulls players who had performed at such a high level, eventually winning three straight NBA titles. Pippen shut Kukoc down during Team USA's first game versus Croatia. Kukoc performed better in the gold medal game against Team USA, but Team USA still dominated, and Jordan and Pippen had more than made their point. Kukoc was interviewed for "The Last Dance," and he said that prior to the 1992 Olympics he had no idea that Jordan and Pippen felt such resentment toward Krause about him. After Kukoc joined the Bulls in 1993 and proved his worth, Pippen and Jordan (after he returned from his first NBA retirement) welcomed him as a valuable contributor.

Winning an NBA championship in 1991 forever silenced any talk that Jordan was a high scoring individual talent who could not lead a team to ultimate success. Jordan relished prevailing in the head to head Finals battle against Magic Johnson's L.A. Lakers. After the 1991 season, Jordan's carefully crafted public image took a hit because of the publication of Sam Smith's book The Jordan Rules. The book painted a picture of Jordan as someone who could at times be selfish, be a bully toward his teammates, and be an intimidating presence to both teammates and foes. In "The Last Dance," Jordan insisted that a disgruntled Horace Grant was Sam Smith's source for information from inside the locker room, but Grant denied this. As B.J. Armstrong said, there was likely more than one single source. Further, it has already been established that Phil Jackson was a primary source.

The Bulls won a second championship in 1992, as Jordan took his Finals matchup with Portland's Clyde Drexler very personally; Jordan aimed to obliterate the notion that Drexler might be ranked on par with Jordan. Back to back titles put Jordan in the conversation with Johnson and Bird, but Jordan wanted to lift himself above them, and the best way to do that would be to win a third consecutive title. Up to that time, only George Mikan's Lakers and Bill Russell's Celtics had won at least three NBA championships in a row.

During the 1990s, the Bulls often had to get past a very physical New York team in the East before advancing the Finals. The Knicks were similar to the "Bad Boys" Pistons in terms of the mental and physical challenges that they posed for the Bulls, but the Knicks did not capture the public's imagination the way that the Pistons did, probably because the Knicks did not win a title during that era.

The 1993 championship drive wore Jordan down mentally and physically. He was criticized for going to Atlantic City to gamble the night before the Bulls lost a playoff game to the Knicks. Information about some of the seedy characters who Jordan had been gambling with--and losing money to--over the years became public knowledge, most notably when Jordan had to testify in court to explain a $57,000 check he wrote to Slim Bouler to pay off a gambling debt. Bouler was later sentenced to nine years in prison on unrelated money laundering and conspiracy charges. Jordan claimed that he had a "competition" problem, not a gambling problem, and he admitted that, in retrospect, he should have been more careful about associating with certain people. Jordan was offended by what he felt to be the media's attempt to bring him down, and for a time he refused to speak to the media at all.

None of this had any visible impact on Jordan's level of play. The Bulls won four straight playoff games versus the Knicks after falling into an 0-2 hole in the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, and the Bulls then defeated Charles Barkley's Phoenix Suns 4-2 in the NBA Finals. Jordan, indignant that Barkley had been voted the regular season MVP by the media, made a point of asserting his individual superiority over Barkley, much as Jordan had done in the 1992 Finals versus Drexler.

B.J. Armstrong declared, "Michael Jordan didn't even really play basketball anymore. He just figured out how to win the game. He knew how to steer momentum. He knew how to get guys going. Not only was he that good on the offensive end, he was that good on the defensive end. He was just playing a different game than the rest of us. He let us play, but he was there to win the game."

Episodes seven and eight covered some of the most emotionally gripping and wrenching territory, including the murder of Jordan's father James, and Jordan's strong feelings about why his harsh, confrontational leadership style was necessary.

Jordan was already considering retirement prior to his father's July 1993 murder. After the murder, Jordan decided that he not only had nothing left to prove, but also that he wanted to be sure that his father saw his last basketball game. Jordan's father had encouraged him to play baseball, and after Jordan retired from the NBA he pursued that childhood dream, signing a contract to play minor league baseball in the Chicago White Sox system. Reinsdorf owned both the Bulls and the White Sox, and during the documentary he stated that he paid Jordan's NBA salary during Jordan's retirement because Jordan had been underpaid in previous seasons.

Jordan is understandably displeased with the media coverage of his father's murder, his first retirement, and his minor league baseball career. Without any evidence or factual basis, many media members speculated that the murder of Jordan's father might somehow be connected with Jordan's gambling. Also, without any evidence or factual basis, many media members speculated that Jordan had not retired but rather had been secretly suspended by the NBA as punishment for his gambling. Many media members also mocked Jordan's baseball career by suggesting that he was somehow embarrassing the sport. In fact, Jordan's Birmingham Barons teammates, manager, and coaches said that Jordan had an incredible work ethic, and that he possessed sufficient talent to reach the major leagues provided that he had enough practice.

Basketball fans can be thankful that Major League Baseball was foolish enough to have a work stoppage that canceled the 1994 World Series, and extended into the 1995 season; Jordan refused to cross the picket line, started working out for basketball again, and officially rejoined the Bulls on March 18, 1995 by sending out this press release: "I'm back."

Without Jordan, the Bulls had lost to the New York Knicks in the seventh game of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals before losing Horace Grant to free agency, and Bill Cartwright and John Paxson to retirement. Pippen had an MVP-caliber season in 1993-94, but Pippen was also heavily criticized for sitting out the final 1.8 seconds of game three versus the Knicks after Phil Jackson designed the final play for Toni Kukoc. Kuckoc hit the game-winning shot, Pippen's teammates accepted Pippen's apology, and Pippen dominated in a game four win--25 points, eight rebounds, six assists--as the Bulls surprised the basketball world by remaining a contender without Jordan. The substance of Pippen's career adds up to much more than "1.8," but just as Jordan never won a title without Pippen it was evident that it would be challenging for Pippen to win a title without Jordan.

The Bulls had been gathering momentum prior to Jordan's return--winning eight of their previous 10 games--and they went 13-4 down the stretch after Jordan came back. Jordan had some great moments--including the famous "double nickel" game at Madison Square Garden--but all you need to know about the difference between playing pro basketball and playing pro baseball is that Jordan got out of shape playing pro baseball. Yes, there are different muscle groups involved in each sport, and he had to retrain his body, but it is also clear that basketball requires a greater and broader overall level of fitness than baseball does. As a result, Jordan could not sustain the highest level of energy over a 48 minute game, or over the duration of a playoff series. He was still an elite player, but he was not the best player in the league; a good case could be made that he was not even the best player on the team, and at that time Jordan was quick to acknowledge that he needed to catch up with Pippen.

The Bulls won their first round series versus Charlotte--with Jordan deriving some inspiration to lift his game after ex-teammate B.J. Armstrong hit the game-winning shot in game two--but Jordan came up short in several clutch moments as the Orlando Magic eliminated the Bulls 4-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Jordan with Pippen had not been able to advance any further in 1995 than Pippen had advanced without Jordan in 1994.

Jordan rebuilt his body during the summer of 1995, playing pickup games on the set of the movie "Space Jam." Jordan not only fine-tuned his game but also made mental notes about the NBA players who participated in the games. TNT's Kenny Smith once said, half-jokingly, that the NBA players made a mistake helping Jordan get back in shape.

Even with Jordan back to his full powers, the Bulls still needed someone to fill Horace Grant's old role, and they needed the supporting cast--an entirely different group from the 1993 team--to provide enough help for Jordan and Pippen, who would be the only two players who played for all six Bulls championship teams.

"The Last Dance" showed many examples of Jordan's famous competitive fire, and the way that he manufactured motivation out of slights real and imagined; one gets the sense that many of the slights were imagined, and that Jordan--much like the comic book hero The Incredible Hulk--was driven by rage. There should be no doubt, though, that Jordan loved the game, and that he loved winning. He sought to perfect his craft, and he pushed his teammates to perfect their craft.

Jordan explained during one of "The Last Dance" interviews, "My mentality was to go out and win at any cost. If you don't want to live that regimented mentality, then you don't need to be alongside of me because I'm going to ridicule you until you get on the same level with me. And if you don't get on the same level, then it's going to be hell for you." Jordan added, "Winning has a price. And leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn't want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn't want to be challenged. And I earned that right because [other] teammates came after me. They didn't endure all the things that I endured. Once you joined the team, you lived at a certain standard that I played the game. And I wasn't going to take anything less."

During "The Last Dance," Jordan showed the greatest amount of emotion when discussing two situations: (1) the murder of his father, and (2) explaining why he pushed his teammates so hard. Jordan's love of the game fueled his competitive anger, and Jordan did whatever he had to do to make sure that his teammates would do everything possible to win championships. Jordan declared during one of "The Last Dance" interviews that he never asked a teammate to do something that he did not do.

It is an interesting quirk of media coverage that the competitive fire that is considered such an admirable aspect of Jordan's legacy has been so often criticized as a detriment to Kobe Bryant's legacy. If anything, Jordan's verbal taunts and physically aggressive behavior toward his teammates seems worse than any known behavior that Bryant displayed toward his teammates. It should also be noted that Bryant carried the Lakers to two titles and three straight Finals appearances in the second act of his career with a lot less talent around him than Jordan had during any of his championship runs. Other great players have won multiple titles without being as overtly demanding of their teammates as Jordan and Bryant were, but no great player has won multiple titles without setting a standard of excellence for himself and then demanding--in one way or another--that his teammates match his work ethic, focus, and toughness even if they cannot match his skill level.

The final two episodes of "The Last Dance" began by focusing in general on the Chicago Bulls' rivalry with the Indiana Pacers, and specifically on Michael Jordan's rivalry with Reggie Miller. Miller noted that he did not fear Jordan the way that many NBA players did--Miller respected Jordan, but he did not fear him. Jordan and Miller came to blows in a 1993 regular season game, and Jordan conceded that--other than the Detroit Pistons--Miller's Pacers posed the biggest challenge that he faced. Jordan played in just two game sevens during the Bulls' six championship runs: a 110-81 win versus the New York Knicks in 1992, and an 88-83 win versus the Pacers in 1998. Jordan shot just 9-25 from the field in game seven against the Pacers, but he chased down five offensive rebounds as the Bulls grabbed 22 offensive rebounds and outrebounded the Pacers 50-34. Jordan--like Kobe Bryant after him--understood what so many of today's players--and so many "stat gurus"--do not: championship basketball is about not just numbers, but about heart, and about doing what needs to be done when it most needs to be done. If you are not shooting well, then play defense, and grab rebounds. Those who rely on analytics will never believe or understand it, but I would take Jordan's performance in that game seven over a gaudy, but empty stat line resulting from a player chasing numbers that make him look good as opposed to focusing on doing whatever needed to be done to win the game.

It is also worth noting that in a high stakes game during which rebounds mattered the most, Scottie Pippen had the most rebounds (12), and the most offensive rebounds (six). Jordan and Pippen each had more offensive rebounds than Indiana's entire team (four). If you understand how special Jordan and Pippen were in that game, then you also understand Kobe Bryant's value in game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals, when Bryant grabbed 15 rebounds--five more than any Boston Celtic--to lead his Lakers to an 83-79 win.

The last two episodes also revisited one the the core themes running throughout the series: Jordan's motivational fire was stoked by slights real and imagined. Objective reality took a back seat in Jordan's mind to framing situations in ways that enabled Jordan to develop anger, and then direct that anger at his opponents while he dominated them. Jordan said that one time during his first retirement Utah's Bryon Russell made a comment to Jordan that Jordan retired because he knew that Russell could shut him down. Maybe this was an offhand or lighthearted comment, maybe Russell never even said it; what Russell actually said is secondary in this context to what Jordan heard: he felt disrespected by Russell, and after that Russell was "on my list," as Jordan put it. Jordan made sure that Russell will forever be known as the futile defender flailing at Jordan's final shot as a Chicago Bull, the shot that clinched Chicago's sixth title.

Jordan understandably felt slighted when the media gave the 1997 regular season MVP to Karl Malone. Jordan won the MVP while leading the 1996 Bulls to a then-record 72 wins, and yet the media did not select Jordan as the MVP when he led the Bulls to 69 wins--equaling the previous record--the next season. Selecting Malone as MVP over four-time--and eventual six-time--champion Jordan made no sense. Malone is a consummate playoff choker who never won a title and who shot .463 from the field in the playoffs compared to his .516 regular season field goal percentage. Yes, we are talking about a regular season award and not a playoff award, but how "valuable" is a player like Malone who cannot be relied upon when the games matter most?

As was usually the case, Jordan got the last word with Russell, Malone, and the media. Jordan's Bulls beat Malone's Jazz in the Finals in 1997 and 1998. In the clinching game six of the 1998 Finals, Pippen suffered a serious back injury that ultimately required offseason surgery. He had ruptured two disks in his back. During "The Last Dance," Bulls' trainer Chip Schaeffer explained, "He was in such pain. So disabled. He had continued loss of function. He was losing mobility and his pain was increasing. It was spiraling." That kind of severe back injury not only causes excruciating back pain, but it leads to radiculopathy--pain down one or both legs as a result of the disk material pressing on a nerve. At first, Pippen did not think that he could return to the game, but ultimately he came back and--despite modest box score statistics--he made an impact, posting a game-high +16 plus/minus number. Jordan's plus/minus number was +2, but of course he shared many of his minutes with Pippen; during the 22 minutes that Pippen did not play, the Bulls struggled mightily. Phil Jackson recalled of game six, "When Scottie left, we were just kind of holding on."

The Bulls may have been a good team without Pippen, but they were not a great team without him--as we saw during the first part of the 1998 season when Pippen was out of action while recovering from offseason foot surgery. Pippen later told me with pride about his game six contribution, "I was productive. I could have been more productive, could have done a lot more if I had been healthy." Schaeffer declared, "Anybody that would have a notion that Scottie Pippen was a soft player, that is patently absurd. He is as tough a player and as tested of a competitor as anybody I've ever worked with. What he did in game six was extraordinary. I know so many players who would have tapped out without hesitation. He was just going to throw it out there and finish no matter what."

Jordan deserves a lot of credit for scoring 45 points on 15-35 field goal shooting in that 87-86 series-clinching win, but no one should forget Pippen's contributions not only throughout the series and throughout the season, but especially in that last game.

During the locker room celebration, Jordan said, "Now, you all say whatever you want, they can't win until we quit."

Sadly, the Bulls organization had made the decision before the season to quit. They broke up this team for the ages. In Blood on the Horns--perhaps the definitive book-length examination of the Bulls' 1998 season--Roland Lazenby concluded with these words:
Did Krause actually think that he could go back and start all over again? Conjure up all this magic again?

The answer to that lay in a simple, hubris-filled comment the GM made after Jordan hit the shot in Salt Lake City to win the sixth championship. "Jerry and I have done it six times now," Krause told Phil Rosenthal of the Sun-Times.

It was one final sour note on his theme from October. Organizations do win championships.

He was wrong, of course. These were and are Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. Always have been. Always will be.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:13 AM



At Tuesday, May 19, 2020 1:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Krause's side of the story at least deserves consideration, right?: https://nypost.com/2020/05/18/the-last-dance-jerry-krause-wrote-bulls-dynasty-ended-organically/

What do you think of it?

At Tuesday, May 19, 2020 1:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


This is what I think:

1) It is foolish for Krause to say to Jackson that even if Jackson goes 82-0 he will be let go. That statement alone undermines Krause's fairy tale version of events, because Krause had already decided before the 1998 season that he relished the challenge of rebuilding without Jackson, Jordan, and Pippen.

2) Coming back after a second retirement, and playing past his 40th birthday, Jordan was still an All-Star. He was at the peak of his mental game in 1998, and still had a lot left physically. As Jordan has said repeatedly for the past 22 years, he and the team had earned the right to defend what they had until they lost it.

3) The notion that Jackson did not want to return to go after a fourth straight title is silly. Jackson did not want to deal with Krause. If I were Reinsdorf, I would have gotten rid of Krause, and brought everyone else back for 1999. Subsequent events proved that Krause was by far more replaceable than Jordan, Pippen, or Jackson.

4) Why should we believe or trust Krause's revisionist history, and his assessment of the Bulls' chances in 1999? Look at Krause's track record after he ran everyone off: the Bulls instantly became a laughingstock. Krause's fishing buddy Tim Floyd was a lousy NBA coach, and Krause was unable to build a consistent playoff team, let alone a championship contender. It is a lot easier to put parts around Michael Jordan than it is to build a team from the ground up. Krause's post 1998 resume speaks volumes.

At Monday, May 25, 2020 6:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

more to consider, from Sam Smith (https://www.cbssports.com/nba/news/michael-jordan-told-blatant-lie-about-bulls-potential-return-for-seventh-title-says-jordan-rules-author/):

"Jerry says, 'You know, it's a lockout. It might last a while. Just wait, maybe Phil changes his mind. Who knows what's going on, there's no hurry,' " Smith said. "[Jordan says] 'No, I'm done, I'm done. I don't wanna be around these guys anymore. I had to carry us down the stretch. Pippen couldn't play in Game 6 [of the 1998 Finals] because his back was hurt, he's limping around. Dennis is crazy.' If Michael wanted to stay, there was enough team to stay with."

... Smith has been criticized by some (not necessarily on valid grounds), but has he ever been accused of making things up?

At Monday, May 25, 2020 10:35:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Hey David,

Thank you for your extensive review on this very interesting series. I felt like the second half of The Last Dance slipped into the standard Jordan hagiography we've been inundated with for the past 30 years but overall this felt like as intimate of a memoir as we're ever going to possibly get from the man himself.

Jordan the person is a much more interesting and contradictory figure than the any of the hagiography or caricatures allow him to be. In the documentary, we get glimpses of his infamous domineering behind-the-scenes personality during practices and a peek at the sort of adolescent rage and obsessive grudge nursing that seemed to fuel so much of the fire behind his career. We also get to see, however, that he is often capable of great gregariousness and loyalty and humor, such as with his security guard-turned-father figure, Gus. He sometimes seems like a person who's inner life is empty outside of basketball and competition but who can also be rather introverted and thoughtful when pressed. He struck me as a sort of enigmatic person.

One other point that stuck out to me, a topic which you talk a lot about on here, is the media. And Jordan's relationship to it. I thought it was very interesting that the one thing Jordan said he would change if he had to do everything over again, would be his image as a "role model" and the intrusive investigation of his personal life it often encouraged. The media obsessiveness and demands of celebrity often meant that Jordan was quite literally a prisoner of his own fame, unable to leave his hotel room without being set upon by adoring fans or people with ulterior motives and demands. The Jordan we see at the beginning of this series, the college student who asks his mother for stamps in a letter, seems like a very competitive but relatively normal young man. By 1998, he is much more walled off and estranged and media domination of his life seemed to a significant factor in who he became as a person.

Anyway, thank you for your writing as always.

At Tuesday, May 26, 2020 12:48:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I do not think that Smith is a liar. I had some interactions with him back when he was the President of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, and he seems like a good and down to earth person.

That being said, even if what he reported is true regarding Reinsdorf making some late attempt to appease Jordan that does not mean that what I wrote is incorrect.

The quotes in my article from Chicago writers in 1998 make it clear that the "Jerrys" had decided before the 1997-98 season to break up the team even if the team went 82-0. It is that context that explains why Jackson was fed up and wanted a "hiatus." Had Krause not made that ludicrous statement--or had Reinsdorf fired Krause after Krause said such a foolish thing--then keeping the team together would have been a possibility. Reinsdorf's belated gestures to Jordan and Jackson one year after Krause gloated to Jackson that Jackson would be gone are nothing more than an attempt to clean up the public relations mess Krause created.

If Smith knows or has reliable sources that know what Reinsdorf said to Jordan in 1998, that is interesting but does not change the reality that Krause broke up the team prior to the 1997-98 season, and Reinsdorf did nothing to stop Krause. On at least one previous occasion, Reinsdorf had sidestepped Krause and negotiated directly with Jackson, so Reinsdorf could have done that prior to the 1998 season as well.

At Tuesday, May 26, 2020 1:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You're welcome!

I had expected to see more "never before seen" footage from the Last Dance season, but the approach that the director took in terms of melding together 1998 footage with footage from the previous 20 years or so was interesting to watch, and no doubt was designed to provide context for younger viewers. College-age people today were not born or were babies during the Last Dance season, so the 1980s are ancient history to them.


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