At long last and amid an unprecedented postponement of the NBA’s regular season, basketball fans were finally treated to the premiere of “The Last Dance” on ESPN, getting an all-access look into the Chicago Bulls’ infamous 1998 season.
After some pressure on social media for an expedited release from an initial June target date, ESPN pulled the trigger to take advantage of potential increased viewership due to the COVID-19 quarantine measures, airing the first two episodes on April 19.
In the end, viewers were not left disappointed by the docuseries’ unfiltered beginning, and started their five-week journey on a high note.
Expectedly, the first of the 10 episodes focused on the man himself: Michael Jordan.
The whole series starts with a shot of Jordan staring out of the window at his home and into the sunset, while the footage shifts to the Bulls entering the 1997-1998 season.
Entering the 1997-1998 season, the Bulls had won five titles in seven years, “but as they sought their second three-peat, the future of the dynasty was in doubt.”
The episode provides a flashback to the moment the Bulls drafted Jordan in 1984, and the future Bulls legend saying the team would be champions by the time he left.
“I just want the franchise and the Chicago Bulls to be respected as a team,” Jordan said, talking about the desire to turn the Bulls into a powerhouse. “It’s not impossible, but hopefully I, and this team, can build a program like that.”
In rapid fire, the highlights of the Bulls’ franchise flash across the screen, with the team winning their first title in 1991, beating the Trail Blazers in 1992 as Jordan infamously shrugs, and John Paxson’s three-pointer giving them their first three-peat in 1993.
Then, the spotlight turns to the franchise’s stars, as the documentary officially introduces Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Phil Jackson.
The Bulls win the NBA Finals in 1996, and the focus is completely on Jordan. His likeness fills up murals in cities, and his name consistently shows up in the conversation around the world.
“I guess what’s unique is we’ve got Mike,” Steve Kerr said.
Chicago then takes down the Jazz in 1997, and turns their focus to another three-peat. But, that’s where things take a turn, and truly get interesting.
Jerry Reinsdorf, the team’s owner, realizes the rest of the team around Jordan was likely at the end of their highly-productive years, and figure it was time to plan for a rebuild rather than a sixth championship.
“Kept hearing this over and over again, and I was just getting irritated,” Jordan said. “Like, we were winning.”
After the title win in 1997, Jordan was asked about the future at the post-game press conference. His thoughts were very clear.
“We’re entitled to defend what we have until we lose it,” Jordan said.
“Have a sense of respect for the people who have laid the groundworks.”
As it became more clear that the 1997-1998 season would be the group’s last, the Bulls granted exclusive and unprecedented access to a camera crew to film the dynasty’s final year.
That’s where the journey gets juicy. In fact, it’s so juicy that, with almost 10 hours of footage, there’s almost too much to cover. To help whittle it all down, let’s take a look at some of the details that truly stood out among the rest.
- The animosity felt by Jordan, Pippen, Jackson and the rest of the team as it relates to the franchise’s higher-ups, specifically general manager Jerry Krause. While many still gave credit to Krause for building the dynasty in the first place, a lot of resentment remained about the fact that he was a factor in tearing it down, as well.
- The quote going around at the time from Krause was that “Organizations win titles, not players and coaches.” While Krause said the quote was worded incorrectly, he later clarified that,”One part can’t win it alone,” which didn’t seem to fix any issues.
- The anger continued to boil over on Jordan’s end, with the basketball icon even resorting to insults, like jokes about Krause’s height and weight, to belittle and berate his general manager.
- Jordan’s desire to keep Jackson in the picture as his head coach.
- “If Phil’s not coaching, I’m not going to be a part of rebuilding,” Jordan said. “I have choices, and I will not choose to play for another coach.”
- Jackson talked about Krause wanting a clean slate, and said “there was no chance for reconciliation.”
- Reinsdorf brought up the “tremendous regard” he had for Jackson, both personally and professionally, but said that Krause’s presence was “counterproductive.”
- “I don’t care if you win 82 games in a row, this will be your last year,” Krause told Jackson after the latter signed a one-year deal for a final season with the Bulls.
- Jordan and the Bulls’ presence in Paris, France, and the impact that trip had on his mentality.
- “I think he was wearing a beret because he’s Michael,” former NBA commissioner David Stern said.
- “You don’t have to be a connoisseur to know the greatest basketball player of all time,” went Jordan’s introduction before a French talk show interview. “The person who is the closest to a god on Earth. Michael ‘Air’ Jordan!”
- As Pippen sat out due to an injury and Rodman held out, Jordan took charge of the team in France, and going off even in another country. Then, when the team was excited about winning a trophy, Jordan’s focus was: “It don’t count.”
- “Phil, keep it,” Jordan said of the trophy. “Don’t let Jerry get it.
- Jordan’s journey to the NBA after his rise at the University of North Carolina.
- One of the better moments of the episode was the camera crew’s interview with Jordan’s mother, Deloris. She reads a letter that Jordan sent home during his college days, letting her know that he had “only 20 dollars left” and apologizing about the phone bill. “Please also send me some stamps.”
- While Jordan was “inconsistent as a freshman,” Roy Williams said he continued to improve in his quest to become the greatest player in UNC history.
- “He wanted to learn, he wanted to grow quickly. “Once he got something, and added to the raw talent he already had, it was really explosive to see,” Williams said. “Michael Jordan’s the only player that could ever turn it on and off, and he never freaking turned it off.”
- That mindset let to Jordan becoming the third overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, which Jordan entered at the recommendation of his collegiate head coach, Dean Smith.
- The early days as a Bull, and the challenges he faced:
- He was knocked for his height by players like Walt Frazier and Mark Eaton, with the latter saying you “can’t expect one guy to turn it all around.”
- Jordan’s teammates weren’t great influences, sticking with a partying mentality. Number 23 laughed at a quote calling the Bulls a “traveling cocaine circus,” and said, “Guys were doing things that I didn’t see. Things I had never seen in my life as a young kid. You got your lines over here, weed smokers over here, women over here.” Meanwhile, he was “looking to get rest, get up and go play.”
- The laundry list of iconic outside interviews the documentary’s crew managed to land, including, but not limited to:
- Former NBA commissioner David Stern
- “Former Chicago resident” Barack Obama
- “UNC Assistant” and Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams
- Georgetown alum and Knicks legend Patrick Ewing
- Former Lakers head coach Pat Riley
- Legendary sportscaster Ahmad Rashad
- NBC’s Bob Costas
- ESPN analyst Michael Wilbon
In the end, the episode began to focus on the idea that this really was the team’s last year as their usual unit. So, Jackson continued a trend that he utilized as a head coach throughout his time in Chicago: he found a theme.
“Typical Phil fashion, he had a name for it,” Kerr said.
At the team’s first meeting as a group, Jackson handed out laminated notebooks with a key message plastered on them.
“Laminated on the front page: Last Dance,” Bill Wennington said. “That whole meeting was, ‘enjoy what’s happening, because this is it.'”
The episode ends with the team’s fifth championship ring ceremony, which features Krause getting booed by the crowd and ridiculed by Jordan and players, while the team’s stars and head coach run out to receive their hardware and get started on their blitz for number six.
The first of the docuseries’ 10 episodes didn’t disappoint after all of the hype surrounding the entire project, especially considering the expedited timeline that forced it all to release almost two months ahead of schedule.
It was a slow burn, going back to the early days to capture the rise of Jordan and his prominence in the whole story. It gives all of the necessary details, while still providing the new perspectives with exclusive, never-before-seen footage to keep things fresh and entertaining.
All in all, it’s everything a Bulls fan, or basketball connoisseur in general, would want it to be and more, and it sets the stage for something special that will pan out over the course of nine more monumental episodes.
If the whole series can keep up with the chaotic and rapid-fire pace, fans are in for a real treat that will keep them entertained for weeks to come.