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‘The Last Dance’ Episode 3 synopsis/review: ‘You don’t put a saddle on a mustang’

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Simply put, Episode 3 of “The Last Dance” can be summarized with two words: Dennis Rodman.

After an earth-shattering first night of ESPN’s critically-acclaimed docuseries on April 19, those working behind the scenes did not disappoint when it came time for the third installment of the event to air. However, it’s tough to disappoint when you’re giving fans almost an hour filled with Dennis Rodman.

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Rodman himself said it best when setting the stage at the beginning of the episode, with one single thought reigning supreme when talking about all of the things people have said about him: “You don’t actually know Dennis Rodman.”

As if that wasn’t enough, the enigma added fuel to the fire with one simple question that will surely give sports talk shows enough content to fill hours of television on the morning after the episode’s original airdate.

“If you take me away from this team, do you still win a championship?” Rodman pondered. “I don’t think so.”

And with that, “The Last Dance” was off and running for the second straight week.

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The hour-long episode dove into a lot of detail on Rodman’s backstory and how he became such a wild card, and, of course, the episode itself was filled with gem after gem.

Highlights include:

  • While there was a lack of enthusiasm and energy on Rodman’s end at first, he eventually became a key cog in the machine amid Scottie Pippen’s absence at the start of the 1997-1998 season.
    • “Dennis hadn’t accepted the role that, Scottie wasn’t going to be around, and ‘We need you to be more accountable,'” Jordan said, highlighting a moment where Rodman was kicked out of a game during the regular season.
    • Rodman realized his mistake, tried to break bread with Jordan, and the Bulls inevitably bounced back from the mess.
    • “From that point on, Dennis was straight as an arrow, and we started to win,” Jordan said. Head coach Phil Jackson echoed similar sentiments, saying “Dennis is what held us together when Scottie was out. We adapt, and we adapt quickly, and we’re off and running.”

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  • Before all of the professional basketball madness, the camera crews get into Rodman’s backstory, flashing back to 1970.
    • “I was fortunate to start picking up a basketball and start playing,” Rodman said.

    • Rodman’s mother drove buses to the local school, and when he was 18, she kicked Rodman out of the house, forcing him to live on the street for two years. 
    • He was eventually drafted in the second round of the 1986 NBA Draft after a successful collegiate career, and landed with the Detroit Pistons.
    • Pistons guard Isiah Thomas said that, while Rodman was an “innocent” and “beautiful” person, he was “a little naive about the world.” However, others knew him as something else.
      • “He was the f***-up person, he just f***s everything up,” Gary Payton said. “He’s a pest. It was always a challenge. He was one of those players that would change the game just by his presence.”
    • His relationship with Chuck Daly, his head coach with the Pistons, helped to turn him into the aggressive defensive star he turned into over time.
      • You don’t put a saddle on a mustang,” Daly once told an assistant coach who was trying to help Rodman at practice.

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  • Just like in the docuseries’ first week, a lot of the focus remained on Michael Jordan and his first few years in the league, despite the attention given to Rodman at the beginning. The common thread between the two players? The Detroit Pistons.
    • The Pistons had the reputation as basketball’s bad boys, and were “the epitome of the physical, tough, hard-nosed brand of half-court basketball,” not caring about the league’s established stars.
    • Meanwhile, the Bulls were beginning a new era, with new head coach Doug Collins at the helm. Collins’ mindset was much different from Daly’s in Detroit, focusing more on a competitive mentality in practice.
    • The Bulls were rapidly improving, and becoming a contender in the Eastern Conference. Michael Jordan was on the rise, and infamously hit “The Shot” to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the 1989 playoffs. 
    • Then, the Bulls met the Pistons for the first time in what would be two consecutive years, losing in both instances. Amid that, Jordan earned the respect of Pistons’ players for surviving the physical nature of every game.
    • “For him to survive that, and still maintain that greatness, it was unparalleled,” Rodman said.

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  • While the Pistons continued their success, Rodman’s career began to take a turn.
    • Rodman took a legally-registered rifle with him to the Pistons’ arena in February 1993, with friends expressing concern for his mental state.
    • “Luckily, I fell asleep, and the cops came and got me,” Rodman said, describing the moments with the gun in the front seat of his car. “I was at a lost place at that time. That time in my life, that was more of a rescue call and a wake-up call.”
    • Rodman was traded to the Spurs that year, and changed his hair color to match Wesley Snipes’ character in the 1993 film, “Demolition Man.” From there, he starts dating Madonna, who tells him not to be “who they tell you they should be.”
    • At the suggestion of assistant general manager Jim Stack, the Bulls took a look at Rodman, and felt that Jordan and Pippen’s leadership could help to right Rodman’s own ship.
    • “Dennis was one of the smartest guys I played with,” Jordan said. “He had no limits in terms of what he does.”

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The fit was there in Chicago, but as things evolved, Rodman required his own sort of attention.

As the 1997-1998 season evolved, Rodman’s role continued to grow. The focus stayed on Pippen’s “holdout” of sorts, and the potential for Jordan to leave the Bulls after the season, while Rodman continued to perform.

But, in January of 1998, Rodman decided to return to the court, and suited up against the Warriors on January 10. Rodman supported the move, dying the number “33” throughout his hair as a sign of solidarity. But, as Pippen returned, Rodman felt he became the third wheel. Then, the pressure got to him.

“It’s not just basketball, it’s the pressure of the bulls—,” Rodman said. “Basketball’s a simple game, but when you leave this confined zone, it’s hard.”

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Amid the drama, Rodman notoriously asked Jackson and Jordan about taking a “vacation,” and the team agreed to give him a 48-hour break from the team. Thus, Rodman flew off to Las Vegas, and wasn’t heard from for days.

“Dennis was bizarre, but I think what made it work was Phil and Michael’s understanding to get the most out of him on the court, you have to give him rope,” Steve Kerr said. “And they gave him a lot of rope.”

It was fascinating to see what led to Rodman’s arrival in Chicago, and how much those behind the scenes pushed back on the idea at first. However, similar to Randy Moss showing up in New England to help the Patriots on the football field, it was the perfect spot for Rodman to highlight his talents and focus on winning.

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The exclusive footage that the documentary is based on really paints Rodman in a unique light, showcasing his relationship with reporters and younger fans before and after games,and the respect and leniency that his teammates had for him.

At the same time, it captures the same version of the NBA legend that fans are used to, and showed the train coming off the rails as many expected it would.

All in all, the Rodman episode met or exceeded many fans’ expectations, and paved the way for a rise in the action for Episode 4 and beyond.

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