“It must be the shoes.”
Every episode of “The Last Dance” through the docuseries’ first four episodes had a specific theme: Episode 1 was the Michael Jordan episode. Episode 2 showcased Scottie Pippen. Episode 3 handled the unique personality that encapsulates Dennis Rodman, and Episode 4 was sneakily a way to highlight head coach Phil Jackson’s best traits.
Episode 5 brought the main spotlight back to Jordan throughout, but in a unique way. It wasn’t just Jordan, it was his impact on the world through his shoes.
The installment went into detail about Jordan’s connection with his footwear, and the makings of an infamous Nike deal that helped to turn him into a star, and transform the brand itself into a powerhouse.
As usual, the episode was packed with a lot of insight and in-depth elements about Jordan’s rise and the Bulls’ “last dance,” but certain things stuck out among the rest.
- Jordan’s impact on the game from a talent perspective was obvious, but his influence on other players may have been even more important.
- The episode starts with clips from the 1998 NBA All-Star Game, which many speculated to be Jordan’s last as the 1997-1998 season’s drama hit its stride. It highlights Jordan’s connection with Madison Square Garden, and showcases his relationship with a certain 19-year-old star, Kobe Bryant.
- As the Lakers youngster began to take the league by storm, many wondered what his role could be when squaring off with Jordan throughout the game.
- “Can’t forget the king is on the court,” the media said in the buildup.
- Meanwhile, Jordan took to his usual competitive spirit, promising to “make this a one-on-one game.” He did just that, beating Bryant in the post and giving him lessons in the process.
- It was a rough couple of years coming into the league, nobody was really thinking much of me,” Bryant said in an interview before his passing. “At that point, Michael provided a lot of guidance for me. ‘If you ever need anything, give me a call.’ He’s like my big brother.”
- “I truly hate having discussions about who would win one-on-one,” Bryant continued. “I feel like, ‘Yo, what you get from me is from him.’ I don’t get five championships [in Los Angeles] without him.”
- Fittingly, Jordan tells Bryant that he’ll see him “down the road” as the two embraced after the game, sparking a friendship that would last decades.
- If Jordan had his way, he would’ve signed with adidas. Instead, he landed with Nike, and changed the shoe game as fans know it.
- After the introduction, viewers got a glimpse of Jordan talking about playing in an old pair of Jordan 1’s in what many believed would be his last game at Madison Square Garden in 1998. He initially broke them out in 1984, and decided to bring them back 14 years later.
- The documentary flashes back. to that time in 1984, with agent David Falk talking about the contract negotiations with different companies like Converse, adidas and Nike.
- Falk’s company represented tennis star Arthur Ashe, and wanted to turn Jordan into a one-man superstar like a golfer, tennis player or boxer. So, the very first deal Falk went after was shoes.
- They initially went to Converse, the NBA’s official shoe sponsor, but the company said that they “couldn’t envision” Jordan ending up ahead of the brand’s stars in Magic Johnson, Julius Erving, Isiah Thomas and Larry Bird.
- Then, Jordan’s team went to his preferred choice, adidas, who said they “can’t make a shoe work at this point in time.”
- Finally, the upstart Nike brand got its turn, but Jordan showed no interest and didn’t want to visit their campus After Falk called Jordan’s mother, the young gun changed course and made the trip, receiving a huge offer in the process.
- As a result, Air Jordan’s were created, and the company hoped Jordan could help them sell three million shoes by the end of the fourth year on his contract. Instead, he sold more than 120 million by the end of the deal’s first year.
- “It was more of a status symbol,” Nas said. “You knew this guy was the guy.”
- Nike used Spike Lee to create Jordan’s commercials, and the brand suddenly crossed urban culture with sports, even coining the phrase, “It must be the shoes,” in the process.
- “What I did on the basketball court, my dedication to the game led to all this other stuff,” Jordan said. “My game did all my talking.”
- Flashing back to 1998, Jordan goes off in his old shoes, and the media decides to dust off that old phrase, too: “It must be the shoes.”
- As the Bulls started to become a successful franchise, the expectations began to rise. So, after they won their first title in 1991, the pressure kept them moving towards a repeat, and even a three-peat.
- Fortunately for the Bulls, they may have had their best team of the dynasty when the 1991-1992 season rolled around. According to ESPN analyst Michael Wilbon, that was exactly the case.
- At the same time, Jordan was hitting his peak, and teammates were starting to recognize that he was simply on another level.
- “He knew how to steer momentum, he knew how to get guys going,” B.J. Armstrong said. “He was just playing a different game than the rest of us. Once he figured that out, you couldn’t beat him.”
- Chicago squared off with the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals, pitting two great superstars against one another: Jordan and Clyde Drexler. Unfortunately, Jordan wasn’t pleased about that phrasing.
- “Me being compared to him, I took offense to that,” Jordan said. “Based on where I was playing at the time, it wasn’t even close.”
- Conversations with Magic Johnson the night before the battle showed how determined Jordan truly was, and even led to some barking from Jordan towards Johnson’s media table court-side during the game. As a result, fans got to see the origins of Jordan’s infamous shrug.
- The Bulls went on to win the series in six games, giving Chicago their second straight championship. Meanwhile, Jerry Krause celebrated the “great” and “all-time” organization,” while subtly praising the team.
- After the 1992 NBA Finals, questions began to come in about the 1992 Summer Olympics. Then, the “Dream Team” was formed, uniting some of basketball’s all-time greats on one squad.
- The drama between Isiah Thomas took centerstage as the team’s stars were chosen, and the fingers continued to be pointed at Jordan due to the animosity between the Bulls and Thomas’ Pistons.
- “Guy who you’re talking about or thinking about isn’t going to be playing,” one coach told Jordan when the latter asked, “Who’s all playing?” on the team.
- I respect Isiah Thomas’ talent,” Jordan said in the documentary after clips showed him not wanting to talk about Thomas in interviews ahead of the Olympics. “To me, the greatest point guard of all time is Magic Johnson. Right behind him is Isiah.”
- “I don’t know what went into that process,” Thomas said in the docuseries. “I met the criteria to be selected, but I wasn’t.”
- “It was the best harmony,” Jordan said when describing the collective “Dream Team” unit. “Would Isiah have made a different feeling on that team? Yes.”
- Wilbon described the tension between numerous players and Thomas, rather than just Jordan’s sourness towards the Pistons legend. “They did not want to play with him,” Wilbon said. “Everybody put it on Michael. There was a lot more to it than that.”
- When the field was finally set, Jordan was joined by the likes of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and many more familiar foes from the NBA. As a result, Jordan felt he was the “young guy with the elder statesmen.”
- Jordan, Johnson and Barkley reminisced about a practice the team had with “Team Magic” and “Team Jordan,” battling back and forth. As Johnson’s team took a lead and the Lakers legend started to talk trash, he told Jordan that he needed “to turn into ‘Air Jordan’ or we’ll blow you out.”
- “Man, what did I say that for?” Johnson said, as highlights showed Jordan’s team bouncing back and taking a quick lead before taking the inevitable W in the game.
- “Hey Charles, I guess we shouldn’t have pissed the man off,” Johnson said.
- The drama between the Bulls and general manager Jerry Krause leaked into the “Dream Team” atmosphere, coming to a boiling point as it related to Croatian star Toni Kukoc.
- “Toni’s certainly an outstanding young prospect, and certainly an outstanding young man,” Krause said in an interview in the 1990s.
- As things at home in a war-torn environment escalated, Kukoc decided to play a few more years in Europe before heading to the NBA. As that happened, Krause traveled to watch him play, and negotiated with Kukoc while Pippen’s deal was on hold.
- “He’s willing to put someone in front of his actual kids,” Jordan said.
- So, Jordan and Pippen took it to the young Kukoc in the Olympics, asking teammates to only let the two of them cover him during a U.S.-Croatia game.
- “I feel bad for Toni, and I thought Michael and Scottie were out of line,” Wilbon said. “He was terrified.”
- “It wasn’t anything personal about Toni, but we were going to do everything we could to make Jerry look bad,” Pippen said.
- In the gold medal game between Croatia and the U.S., Kukoc came back and impressed his future teammates, but the “Dream Team” was too much for Kukoc’s squad, and Jordan and company took home gold medals in the process.
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- While Jordan rose to meteoric levels as a result of the 1992 NBA Finals and Summer Olympics, the spotlight began to create some problems, especially as it relates to the politics of sports.
- When the “Dream Team” won, Executive Director of the United States Olympic Committee Harvey Schiller said that players who didn’t wear the Reebok-sponsored U.S. outfits couldn’t accept gold medals. Jordan, a Nike athlete, responded by saying everyone was “in for a big f—ing surprise.”
- While Jordan wore the sweatsuit, he covered the Reebok logo with the American flag, sending a message to Schiller and Reebok in the process.
- As the basketball world focused on “selling Americana” after the “Dream Team” won the Summer Games, according to current NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Jordan turned into a global superstar. And, a “Be Like Mike” Gatorade commercial changed the game for the Bulls star.
- At the same time, politics entered the equation on Jordan’s end, creating some problems in the process.
- “A lot of times, America is very quick to embrace a Michael Jordan or Oprah Winfrey or Barack Obama, so long as it’s understood you don’t get controversial,” President Barack Obama said.
- When African American Democrat Harvey Gantt launched a U.S. Senatorial campaign in North Carolina in 1990, Jordan was not willing to endorse or support the candidate, saying that, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
- Jordan lost credibility with the African American community as a result, as fans compared what he did against Muhammed Ali’s activism during his successful boxing career.
- “I do commend Muhammed Ali for standing up for what he believed in, but I never thought of myself as an activist, I thought of myself as a basketball player,” Jordan said. “The way I go about my life is I set examples, and if it inspires you then great. If it doesn’t, then maybe I’m not the person you should be following.”
Despite the controversy, Jordan’s star kept shining brighter, and as the drama built up for the 1997-1998 season, all eyes were on number 23 and the boys in red, black and white.
Ticket sales were through the roof for the Bulls’ “last dance,” and season tickets sold out entirely within two hours of going on sale. A game between the Bulls and Hawks had more than 60,000 fans in attendance at the Georgia Dome, and celebrities would try their hardest to get tickets to see Jordan’s Bulls.
“I wanna be like Mike, also,” 49ers legend Jerry Rice said at one game.
At the same time, celebrities wanted to see if Jordan’s basketball career was nearing its end, even drawing comparisons to comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
“The show of the 90s, the team of the 90s, and I’m trying to make quitting the move of the 90’s,” Seinfeld jokingly said. “Let the new people in.”
Jordan talks about wanting to finish the 1997-1998 season right, and ending the episode on a high note by talking about pursuing one last championship.
“When you get to the top, it’s great to be admired and respected,” Jordan said. “But every time I would get by myself, I’d think about the end of the season.”
“There’s something at the end of this rainbow that I’m fighting for, and I’m going to get to it.”
The episode succeeded in its attempt to tackle a lot of different topics in one hour at the peak of the docuseries’ 10-part run, highlighting Jordan’s relationship with Kobe Bryant, his high-profile rise through the creation of the Air Jordan’s, the success of the “Dream Team,” and even the drama surrounding his political opinions and controversies.
It didn’t shy away from anything, and set the tone for a high-tension sixth episode that begins the downfall of the Bulls’ dynasty. It’s a rollercoaster of a documentary, and it appears that the fifth episode is where things hit their peak before the coaster’s cars begin their downward descent into the series’ last few parts.