If Episode 6 of “The Last Dance” planted the seed of doubt about Michael Jordan’s future before his first retirement from basketball, then Episode 7 showed the full growth of that seed into the flower that was his decision to step away from the sport in his prime.
In the second-to-last night of the docuseries’ airing on ESPN, “The Last Dance” took a turn into emotional territory, and tackled a laundry list of topics that struck a chord throughout Jordan’s career with the Bulls. The murder of Jordan’s father, the rocky relationship he had with teammates throughout his career, and everything in between.
It was the first installment of the series to truly make Jordan break, both literally and figuratively.
“Break,” Jordan told the production crews as ESPN finished airing Episode 7, all after Jordan showed some raw emotion in front of the cameras.
While there was a lot to unpack in the fourth hour of the docuseries’ fourth night, there certainly were topics that stuck out among the rest.
- As the Bulls looked to end their “last dance” with a championship run in the 1998 playoffs, parallels were made to the struggles Jordan faced in the lead-up to his first retirement in 1993.
- Before the playoffs began, Bulls general manager Jerry Krause was irked by a question from a reporter that implied he and the team’s management had “backstabbed” the Bulls’ players and coaches.
- “First of all, there’s no backstabbing going on here, okay?” Krause said in the opening part of his answer before he abruptly walked out of the press conference.
- Meanwhile, the Bulls remained focus on the task at hand, their opening round series against the Nets.
- “You can kick [the regular season] aside, and the playoffs is the playoffs,” Jordan said. “To be able to play against the best competition, that was the driving force for me, without a doubt.”
- However, the underdog Nets took a big lead to start Game 1, and forced the Bulls to work for their first win of the postseason. While Chicago won by 3 in a tightly-contested, overtime battle, fans and media members began to worry about the state of the Bulls.
- “He kind of looked like the Michael Jordan of 1993,” Hannah Storm said.
- The episode flashed back to the storylines of 1993, which would dominate the rest of the hour and launch the series into an emotional topic: James Jordan’s murder.
- As Jordan’s Bulls won the NBA Finals to give Chicago a three-peat, Jordan and his father, James, thought about the fact that it appeared to be Number 23’s last game in a Bulls uniform.
- “He was my rock, we were very close,” Jordan said about his father. “He constantly gave me advice.”
- “He’s a voice of reason that always drove and challenged me,” Jordan said, comparing his father to a friend.
- The episode takes a turn from the positives to the negatives, when James Jordan didn’t show up to a charity event on July 23, 1993. As Jordan’s family thought that James may have just gotten sidetracked, worries started to grow.
- “I knew something wasn’t right,” Michael Jordan’s brother Larry said about his father’s disappearance.
- Jordan’s father was missing for three weeks, and his car had been found stripped down in North Carolina. Then, on August 13, 1993, his body was found in a creek near the border of North Carolina and South Carolina. He had been shot once in the chest, and two 18-year-old men were charged with murder.
- “That’s just such a horrible, hard thing to talk about,” Ahmad Rashad said.
- As Jordan reminisced about his father’s funeral two days after James’ body was found, he recalled the advice his mother gave the family at the time.
- ““It was about support, we had to support each other,” Jordan said. “My mother was so strong, the first thing she says, ‘You’ve gotta be thankful.'”
- “You have to take a negative and turn it into a positive,” Jordan said. “I started looking at the other side of it. That helped me get through it.”
- The attention on the story, and angles that reporters took, further amplified the impact that media members had on Jordan’s career, and life as a whole. The Bulls star was tied to the murder in the newspapers, with his gambling ties popping up as a potential thread.
- “That was really bad, that was really unfair,” reporter Sam Smith said. “That was really cheap shot stuff.”
- “It was the people that were tired of me being on top,” Jordan said.
- The wheels about Jordan’s retirement began to turn even more following his father’s death, and “His Airness” decided to ride off into the sunset while he was at the top of his game.
- “I fulfilled my responsibility to the city, the Bulls, to my teammates,” Jordan said. “I have no more challenges, I have no motivation, I was done.”
- “You’re denying a gift to society, but I understand,” Bulls coach Phil Jackson said when describing what he told Jordan during the duo’s meeting in the summer of 1993.
- As Jordan went to throw out the first pitch at an American League Championship Series game on October 5 between the Chicago White Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, the news leaker about Jordan’s decision.
- “That game was on a Tuesday, I wanted to hold the story until Wednesday, but it leaked out,” Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf said. “All hell broke out at the ballpark on a Tuesday night.”
- The following day, Jordan and the Bulls held a press conference at the Berto Center in Illinois, and Jordan announced his departure from the world of basketball.
- “The word retire means you can do anything you want from this day on,” Jordan said, even leaving the potential for a return to the sport. “I’m not going to close that door.”
- “Seismic, where were you when you heard the news moment,” Andrea Kremer said. “And you immediately think, ‘Why?’ Nobody could rationalize that Michael would just walk away.”
- While some media members and others around the league wondered if Jordan had been suspended by the league for possible gambling-related issues, and even theorized about a potential cover-up by Jordan, commissioner David Stern and others in the NBA, all parties involved crushed the rumors as best as they could.
- “Ridiculous, no basis and fact,” Stern said, while Jordan explained that his father had just passed and he “needed a break.”
- That break turned into a stint in the world of baseball, as Jordan joined the White Sox organization with its Double-A affiliate.
- In 1994, Jordan drills with the White Sox, and is given an invite to a major league camp in Sarasota, Florida.
- Reinsdorf, the Bulls (and White Sox) owner, continued to pay Jordan as a Bull during his tenure with the White Sox, saying that Jordan was underpaid throughout his career.
- “He loves baseball, and his father always wanted him to play baseball,” Rashad said, while Jordan explained how his father told him to “do it” when the two debated about a future in baseball.
- The media frenzy surrounding Jordan’s baseball career forced the organization to send Jordan to the Double-A affiliate, solely for the press facilities.
- “You can’t believe the commotion, the excitement,” Kremer said about Jordan’s presence in Birmingham, Alabama with the Birmingham Barons.
- Jordan started his baseball career with a 13-game hitting streak, but his work at the plate quickly diminished, and media outlets began to discredit his work.
- “They came out to critique me without understanding what my passion was at the time,” Jordan said, specifically referencing a Sports Illustrated piece that led to him not talking to SI reporters in the future.
- Jordan’s work ethic continue to shine through during his time in baseball, with his endless training starting to pay off.
- “My opinion, with 1500 at-bats, he would’ve found a way to get to the major leagues,” then-Barons manager Terry Francona said.
- “I was this big icon, but they treated me just as I wanted to be treated,” Jordan said. “Just one of the guys.”
- Flash forward to April of 1998, after the rough start against the Nets, and the documentary begins to highlight Jordan’s vicious presence at Bulls’ practices.
- “Every time we would play good and we were winning games, everything was okay,” Toni Kukoc said. “But everyone was always on alert around Michael after a game like that.”
- “’If you can’t handle pressure from me, you’re not going to be able to handle the pressure of the NBA playoffs,'” Steve Kerr said about Jordan’s mentality at practices. “He went at guys, he challenged guys.”
- “I’d have to talk a little bit about toning it down and making amends,” Jackson said.
- “My mentality was to go out and win, at any cost,” Jordan said.
- Teammates talked about Jordan’s “fear factor,” and described the Bulls legend as an “a–hole,” and a jerk who “crossed the line numerous times.” Despite all of that, he was still labeled a “hell of a teammate.”
- “Only he can achieve those goals,” former teammate Scott Burrell said about Jordan’s expectations. “He can push other guys to get there though.”
- Back to 1993, viewers get a glimpse at the Bulls in an era without Jordan, and the ups-and-downs that came with that run.
- Jackson describes the time as a “great opportunity for ballplayers who wanted larger roles on this team to step up and fill some shoes,” while Scottie Pippen explains that “basketball goes on.”
- Somehow, the Bulls still succeeded sans Jordan in the 1993-1994 season, even advancing to the playoffs in the process. However, they go down 2-0 in a series against the Knicks, and drama surrounds the team.
- In a tied Game 3 with just a few seconds left, Jackson draws up a play for Kukoc to shoot a potential game-winner, much to Pippen’s chagrin.
- “I felt like it was an insult coming from Phil,” Pippen explained. “I was the most dangerous guy on our team, so why are you asking me to take the ball out?”
- Pippen takes himself out of the game, but the machine keeps moving, and Jackson’s play design leads to a game-winner from Kukoc to make it a 2-1 series lead for the Knicks. But, the damage was done, and Pippen’s character was questioned, despite his apology after the fact.
- “He quit on us, and we couldn’t believe that happened,” Kerr said. “It was devastating.”
- “Pippen knows better than that,” Jordan said.
- The series moves to a pivotal Game 7, but the Knicks pick up a seven-point victory to send the Bulls packing.
Finally, the episode moves back to 1998, highlighting the buildup to Game 2 after a disappointing performance from the Bulls to open the series.
Alas, the Bulls get back into a groove, winning Game 2 by five points and Game 3 by 15 to pull off the sweep. Meanwhile, Burrell, who was Jordan’s practice pupil (or practice victim), scores 23 points as the star of the night.
“We all know Michael’s tenacious when he’s on the court,” Burrell said, before footage from the locker room shows Jordan taking the time to talk to Burrell’s former UConn teammates, sign autographs for Burrell’s friends and even joke around in the process.
“He couldn’t have been nice,” B.J. Armstrong said. “With that kind of mentality he had, he couldn’t be a nice guy. He would be difficult to be around if you didn’t love the game of basketball.”
The documentary’s director shows Jordan the clip of his teammates talking about his mentality, which seems to hit the legend deep emotionally. Then, Jordan goes with a bit of a defensive approach to justify his actions from his days at practice.
“Winning has a price, and leadership has a price,” Jordan said. “So I pull people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenge people when they don’t want to be challenged.”
“You ask all my teammates, ‘The one thing about MJ, he never asked me to do something that he didn’t f—ing do.'”
Jordan starts to tear up as his guard continues to rise, and before he tells the cameras that he needs a break from filming, he ends the episode with one final explanation.
“I’m only doing it because it is who I am,” Jordan said. “That’s how I played the game, that was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.”
Those who had seen the episode beforehand, like ESPN’s own Scott Van Pelt, speculated that the whole series could’ve ended with Episode 7, given the emotion that the hour brought to the table.
It was real. It was raw. It was everything that “The Last Dance” was supposed to be about, if not even more.
It showed Jordan in every way that people see him. A hell of a teammate, but one that took things a bit too far at times. Someone who wanted so badly for his team to succeed, but a player who was willing to go the extra mile at times to make it happen.
It brought out the man who loved the game so much, but knew when he needed to step away to make things right, even if it meant sacrificing days in the prime of his career.
It tackled the tough situation of Jordan’s father being murdered, and the struggles Jordan went through as it related to his reputation both on the court and off of it, too.
It was storytelling in its finest form, and truly could’ve been a finale if it needed to be. And, had the episode ended with Jordan’s Bulls winning the 1998 NBA Finals and him riding off into the sunset for a second time, it very much could’ve been the “last dance” for “The Last Dance.”
It was must-see television for any fan of basketball history, and continued in the documentary’s efforts to set the stage for the series’ true finale in just a few episodes.