After a dramatic seventh episode, “The Last Dance” kept the red-hot pace rolling as it moved into Episode 8, the series’ third-to-last episode.
While Episode 7 featured a short and sweet introduction, a singular quote from a disgruntled Jerry Krause during a press conference, Episode 8 got right into the action on the court: the Bulls’ 1998 series against the Charlotte Hornets and former Bulls teammate, B.J. Armstrong.
“The Bulls were a far superior team, and they knew it,” Armstrong said of the historic 1997-1998 Bulls.
But, after a 13-point win by the Bulls in Game 1, Armstrong still felt confident heading into Game 2, given his knowledge of the team from his tenure in Chicago.
“I felt I knew that system as well as anybody, and I knew how to beat them,” Armstrong said. “I was excited to play them in the playoffs, knowing what I know about the Bulls, knowing what I know about Michael. I just had a moment, and in that moment, I knew what to do.”
The Hornets won Game 2 by two points, but unfortunately for Charlotte, the win ignited a spark in arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan.
“I felt like BJ should know better,” Jordan said. “I’m supposed to kill this guy, I’m supposed to dominate this guy. And from that point on, I did.”
It was a classic start to the installment, and got things off on the right foot from the jump. Then, the deep psychological dive into Jordan and the Bulls kept on rolling, with key information shining throughout.
But, while the docuseries’ fourth night was jam-packed with sports gold, it was still important to keep things in perspective and pinpoint what stood out when Episode 8 rolled around.
- The mental battle inside of Michael Jordan’s head, including his need to create rivalries for himself, showcased just how much went into the creation of the league’s arguable G.O.A.T.
- “Michael holds himself to such a high level,” Mark Vancil, author of “Rare Air” said. “He constructed reasons to play hard that night.”
- That mentality was evident in the infamous “LaBradford Smith game,” which came after a young star for the Washington Bullets named LaBradford Smith dropped 37 points against Jordan, on a night where Jordan couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat.
- Jordan said that Smith told him, “Nice game, Mike” after the battle, and Jordan used the quote as motivation heading into the second night of the two teams’ back-to-back games that season.
- “In the first half, I’m gonna have what this kid had in a game,’ Armstrong recalled Jordan saying ahead of night two between the Bulls and Bullets.
- Jordan ended up scoring 36 points in the first half, and finished with 47 points in the 25-point win for the Bulls.
- Decades later, Jordan confirmed that the “Nice game, Mike” quote was never even said, and that Jordan himself made it up as motivation.
- “There’s nothing he would not do to get himself to the place where he’s going to beat you,” ESPN’s Michael Wilbon said.
- That mindset drove Jordan to succeed in that series against Armstrong’s Hornets, and the Bulls wound up winning in five games, sending the Hornets home in dominating fashion.
- Flashing back to 1995, the documentary highlights the infamous strike during the MLB season, and the league’s decision to utilize replacement players during the major leaguers’ absence. While the baseball world remained up in the air, “His Airness” returned to the court in the most Jordan way possible.
- The league asked Jordan to cross the picket line during the strike to get his chance to play in the major league, but the former Bulls star said he wouldn’t do it, and instead walked out of White Sox camp.
- While he stayed away from the baseball diamond, Jordan called Armstrong (during Armstrong’s tenure with the Bulls) and asked if the two could meet for breakfast. That meal turned into Armstrong convincing Jordan to come greet his former teammates at Bulls practice, and inevitably created an itch to return.
- “I could feel something different was happening that day,” Bulls forward Jud Buechler said.
- As media members went into a frenzy about the potential for Jordan to come back, the basketball legend began to wonder about a return to the game.
- “It started to come in mind to maybe go back, maybe go back,” Jordan said, even recalling Scottie Pippen putting Jordan’s shoes on television during a game to tell his former teammate to return to the court.
- Finally, Jordan decided it was time to get back into basketball. He informed his manager, David Falk, who tried his best to craft a statement to capture Jordan’s emotions about the return.
- “He just didn’t feel comfortable that it captured what he wanted to say,” Falk said, before explaining that he told Jordan to make up his own statement to say what he wanted.
- That statement infamously featured just two words: “I’m back.”
- On March 19, 1995, Jordan returned to the Bulls in a game against the Pacers. But, everything had changed. Jordan’s mentality, the players around him, and even the number on his jersey.
- The game served as Jordan’s first without his father around to support him, causing some emotional stress on the then-three-time NBA champion.
- “I was nervous, cause I hadn’t played competitive in a long time,” Jordan said. “I just felt naked because my father wasn’t there.”
- “I think that brought James’ death back to life for him,” Andrea Kremer said.
- Steve Kerr recalled that “the air was thick with anticipation and anxiety,” describing the night as having an NBA Finals-like feel to it.
- “It was an emotional moment,” Kerr said. “There he was, he was back.”
- But, this wasn’t the same Michael Jordan who was pivotal in the Bulls’ three championships in the early 1990s. It was a Jordan donning the number 45, and one that struggled out of the gate to get back to his scoring ways.
- He finished the night with just 19 points after starting the game 0-for-6, and even had his shorts on backwards to begin his return. Add in the changes in his body from his transition from basketball training to baseball workouts, and it was a new ballgame for Jordan.
- “I was very unsure that he could perform at the level he was accustomed to performing on a regular basis,” Jordan’s trainer said.
- Jordan quickly got back on track after his return, hitting a game-winning shot to down the Hawks in the regular season.
- “When he came back, we were full power again,” Bulls coach Phil Jackson said. “We were off and running.”
- In his return to Madison Square Garden against the Knicks, Jordan dropped 55 points in the infamous “Double Nickel Game.” But, he couldn’t replicate the magic throughout the entirety of the Bulls’ playoff series against…the Orlando Magic.
- “I felt great about that year,” Jordan’s former teammate Horace Grant, a star for the Magic that season, said. “We had some great young players in Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Nick Anderson, and I knew Michael. He was still working himself back into condition.”
- In Game 1, Jordan gets stripped of the ball from behind on a clutch play by Magic guard Nick Anderson, and the Bulls guard even throws away a potential final shot that could’ve saved the Bulls’ chances. Instead, Chicago went down 1-0 in the series, and Number 45 got ribbed as a result.
- “Nick Anderson said, ‘It was like 45 isn’t 23,'” Grant recalled. “Oh, man.”
- In Game 2, Jordan made the switch back to his infamous old number, and the Bulls won 104-94 on Jordan’s 38 points.
- “It just felt like 45 wasn’t natural,” Jordan said. “I wanted to go back to the feeling I had with 23.”
- Despite the stellar performance in Game 2, many questioned whether or not Jordan had the legs to last a full playoff series against a team like the Magic. That turned out to be true, as the Magic won Game 3 by nine points and Game 5 by eight points to go up 3-2 in the series.
- In Game 6, Jordan airballs a shot in the final minutes, and Anderson winds up hitting a go-ahead jumper to give the Magic a 103-102 win, clinching the series in the process.
- “That was one of Michael’s lowest points,” Ahmad Rashad said. “He hated the fact that Horace was on the other team and they beat him. He used that for that next year.”
- “The night they lost to Orlando, I said, ‘Michael, I’m about to get out of here. Let me know when you want me to see you.'” Jordan’s trainer recalled, before Jordan said, “‘I’ll see you tomorrow.'”
- As Jordan transitioned to shooting “Space Jam” in the summer of 1995, he used the opportunity to get a step ahead on the competition.
- Jordan asked for a facility on set to be used for his training during the summer ahead of the 1995-1996 season. Warner Bros. approved the request.
- “It was like a professional facility,” Space Jam director Joe Pytka said.
- Jordan would spend his days working a hectic schedule. He’d shoot for Space Jam, work on the court, exercise with his trainer, and even play pick-up games with NBA stars like Reggie Miller, Patrick Ewing, Dennis Rodman and more.
- “I spent 15 months turning my body into a baseball body,” Jordan said. “I had to reconstruct my whole body, which is hard.”
- “I don’t know how he filmed all day and still had the energy to play three hours [of pick-up games],” Reggie Miller said. “This dude was like a vampire for real.”
- Once the 1995-1996 season got underway, Jordan was ready to get back on the court in the most vicious way possible, much to the chagrin of some of his teammates.
- “By the time camp started, he was in incredible shape, but he was also frothing at the mouth,” Steve Kerr said. “Every day at training camp was a war, every day was a battle.”
- Jordan and Kerr each recalled a specific practice where the two were matched up together, and the animosity continued to grow on both sides.
- “I’m pissed, because we’re getting our asses kicked,” Kerr said.
- As Phil Jackson tried to intervene by calling more fouls to make the game less physical, Jordan became more and more upset, and used the opportunity to create a real foul with actual punches.
- “He started calling these ticky-tack fouls,” Jordan said. “Next time he did, I hauled off.”
- “Kerr snaps,” Jordan recalled. “He hauls off and hits me in the chest, and I haul off and hit him right in the f—ing eye. And Phil just throws me right out of practice.”
- The two talked it out after the fact and Jordan apologized, and Kerr said “it was probably, in a weird way, the best thing I ever did.”
- “He earned my respect,” Jordan said. “He wasn’t willing to back down and be a pawn in this whole process.”
- “It was like, ‘Alright, we got that out of the way, we’re going into war together,'” Kerr said.
- The 1995-1996 Bulls took off, winning a record 72 regular-season games with the usual core of Jordan and Pippen, and the addition of Dennis Rodman to the equation.
- They continued their dominance with a sweep of the Heat in the first round of the playoffs, and a 4-1 series win against the Knicks in the conference semifinals. Then, it was time for a rematch with the Magic.
- “They needed a rebounder, they needed a defensive stopper, and that’s what Dennis did,” Grant said. “We didn’t have a chance.”
- The Bulls swept the Magic to advance to the 1996 NBA Finals, as Jordan focused on a new matchup with Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and the Supersonics.
“This is viewed as the greatest mismatch in NBA Finals history,” NBC Sports’ Bob Costas said on the air before the series began.
Jordan recalled a dinner he had the night before the NBA Finals, and how Supersonics head coach George Karl, an old friend of Jordan’s, decided to not greet the Bulls star at the restaurant ahead of the series.
“It’s a crock of s—,” Jordan said. “That’s all I needed. It became personal with me.”
Jordan’s Bulls used the motivation to rattle off big wins to start the series, taking Game 1 in a 17-point win on Jordan’s 28 points, Game 2 by four points on Jordan’s 29, and Game 3 by 22 points on Jordan’s 38.
Karl hadn’t matched up Payton, a defensive superstar, on Jordan yet in the series, however, and Payton decided to wear down the Bulls star to get the Supersonics back in the series.
“Jordan’s not like he used to be,” Payton said before the game. “I think my best bet is to really get him tired.”
The strategy must have worked, as the Supersonics won by 21 in Game 4, and 11 in Game 5.
“Gary did about as good a job as you can expect guarding Michael,” J.A. Adande said.
As Payton praised his defense in the documentary, Jordan laughed as he looked on at the clips on an iPad during an interview. When Payton says “the series changed” as a result of his defense, Jordan’s eyes almost bulge out of his head.
“I had no problem with ‘The Glove,'” Jordan said. “I had no problem with Gary Payton.”
On Father’s Day, just a few years after his father’s murder, Jordan had the chance to put the 1996 NBA Finals away, with the potential to win his first title without his dad by his side.
“The importance of his father to him was huge,” Adande said. “James was always there on those moments.”
The Bulls wound up winning the game by 12 points, clinching the series in six games as a result. As the emotion poured over him during a postgame interview, he told Rashad that he knew that his father was watching.
A clip shows Jordan crying on the floor under a trainer’s table after the smoke cleared on Game 6, all while holding a basketball.
The documentary then flashes forward to May in 1998, almost two years later, with a different mood surrounding the Bulls and their current title push during the team’s “last dance.”
Jordan’s in the locker room before Game 1 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers, and the rumblings about the Bulls’ potential last run continue to send shockwaves throughout the media.
“We all look at the Bulls as the standard model of success,” Pacers star Reggie Miller said. “They were considered the best at that time. We felt, I felt to this day that we were the better team.”
“I think a perfect storm was brewing,” Miller continued in the episode’s final quote. “In my mind, I was thinking, this is it, you’re going to retire Michael Jordan.”
The episode ended in near-perfect fashion, building up like the climax of a movie that’s about to reach its final act. The pivotal moments in a storied, successful career that many are speculating about as it relates to its end. A new antagonist enters the fray, and the doubt starts to creep in about the future of the protagonist Bulls.
Most fans watching the documentary know how the story ends, especially considering the previous information that the past seven episodes had tossed around. But, viewers still feel that intensity while watching, and everyone who has been following along from the start is hooked.
That’s the power of a stellar story, and the art of storytelling as a whole. Even when you know that the good guys are going to come in and pull out a hard-fought victory, your heart rate starts to increase, and there are still thoughts about what could happen if things go awry.
In this case, it could be thought of as a “What if?” What if Reggie Miller and the Pacers found a way to take down the Bulls in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals? What if that pushed Jordan to come back to right his wrong and make up for the lost second three-peat? What if it changed the course of the basketball world as we know it?
That’s how good this documentary is. Even when you know what’s coming, it still hits you in your core, and showcases true emotion.
You feel the weight on Jordan’s shoulders as he navigates a tough Father’s Day while trying to clinch a championship.
You feel the relief when he’s crying under a trainer’s table after winning that title.
You feel as if you’re part of the team when they’re battling an upstart Pacers franchise with a young star.
It was a solid episode to set up the final night of “The Last Dance,” and capped off the best night of the series’ airing on ESPN so far.