“All you needed was one little match to start that whole fire.”
That quote from Michael Jordan in the final moments of “The Last Dance” may be the most important that the Bulls legend said throughout the documentary’s entirety, and rings true for a variety of topics that came through during ESPN’s series finale.
In regards to both the action on the court and everything that happened off of it, Jordan provided a spark that changed the future in so many different ways throughout his tenure in Chicago, and even decades after the fact.
And, in the end, he got everything that he wanted when he began his NBA journey: he turned the team and organization as a whole into a respected program, like the dynasties he looked up to as a child.
But, just like the Bulls and the documentary itself, you can’t just jump to the end right off the bat. You work your way from the start to the finish, and that’s exactly what we’ll do here in this “The Last Dance”-style recap of the series’ last dance on ESPN.
- As many expected, Episode 10 of the documentary hones in on the final series between the Bulls and the Jazz, with the 1998 NBA Finals hanging in the balance.
- The last hour doesn’t jump right into the action on the court like some prior installments did, instead focusing on Jordan and his mentality ahead of the first game in the series.
- While many may be stressed ahead of arguably the biggest NBA Finals of the Bulls’ entire run, Jordan is seen dancing on the team bus with headphones in, and joking with reporters ahead of Game 1.
- “Big downfall for a lot of players is thinking about failure,” author Mark Vancil said. “Michael didn’t allow what we couldn’t control to get inside his head. ‘Why would I think about missing a shot I haven’t taken?'”
- Jordan’s children make their first appearance in the documentary at the start of the last episode, describing the atmosphere in Utah whenever Chicago would make the trip out west.
- “[Their mom] felt like Utah was a little hostile for us as little kids,” one of Jordan’s sons said. “Those games were just crazy.”
- “I remember the fans, so loud,” Jordan’s daughter Jasmine said. “Their screaming was just nonstop, it was brutal.”
- Meanwhile, as the Utah fans went crazy, the city’s players did all they could to avoid the hype.
- “I never said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the Bulls,'” Jazz guard John Stockton said. “I don’t know how you would play against somebody with that.”
- That strategy seemed to work in Game 1 of the series, with the Jazz winning 88-85 in overtime to take a 1-0 series lead. But, the deficit didn’t scare Jordan and the Bulls.
- “Knowing that this is the last dance, trying to muster up the energy to finish this off,” Jordan said. “We didn’t lose focus of what we were trying to achieve.”
- The Bulls wound up winning Game 2 in a 93-88 battle, splitting the two first two games of the series in Utah in the process.
- Things take a turn in numerous ways once the series heads back to Chicago, both for the Jazz and one of the Bulls’ stars, Dennis Rodman.
- “It was a hard-fought series,” Bob Costas said. “Except for Game 3 in Chicago.”
- The Bulls went up 49-31 heading into the half in their first Finals game in Chicago that season, and held the Jazz to just 54 points in the 42-point blowout. Every single Bulls player scored in the process.
- The next day, however, things aren’t all fine and dandy for the Bulls after their big win, with the spotlight turning to Rodman’s absence from practice.
- “Took a detour from playing for the Bulls to become a wrestler with Hulk Hogan,” Carmen Electra said about Rodman’s latest escapade.
- “There are some things worth missing practice for, brother,” Hogan said during an episode of WCW Monday Night Nitro.
- While the media scrutinizes Rodman for skipping out on practice during the NBA Finals, Bulls coach Phil Jackson takes a different approach to the matter. He jokes to his players that “we were dishonored” by Rodman’s disappearance, and says that players beat Rodman with “boffers” before practice upon Rodman’s return.
- “He’s only taking your focus away from the Finals, not ours,” Jackson told reporters during a media scrum ahead of Game 3.
- “They gon’ get the 100 percent when I’m on the court,” Rodman said about the incident, emphasizing his approach to the game and his subsequent life off of the court.
- In a fascinating piece during the final episode, the Bulls’ assistant media relations director highlights the covert operation it took to sneak Rodman past the hundreds of media members who were waiting outside of the team locker room, looking for a quote from the Bulls star.
- Back to the happenings come game time, the Bulls enter Game 4 up 2-1 in the series, while Rodman bounces back in big fashion. He drills clutch free throws late in the fourth quarter, and the Bulls win 86-82 to go up 3-1 in the series, setting up the potential last game for the franchise’s last dance.
- “If this is the last dance, you might as well have it on your own dance floor,” Costas said before the game.
- However, the Jazz go up 80-76 in the last minute of Game 5, creating panic for the Bulls’ players and fans looking to celebrate a sixth championship in their home city. Toni Kukoc hits a clutch three-pointer to make it a one-point game with five seconds left, giving fans hope in the process.
- After Stockton makes a free throw to make it an 83-81 Jazz lead, Jordan throws up a prayer for the win, which winds up being an air-ball.
- The Jazz make it a 3-2 series lead, and send the NBA Finals back to Utah for the Bulls’ last hurrah. Despite the loss, Jordan remains confident about the team’s chances.
- “For 1.1 seconds, everybody was holding their breath, which is kinda cute,” Jordan said after the game, before the documentary shows him playing cards and smoking a cigar on the plane.
- The stage is then set for the finale of the Bulls’ dynasty. The location would be Utah, and the series was in Jordan’s hands to finish out the team’s final season how they wanted to in the first place.
- Before Game 6, cameras catch Scottie Pippen on the trainer’s table with pregame coverage highlighting the back stiffness he had been experiencing during the series. Phil Jackson turns off the TV while Pippen reacts, showing that he had been listening to the media coverage and scrutiny.
- When Game 6 begins, Pippen starts things off with a bang in the form of a dunk. However, he comes down in pain afterwards.
- “I started the game, the first play of the game, I went for a dunk and jammed my back,” Pippen said. “I was done after that. I was telling MJ I couldn’t go no more. I was done.”
- Meanwhile, Jordan and Karl Malone trade barrages of scoring, and the Bulls take a 17-8 lead in the first quarter before Pippen heads to the locker room.
- “When Scottie left, we were just kind of holding on,” Jackson said.
- The Jazz took a 19-18 lead, and Jordan starts to get worn down by the Jazz with Pippen sitting out. Utah takes a 49-45 lead into the half, and Pippen works to see if he “can do something.”
- When the second half starts, Pippen is back into the fray, but mainly serving as a decoy. Simultaneously, Jordan is left to pick up the slack with his teammate struggling.
- “Pippen is barely getting up and down the floor, so I’m taking all the shots, I’m bringing all the energy, and I have very little left in the tank,” Jordan said, as the documentary showcases the fact that he played 34 of the game’s first 36 minutes.
- Fatigue starts to play a factor, with Jordan’s shots coming up short while Pippen continues to go in and out of the locker room.
- Pippen grits it out, with a member of the Bulls’ training staff wondering “how anybody could have a notion that Pippen is a soft player is absolutely absurd.”
- “I know so many players who would’ve tapped out in that situation,” the trainer said.
- As the Bulls go up 74-73 with 6:40 left in the fourth quarter, Jordan has half of the team’s points so far. But, the Bulls find themselves behind with 5:14 to go after Stockton gives the Jazz a three-point lead.
- “Game 6 was going back and forth and back and forth,” David Aldridge said. “And I just didn’t see any way this wasn’t going seven.”
- Stockton gives the Jazz another three-point lead with 41 seconds left, but what followed for the Bulls was something Bob Costas described as “one of the greatest sequences you’ll see in any sport.”
- Jordan drives in for a layup to make it an 86-85 Jazz lead with 37 seconds left, and uses knowledge of a Jazz play design from a few minutes prior to force a turnover on the defensive end.
- “Now I got the ball, and I could see Phil out of the corner of my eye, he wasn’t going to call a timeout,” Jordan said.
- The documentary highlights the incredible reactions from Jordan’s teammates when they saw him get the ball as time began to wind down, and everybody in the building knew what was coming next.
- “He’s gonna shoot this f—er. He’s not gonna pass this damn ball,” Rodman said. “This is his turn.”
- “Get the hell out the way,” Pippen said.
- What happens next is one of the most iconic moments in NBA history, as Jordan crosses up a Jazz defender and drills the Last Shot with 5.2 seconds left to make it an 87-86 Bulls lead. In the process, Jordan reaches 45 points on the night, a symbolic number for his return to the court after his initial retirement.
- “Everybody say I pushed off, bulls—,” Jordan said about the criticisms of the shot. “[The defender’s] energy was going that way, I didn’t have to push him that way.”
- “When he took that shot, you could hear the energy just get sucked out of that building,” Steve Kerr recalled.
- “If that’s the last image of Michael Jordan, how magnificent is it?” Costas said during the game.
- Jordan and the Bulls make one last defensive stop, and the team wins their sixth championship, finishing off their second three-peat, as well. As his teammates celebrate, Jordan holds up six fingers to the crowd.
- “Oh my god, that was beautiful!” Jackson yells to Jordan. “What a finish!”
After the game, Jordan and his teammates celebrate their accomplishment in the locker room, spraying champagne and smoking cigars as the night continues on in Utah. While the team focuses on what just happened on the court, reporters continue to ask about what happens next in the franchise’s future.
“I’m not even gonna think about this,” Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. “Tomorrow morning we’ll worry about everything else.”
Back at the hotel, Jordan and his teammates continue their celebration, with the squad declaring Jordan’s floor the new “smoking floor” as security guard Gus Lett guides him throughout the hotel.
Jordan plays his piano while getting peppered with questions and the flashes of cameras in his hotel room, and gets asked if he’s “got another in ya?”
“Gotta get in the moment and stay here,” Jordan says, joking about staying in a zen-like mindset, ironically serving as a callback to Jackson’s episode earlier in the documentary which highlighted his upbringing and the origin of the coach’s calm demeanor.
At the championship rally, many fans who don’t know the story and are watching the documentary from a fresh perspective likely think things are about to get more vicious towards the team’s management. It’s a moment that was built up throughout the series, focused mainly on the animosity towards Krause.
But, the team’s stars take the high road, praising Krause for his work to build up the organization into a dynasty.
“He deserves the credit because he was the general manager of those teams,” Pippen said decades after the fact. “I played with Phil Jackson, the greatest coach in the game, Michael Jordan, the greatest player in the game. Krause, obviously the greatest general manager in the game.”
Meanwhile, Jordan focuses more on his appreciation for the city at the parade, casting doubt about whether or not the team will be having another parade in a year’s time.
“Nobody knows if we’re gonna be in Grant Park next year,” Jordan said. “But, the one thing I do know, is my heart, my soul, my love is always going to the city of Chicago.”
“No matter what happens, my heart, my soul, my love will still be with the city of Chicago.”
The documentary then details the impact that Jordan and the Bulls had on the basketball world, and the entire world for that matter, during their dominance. Former NBA commissioner David Stern discusses Jordan’s era and its impact on basketball’s reach across the globe, while former President Barack Obama talks about Jordan’s role as an ambassador for both basketball and the United States overseas.
“Michael Jordan and the Bulls changed the culture,” Obama said.
However, that change came to an end following the 1998 NBA Finals. Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf describes how he called Phil Jackson and offered him a chance to come back, an offer that was turned down by Jackson himself.
“Well, I think I should just take a break,” Jackson said. “I don’t think it’d be fair to Jerry.”
The documentary crews showed Jordan the footage of Reinsdorf’s description of what happened and what went wrong, including Reinsdorf’s talk of Krause potentially being able to rebuild the Bulls if Jordan had stuck around following the departures of Pippen, Rodman and Kerr.
“When Phil said it was the ‘Last Dance,’ we knew it was the ‘Last Dance,'” Jordan said. “They could’ve nixed all of it at the beginning of ‘98.”
Jordan then ran through the ultimate “What if?” in sports history, wondering if the Bulls could’ve hit a seventh title the following year.
“We give you a one-year contract and try for number seven? Yes, I would’ve signed for one-year,” Jordan said. “Would Phil have done it? Yes. Pip, you would’ve had to do some convincing. But, Pippen’s not gonna miss out on that.”
“It’s maddening because I felt like we could’ve won seven,” Jordan continued. “I really believe that. We may not have, but not being able to try is just something I cannot accept for whatever reason.”
Jordan’s winning mentality shines through during the description, while Jackson’s approach continues to show up throughout the team’s recollections of the dynasty’s final moments.
Jackson called a team meeting, the true “last dance” for the Bulls dynasty, and asked players to write about what the team meant to them that year, before they would burn the papers in a coffee can.
Kerr and Jackson discussed Jordan’s actions at the meeting, saying that Number 23 decided to write a poem to describe the emotions behind the team’s last season.
“It was a depth of emotion you never thought he had,” Jackson said.
“Thanks for the past, enjoy the moment, and let’s make sure we end it right,” Jordan said.
Following up on a dominant topic throughout the documentary’s airing, the poem served as a notice and reminder to teammates about how much they meant to Jordan and his success.
“That day showed his compassion and empathy for all of us,” Kerr said.
Then, as all of the players put their writings into the can, Jackson turned off all of the lights in the room and lit a fire inside of the coffee can.
“One of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen,” Kerr said about the moment.
The metaphor rang true throughout the final quotes from Jordan at the end of the documentary, accompanied by the numerous highlights from the team’s stars throughout the run. Jordan’s shots, Pippen’s play, Rodman’s antics, Jackson’s coaching and everything in between.
“My passion on the basketball should’ve been infectious, because that’s how I tried to play,” Jordan said, mirroring the quote that led to him breaking down at the end of Episode 7. “Started with hope.”
“Went from a s—ty team to one of the all-time best dynasties,” Jordan continued. “All you needed was one little match to start that whole fire.”
That last quote from Jordan’s recollection of the dynasty was the most important of them all. It was literal in the sense of the final moment Jackson created for the team, with an actual fire at the center of it. It was metaphorical for Jordan’s rise in the game, the Bulls’ ability to skyrocket into NBA lore, and Jordan pushing his teammates to be the best players they could be.
It also served as a way for the documentary to go back to a fateful quote from the beginning of the documentary, where Jordan expresses his desire to turn the Bulls into a respected and successful organization. And, in the long run, a dynasty.
The quote symbolizes Jordan making his dreams come true in the best way possible for both him and those around him, and highlights the story told throughout the 10-part documentary.
Sure, it was tough at times for both Jordan and anyone associated with him throughout the decades highlighted in the documentary. But, it showed how one man’s spark can change lives, and proved that the whole series was more about Jordan than the Bulls themselves.
That’s not a bad thing, and it just showed Jordan’s impact on the game as a whole, both for his team and the league. Without Jordan, the Bulls don’t do what they did. Without Jordan, this documentary doesn’t happen. Without Jordan, the “What if?” debates don’t even happen.
He was a spark that created a true fire that was the sport of basketball as a star-creator, and the world needed 10 hours to hear his story in full, and all of the moving parts around it.
It was a perfect end to a documentary that captivated the sports world for five weeks, and gave people hope, which is what started the journey in Jordan’s eyes.
While the episode likely could’ve ended on a better final screen than the descriptions of what went down that following summer, and could’ve benefited from that description coming before the description of Jackson’s coffee can moment, it still ended the documentary on a good foot.
It was a happier ending than the breakdown that came with Jordan’s description of his mindset at the end of Episode 7, and wrapped up the story with more closure than any other ending could.
It was like a script written for a movie, but it really happened. And, it played out in documentary form perfectly, which is a credit to the director and crew that made it all possible.
For that, “The Last Dance” will go down as one of the best sports stories of all time. Break.