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‘The Last Dance’ Episode 9 synopsis/review: ‘Some can, some can’t’

The Last Dance Flu Game

After four action-filled weeks, “The Last Dance” reached its final night of episode premieres on May 17, 2020, and showcased exactly why the Chicago Bulls are known as one of the sports world’s all-time great dynasties.

Before the documentary’s last hour, Episode 9 packed some serious punch, and hit fans right in the feels with some moments they may not have known about when it comes to Michael Jordan and his Bulls teammates in the 1990s.

At the same time, the series’ ninth installment continued to add onto a trend that was showcased through the first eight episodes: Number 23 was not one you want to mess with, not one you want to provoke, and not one you want to see in the sport’s biggest moments during its biggest games.

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Through the rollercoaster of an episode that seemed like an even split between the action on the court and the happenings off of it, certain parts stuck out among the rest when looking back at the entire hour after the fact.

Highlights include: 

  • The Pacers went down as one of Jordan and the Bulls’ greatest challenges in the 1990s, and they brought out a fiery Jordan that helped him further his legacy as one of basketball’s greatest players.
    • The episode starts with a game between the Bulls and Pacers in February of 1993, with a young Reggie Miller and Michael Jordan fighting on the court.
    • Jordan looks on at the clip on a tablet during the documentary, narrating by saying, “Don’t hold ’em back, let ’em go.”
    • “Most people feared Michael Jordan, and rightfully so,” Miller said. “But I didn’t fear him like the rest of the league did, and we had to lock horns quite a bit.”
    • Flashing forward to April of 1998, and the documentary shows just how long that animosity on the court lasted, with Jordan and Miller barking back and forth after the former threw a ball at Miller’s teammate, Mark Jackson.
    • Miller discusses Jordan’s verbal abilities from their battles against each other, and called Jordan “one of the best trash talkers in the game,” before diving in on a story of a young Miller and a prime version of Jordan.

    • After Miller acted tough against Jordan while the Bulls star was struggling, Jordan bounced back in a big way, and led the Bulls to victory. As Jordan walked to the locker room, he stopped and told Miller, “Don’t ever talk trash to black Jesus.”

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  • After the introduction on Jordan’s chirping ability, the documentary highlights the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, the first time the Bulls and Pacers met in the playoffs during any of Jordan’s runs.
    • That was my first year coaching, and it was our best opportunity, I thought, to win a championship,” then-Pacers head coach Larry Bird said.
    • The Bulls recalled the Pacers as the “hardest playoff series we had,” and Jordan described the emotional impact the rivalry had, saying “it became personal with me.”

    • The Bulls went on to win Game 1 by six points, and dominate Game 2 in another six-point win, with Jordan dropping 41 points on the night he received his fifth league MVP trophy.
    • “Back to the drawing board,” Miller told reporters after the game, before meeting with Jordan behind the curtain and the two saying they “knew [the series would be a fight] coming in.”
    • As the series went back to Indiana, Miller’s confidence reached its peak, and the Pacers pulled out a 107-105 win at home. Even after trimming the series deficit to just one game, however, Miller knew better than to make any promises about the future.
    • Chicago’s never going to go away,” Miller said. “As long as that black cat is out there, anything’s possible.”
    • In what Bob Costas described as the “most memorable game” of the series, the Pacers and Bulls went back and forth in Game 4 with the fate of the series on the line. If the Bulls win, the Pacers face a 3-1 series deficit. A Pacers win evens the series and makes the Bulls’ “last dance” a lot more interesting.
    • The Bulls go up one point with 6.4 seconds left tin the game, and Scottie Pippen comes up with a big steal.
    • “I was so upset that I felt, ‘Is this going to be it? Are they going to be up 3-1?'” Miller said. “Can’t go out like this.”

    • Miller decided to “put all the pressure on the official to make a call” as he “lightly shoved [Jordan] a little bit” on what turned out to be the game-winning shot.
    • “The rest was history,” Miller said.
    • With .6 seconds left, the Bulls get one last shot, and Jordan’s last-ditch attempt rims out of the basket to even the series at two games apiece.
    • “Still gotta come through Chicago,” Jordan said.

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  • As the documentary shifts back to June of 1997, the episode begins to highlight the first of the NBA Finals battles between the Bulls and the Jazz, the first Finals appearance in the latter’s franchise history.
    • The Bulls were coming off a 69-win regular season, while the Jazz had the newly-crowned league MVP in Karl Malone, which Jordan said was his biggest motivation factor heading into the series.
    • “That fueled the fire,” Jordan said. “‘Okay, you think he’s the MVP,  good for him.”

    • “So we knew immediately where this was going,” David Aldridge said.
    • In Game 1, the Bulls and Jazz were tied at 82 apiece with 7.5 seconds left, and Utah matched up Bryon Russell with Jordan for the final stretch.
    • “It doesn’t get any tougher than Michael,” Stockton said after praising Russell’s defensive abilities.
    • Jordan recalled a story of Russell talking trash during Jordan’s baseball career, implying that Jordan retired when he knew that Russell could guard him on the basketball court.
    • “‘Man why you quittin? Why you quittin? You know I could guard your ass, I couldn’t wait, you had to quit,'” Jordan recalled Russell saying. “From that point on, he’s been on my list.”
    • Jordan wound up hitting the game-winner, taking advantage of the knowledge that Russell played on his toes when guarding defensively.
    • The Bulls take Game 2 in a 97-85 blowout, but the Jazz make the series a different story once the series heads back to Utah, winning by 11 points on a 37-point performance from Malone.
    • In Game 4, the Jazz win 78-73 to tie the series, and Utah has a chance to take a series lead before heading back to Chicago for Game 6.
    • Before Game 5, Jordan gets hungry at the hotel late at night, and his crew orders a pizza to take care of his cravings ahead of gameday. But, five people end up delivering the pizza to Jordan’s hotel, much to the chagrin of his trainer.
    • “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” trainer Tim Grover said.
    • “I wake up about 2:30, throwing up left and right,” Jordan recalled. “It really wasn’t the ‘Flu Game.’ It was food poisoning.”

    • Jordan decides to play in Game 5, the infamous “Flu Game,” and the Bulls go down 36-24 in the second quarter.
    • “He was in pretty bad shape, but a lot of times when you’re sick, you’re able to find something deep down inside that you don’t know is there,” Pippen said. “I think it was one of those games he wanted to win so badly that he stayed with it.”
    • The game becomes tied with less than a minute left, and Jordan misses a key free throw that could give his team the lead. But, he gets his own rebound and drills a three-pointer to give the Bulls a 90-88 victory. Jordan played 44 minutes and wound up with 38 points.
    • “He had shown that no matter how sick he was, he’s still the best player in the world,” Pippen said.

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  • Jordan’s intensity is a trend throughout the documentary, but his ability to trust his teammates shines through in the Bulls’ biggest moments, even if the NBA Finals is the stage.
    • “My innate personality is to win at all costs. If I have to do it myself, I’ll do it,” Jordan said before explaining how his teammates stepped up for him. “Other guys really expanded their games.”
    • One name that really sticks out in Bulls lore, especially when it comes to underrated players, is Steve Kerr. While many current fans know him for his successes and three titles as the coach of the Warriors, others know him for his clutch shots in a Bulls uniform.
    • “There were guys who were sort of over-achievers,” Kerr said. “I’m sure [Jordan] looked at me as an over-achiever.”
    • The episode transitions to Kerr’s backstory, highlighting the minimal recruiting and hype there was as it related to his game in high school and college.
    • He recalled watching the Bulls in the early parts of the dynasty, and John Paxson’s success when Jordan would pass him the ball in big moments.
    • “John was my guy,” Kerr said. “I kept thinking, ‘That’s the spot I need to be.'”
    • While Jordan and Kerr weren’t similar when it comes to their talents on the court, their family backstories were like looking in a mirror. While the documentary discussed Jordan’s father being murdered in an earlier episode, the ninth hour of the series talks about Kerr’s own father’s murder.
    • “We never discussed that,” Kerr said. “I think it was probably too painful for each of us.”
    • Kerr’s father was a professor, and mother became a professor after her tenure as a full-time mother. His family moved to Beirut, and his father became the president of the American University of Beirut after the then-president was kidnapped and went missing.
    • “It was a realization of a dream, but didn’t last that long,” Kerr’s mother said.
    • While Kerr was a student-athlete at the University of Arizona in 1984, his father was shot and killed after getting off of an elevator before a meeting.
    • “Basketball was the one thing I could do to take my mind off what happened,” Kerr said. “I went to practice the next day, I didn’t know what else to do.”

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  • After Kerr’s description of how proud his father would have been while listening to the National Anthem if he had been able to go to a Bulls game, the documentary flashes forward to June 1997. Viewers are treated to a beautiful shot of Jordan and Kerr listening to the anthem before Game 6 against the Jazz, with both hoping to make their fathers proud after going up 3-2 in the series.
    • “The ultimate trust from Michael comes in the playoffs if you come through,” Kerr said. “I think he respected me because he knew I fought.”
    • “I hadn’t performed very well in the Finals,” Kerr said. “I was struggling, and I was so hard on myself. As a role player, I’d get five shots a game. So every shot took on way too much importance.”
    • The Bulls went up 86-83 late in the game despite Kerr’s struggles in the series, and the Jazz tied things up with less than two minutes to go.
    • With a few seconds left, the Bulls call a timeout to strategize ahead of a big-time shot, which many figured would be taken by Jordan.
    • “Michael knew what was coming,” Kerr said. “He mumbled something like, ‘Hey Steve, hey Steve, be ready.'”
    • “I know that they’re gonna double team me,” Jordan recalled. “Steve’s gonna be open.”

    • Kerr winds up getting an open look, and drains the shot to give the Bulls a late lead. The Jazz turn the ball over on an important inbound following the shot, and Toni Kukoc takes it to the house to give the Bulls a 90-86 win, and their fifth NBA Finals trophy in the process.
    • “Steve Kerr earned his wings,” Jordan said. “I’m very happy for Steve.”

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Back to 1998, the Bulls and Pacers split Game 5 and Game 6, setting up the Bulls’ second Game 7 during any of their championship runs. Then, the question starts to set in: Could this be Michael Jordan’s last game?

Bob Costas described the thought that many believed the end of the dynasty would come at the hands of a suit, before setting things up with a powerful proposal.

“Would be more closure and more justice if it happened on the floor,” he said.

Before the action, the documentary gets into the story about Jordan’s appreciation for his security team, singling out a guard by the name of Gus Lett.

“Security guys. I knew that the maturity I gathered from them would help me make sound decisions,” Jordan said before talking about Lett’s impact on his life.

“He was a great protector for me,” Jordan continued. “When my father got killed, he became like a father figure to me.”

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Lett wound up getting sick, and his wife recalled Jordan being an important factor in the family getting Lett checked out.

“When Gus got sick, Michael’s the first one to notice him being sick,” Lett’s wife said. “Gus is diagnosed with lung cancer, and Michael’s there.”

So, when Game 7, or in Jordan’s words, “nut crunchin’ time,” rolled around, Number 23 brought Lett in for some emotional support.

He was an inspiration for me,” Jordan said. “I wanted to win this game for Gus.”

Before the game, Jordan and friend/reporter Ahmad Rashad talk about the high stakes of the upcoming moment, and Rashad passes on some words of wisdom, which he gave Jordan in a variety of ways throughout the documentary.

“Some can, some can’t,” he said. “That’s just the way it is.”

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In Game 7, Jordan proved that he could, fighting back from a 12-point deficit in the first quarter before tying the game in the second. In the process, Jordan became the NBA’s all-time leading postseason scorer.

Then, the Pacers bounced back, taking a 76-74 lead in the fourth quarter, bringing that creeping doubt back into the minds of fans around Chicago.

“The thought ran through my mind, ‘Man, this could be it,'” Kerr said.

Kerr wound up playing another pivotal role in the team’s final title run, with a jump ball helping to seal his reputation with the Bulls.

While Rik Smits smacked the jump ball away from Jordan, Pippen wound up with the ball before finding Kerr for a clutch three-pointer that tied the game.

“Steve Kerr hit the biggest shot of that series,” Miller said. “It changed everything.”

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From that moment on, the Bulls didn’t look back, winning Game 7 by five points to advance to their third straight NBA Finals.

“We had the better team, but championship DNA and championship experience really rose to the forefront in Game 7 for Chicago,” Miller said.

Jordan gave the game ball to Lett, embraced all of his teammates and Phil Jackson in the locker room, and said “that’s the hardest we worked in 13 years.” Meanwhile, he tells Lett that he knew he had to bring in “the ace in the hole” to win that game.

The ninth episode could arguably be summed up as the best of the whole 10-part series, with the seventh episode likely coming in second place if there was a podium.

It snuck up on fans, who may have been more focused on how the series would end, the analysis of the infamous “Last Shot” and final hurrah against the Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals.

It drove home the emotions that the documentary possessed, and began the crescendo that drove home the realization that Jordan cared for his teammates more than many people realized.

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It furthered the feature on some of Jordan’s more underrated teammates, and the trust that he built with them en route to some of the biggest moments in his career. Sure, he drove those teammates nuts in practice and created chaos at times, but the episode proved the love that he had for them all, and his ability to put the team over himself when “nut crunchin’ time” came around.

Just like the episode, that thought creeps up on the viewer throughout the documentary, especially since the whole series builds up Jordan’s reputation as the “tough guy” on the court at Bulls practices.

And, just like the documentary as a whole, the episode creeps up on you with that hard-hitting, emotional and personal story that hits a viewer in their core and makes them realize they relate more to an athlete than they may have realized.

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Everybody experiences a loss, and goes through tough times in life no matter what path they choose to go down. But, just like Jordan, Kerr, or even a security guard like Lett, it’s about turning a negative into a positive and using that adversity to create change.

Episode 7 turned the adversity that Jordan’s teammates faced into a positive to showcase how much Jordan cared for the game, and Episode 9 showcased just how much the game of basketball can give back to you during the most trying times.

At the same time, it stuck to its purpose, and set everything up perfectly for the curtain call: Jordan and the Bulls’ last dance with the Jazz.

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