The 63-point game against the Celtics. “The Shot.” The dunk from the free-throw line. The steal followed by “The Last Shot.” Six titles to top off a resume full of highlights.
Michael Jordan had a laundry list of memorable moments during his tenure with the Bulls, and it created the perfect basis for a 10-part docuseries on ESPN entitled “The Last Dance,” the title of the team’s final run together in the 1997-1998 season.
With almost 10 full hours of content released over the span of a five-week period, the documentary dominated the sports news cycle. It benefitted from a lack of live sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and hours of continuous coverage on ESPN throughout the weeks leading up to and following each episode’s airing.
While the series brought some of the Bulls’ best moments back to life, it also shed light on some new footage and soundbytes from key cogs in the machine like Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, head coach Phil Jackson and owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
Some memories stick out more than others, like “The Last Shot” or how the documentary showcased each of the team’s six titles, while other clips could fall by the wayside in the long run, like Dennis Rodman’s visual and audible description of his rebounding, or Jordan jamming out to his music on the bus before the NBA Finals began in Utah.
To parse it out, here are the top five highlights from “The Last Dance” in one definitive ranking:
5. Jordan’s title win on Father’s Day
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,” J.A. Adande said. “James [Jordan] 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, Jordan told Rashad that he knew that his father was watching.
A powerful clip shows Jordan crying on the floor under a trainer’s table after the smoke cleared on Game 6, all while holding a basketball. It was one of the highlights from the documentary, which featured numerous moments of real emotion from one of the best basketball players of all time.
That’s how good this documentary was. Even when you know what was coming, one of Jordan’s six title wins, it still hits you in your core because of the mental toll the whole situation had on him.
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.
The documentary as a whole provides new perspective on each of Jordan’s six championships, and the win on Father’s Day stands out as one of the iconic moments in the Bulls’ story. For that, it opens up our list in the fifth spot.
4. Episode 1’s ending, and the establishment of “The Last Dance”
In any kind of storytelling, you can’t have a great tale without a foundation. In this case, the base came at the end of Episode 1, where the term “The Last Dance” truly came to fruition.
Each of the 10 episode endings throughout the series tackled different topics, and served different purposes. Episode 1’s final push focused on the tension that was building up before the 1997-1998 Bulls took the court, and the beginning of Phil Jackson’s metaphors that would dominate the group’s, well, “last dance” in Chicago.
Between the players’ recollection of the team meeting where Jackson handed out notebooks with “The Last ‘Dance’?” on the cover, and Jackson’s explanation of it all in general, it was a great way to ramp up the plot at the start of an in-depth, five-week journey.
It also served as a warning for viewers as they started their 10-episode deep dive in April, with a quote from Bill Wennington sticking out among the rest: “Enjoy what’s happening, because this is it.”
3. Steve Kerr and Michael Jordan’s connection in Episode 9
Arguably the most underrated moment and camera work of the documentary’s entirety came in Episode 9, after Kerr went in-depth on the murder of his father before his NBA career began.
While the story was used to showcase Kerr’s journey en route to his big, game-winning shot in the 1997 NBA Finals, it also showed how similar Jordan was to one of his teammates, and the trust he was able to have with them once he realized they had gone through similar trials and tribulations as he had.
But, the most iconic moment to me as it relates to Kerr doesn’t come during his backstory, or when he hits the shot after Jordan’s assist, or even during his comedic story at the championship parade after the fact. It comes as Kerr describes how proud his father would have been if he could’ve listened to the National Anthem before a Bulls game that Kerr was playing in.
Then, during that quote from Kerr, the episode transitions to June 1997, and viewers are treated to a beautiful shot of Jordan and Kerr listening to the anthem before Game 6 against the Jazz.
Both men were hoping to make their fathers proud after going up 3-2 in the series, just a year after Jordan’s Bulls clinched their fourth title on Father’s Day. But, the shot of Jordan in the background while cameras focused on Kerr before the game was also a great reminder of the two of them going into battle together, rather than just Jordan himself.
It served a few different purposes, and showcased the ability for the documentary to touch on both the sports aspects of the Bulls’ story, and the emotional elements, as well.
2. Episode 10’s “one little spark”
The ending of Episode 10, and “The Last Dance” as a whole, recalled a team meeting that Phil Jackson put together, where he asked his players to write down what the 1997-1998 Bulls team meant to them. Then, they would light the papers on fire in a coffee can.
The most poignant of the players’ responses? A poem from Jordan:
“Thanks for the past, enjoy the moment, and let’s make sure we end it right.”
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. “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.
It was a perfect end to the series that captivated the sports world for five weeks, and it gave people hope, which is what started the journey in Jordan’s eyes.
1. Episode 7’s ending
If “The Last Dance” had ended with Episode 7 with no prior expectation for a full 10-episode run, viewers still would’ve been satisfied with the project as a whole. That’s how good the ending to the series’ seventh installment was.
After building up the tension between Jordan and his teammates due to Number 23’s “win at all costs” mentality, the episode finishes up with Jordan breaking down for the first time in the series.
The documentary’s director showed Jordan the clip of his teammates talking about his mentality, which seems to cut 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 timeout 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.”
It made the whole documentary seem worth it, if anyone was even questioning that piece of it. Rather than serving as a history lesson about how great the Bulls were in the 1990s, it added the first of many emotional elements that made “The Last Dance” what it was: an in-depth look at the minute details that made Jordan’s story so complicated, and so interesting to follow along with.
Had the director put together the entire documentary around how Jordan was as a teammate, and had the series been framed as a Jordan-specific project, Episode 7’s ending would have been the perfect way to wrap it all up. In this case, when narrowing down the highlights of “The Last Dance,” it seems right to let the moment finish it all out.