Sports fans deprived of actual game action got something to talk about Sunday evening, with ESPN’s release of the first two parts of its highly anticipated documentary “The Last Dance.” Originally scheduled to air in conjunction with the NBA Finals in June, the network accelerated post-production editing when the National Basketball Association and other major sports leagues shut down in March, releasing the series early to capitalize on viewer interest during the sports hiatus. (Disclosure: The author owns a small block of shares in ESPN parent company Disney.)
The series chronicles the Chicago Bulls’ sixth (and most recent) NBA championship during the 1997-98 season. The documentary itself has its own long history, stemming from in-depth and never-before-seen recordings by NBA cameras during that season. To obtain that footage from a dedicated league camera crew, the then-head of NBA Entertainment and now league commissioner Adam Silver promised Bulls star guard Michael Jordan control over all the tapes those cameras captured. A documentary project couldn’t proceed without Jordan’s blessing, which Jordan did not deliver until 2016.
The end result: a 10-hour project with a unique perspective that grants a new look at Jordan’s final season with the Bulls, as he and his teammates attempt to cap their decade-long dynasty with a sixth crown.
Microcosm of Larger Themes
In one sense, the series does not carry the weighty subject matter of another lengthy ESPN documentary, the 2016 project “OJ: Made in America.” That five-part series explored O.J. Simpson’s life, football career, and murder trial in the context of race in Los Angeles and nationwide.
But “The Last Dance” touches on important topics that permeate American culture, exploring the American cult of celebrity, particularly as it developed around Jordan. One of the most well-known and highly marketed people on the entire planet, Jordan, like few other athletes — Tiger Woods, Babe Ruth, and Muhammad Ali come to mind — transcended both his own sport and his own country.
In episode one, Oprah Winfrey introduces Jordan on her program by calling him “the most famous man on the planet.” A team trip to Paris just prior to the start of the 1997-98 season proves the point, with the superstar besieged by mobs of fans. As Jordan prepares to go on a French television show, a production assistant hooks up his wireless microphone and then proceeds to ask for an autograph. Jordan’s handlers shoo the man away.
‘Win at All Costs’ Mindset
The series also explores competition and the drive to win. Not just one of the NBA’s all-time great players, Jordan also stands as one of its great competitors — with a lust to excel, win, and dominate opponents.
In a revealing interview for the documentary, Jordan explained the roots of what he described as a “win at all costs” mentality. The fourth of five children, Jordan felt his father favored his older brother Larry. Competing with and ultimately beating Larry at basketball, which prompted repeated physical confrontations between the two brothers, gave the younger of the two his sense of identity and self-worth.
Of course, winning does have its costs. This month, he admitted in interviews his worry that “The Last Dance” will make people think he’s “a horrible guy” for riding his teammates so harshly: “When people see this footage, I’m not sure they’re going to be able to understand why I was so intense, why I did the things I did, why I acted the way I acted, and why I said the things I said.”
“The Last Dance” provides vivid evidence of Jordan’s competitive fire. In one practice during the fall of 1997, he told teammate Toni Kukoc that “I got to scream at you all day” to perform. By that point, Kukoc had played professional basketball for over a decade and was widely considered Europe’s best player prior to joining the Bulls. Yet when Jordan felt Kukoc had failed to measure up to Jordan’s standards, he treated him like an untalented scrub.
All About the Money
“The Last Dance” also delves deeply into the financial element of the game. While most professional athletes take up their chosen sports due to their love for the game and a desire to compete, monetary considerations always lurk in the background — particularly for a franchise as prominent as the Chicago Bulls.
In June 1997, as he basked in the glow of the Bulls’ fifth championship, Jordan said at a postgame press conference that the team’s players deserved the chance to defend their crown the following season:
We are entitled to defend what we have until we lose it. If we lose it, then you look at it and you say, “OK, let’s change.”… Rebuilding? No one is guaranteeing rebuilding is going to be two or three, four, five years. The [Chicago] Cubs have been rebuilding for 42 years. [Laughter] … If you want to look at this from a business thing, have a sense of respect for the people who have laid the groundwork, so that you could be a profitable organization.
If anything, Jordan’s comments actually underestimated the nature of rebuilding. He claimed Chicago’s baseball franchise had spent 42 years rebuilding, but in reality, the Cubs had last made the World Series in 1945 — 52 years prior to his remarks. And the Bulls have yet to reach the NBA Finals, let alone win a championship, since Jordan left the team at the end of the 1997-98 season.
But Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ general manager, had other ideas. An aging team meant Krause wanted to trade away the team’s assets while they still had value. But ownership overruled him, with principal owner Jerry Reinsdorf leaving the existing team intact for the 1997-98 season.
However, Krause would only re-sign coach Phil Jackson to a one-year contract extension, claiming that even an undefeated 1997-98 season would not cause him to return as the Bulls’ coach. With Jackson going into his last season — and Jordan unwilling to play for any coach other than Jackson — the campaign took on a sense of valedictory from the start. Jackson’s playbook for the year called 1997-98 “The Last Dance,” the origin of the documentary’s title.
But the valedictory almost never came to fruition. As episode two explores, the other Hall of Famer throughout the Bulls’ championship runs, Scottie Pippen, came into the 1997-98 season deeply unhappy.
Six years earlier, Pippen had signed a seven-year, $18 million contract. In an interview for the documentary, Reinsdorf claimed he told Pippen at the time he thought the lengthy contract unwise. But the player, who came from a hardscrabble Arkansas upbringing and saw both his father and a brother paralyzed during his youth, felt the need to lock in a long-term deal to provide certainty for his family.
The gush of cash that flowed into the NBA in the 1990s — prompted in no small part by the success of Jordan and the Bulls — soon made Pippin’s contract obsolete. One of a handful of top players in the league, he nevertheless ranked 122nd in salary by 1997-98. Having told Pippen his deal was unwise, Reinsdorf refused to renegotiate it. The combination of low pay and Krause’s attempts to trade him left Pippen furious.
Just before the start of the season, Pippen underwent surgery on his foot, injured the prior spring. The star could have had the surgery in June, immediately after the 1997 NBA Finals. Instead, he waited, largely to thumb his nose at the Bulls’ management over their treatment of him.
As episode two ends, the Bulls’ season gets off to a rocky start, with a series of losses and the team struggling to find a rhythm without Pippen. In late November, the star delivered a bombshell, demanding a trade and claiming he would never play for the Bulls again.
True champions must almost always overcome adversity. “The Last Dance” shows how the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls had to overcome adversity — both on and off the court — in spades to win their sixth and final championship.
Episodes one and two of “The Last Dance” will re-air on ESPN and are available on Netflix. Episodes three and four will air next Sunday at 9 p.m. EST, with further episodes airing the following three Sundays.