Like symphonies, dances often have distinct movements and phases that meld into a larger story. “The Last Dance,” the 10-part ESPN documentary examining the Chicago Bulls’ 1990s dynasty, proved no exception.
As the series ended last week, Michael Jordan faced significant obstacles as the Bulls attempted to win their sixth National Basketball Association title. Forward Scottie Pippen, frustrated with General Manager Jerry Krause, waited until just before the season started to undergo surgery, making him unavailable for the first half of the 1997-98 season.
With Pippen out and the Bulls struggling to stay above .500 in his absence, Jordan needed to rely on the unorthodox intensity of small forward Dennis Rodman. But Rodman, the subject of his own ESPN documentary last year, continued to exhibit the flamboyance, and petulance, that gave perpetual fodder to the tabloids and frequent grief to Coach Phil Jackson.
Doubters Question Jordan
Rodman’s arrival Chicago in October 1995 transformed a nemesis in an earlier phase of Jordan’s career into an ally in his last years as a Bull. Upon joining the NBA in 1984, Jordan established himself as a scoring phenom and revitalized a heretofore moribund Bulls franchise. When episode one chronicled the way Jordan led the Bulls to a thrilling come-from-behind victory in his third game with the team, the archival footage showed thousands of empty seats in the old Chicago Stadium—tangible evidence that few had taken interest in the franchise since its 1967 founding.
Jordan quickly changed all that. His 63-point performance in April 1986 in the Boston Garden—still the all-time record for points in an NBA playoff game—established him as the dominant scorer of his era. Celtics superstar and eventual Hall-of-Famer Larry Bird called the performance he witnessed “God, disguised as Michael Jordan.”
Yet for five long years thereafter, Jordan became known as the superstar who “couldn’t win the Big One”—a talented scorer, perhaps, but a ball-hog, one who had yet to lead his team to an NBA championship. Episodes three and four of the documentary series chronicle that era in Bulls history, during which Jordan hit “The Shot” over Cleveland’s Craig Ehlo that won a 1989 playoff series for the Bulls.
‘Bad Boy’ Pistons
For most of those five years, the Detroit Pistons, including his eventual teammate Rodman, presented the prime obstacle between Jordan and his elusive title. Between Rodman, power forwards Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer, and point guard Isiah Thomas, the Pistons gained the “Bad Boys” nickname for a reason: Their physical play intimidated opponents.
Former Washington Post columnist and lifelong Bulls fan Michael Wilbon still calls those Piston teams “loathsome;” in the documentary, Bulls forward Horace Grant called them the “d— Pistons.” Jordan admitted he “hated” the Pistons, because “they beat the s— out of us.”
Strengthened in Defeat
Ultimately, however, those defeats made the Bulls a better team, and Jordan a better player. During the 1980s, Detroit implemented the famous (or infamous) “Jordan Rules” against the Bulls. The “Rules” intended to keep Jordan out of his comfort zone—by forcing him left, denying him opportunities to driving to the baseline, and fouling him whenever he ventured into the paint. However much the Bulls loathed the Pistons and their “Rules,” they proved effective; in 1989, Detroit overcame a 2-1 series deficit by winning three straight games to take the playoff series.
The defeat in 1989, followed by a subsequent defeat to Detroit in the 1990 playoffs, prompted Jordan and the Bulls to commit to a more rigorous offseason weight-training program. By building muscle and strength, the Bulls hoped to physically dominate the Pistons, rather than being dominated by them.
Jordan also became a more selfless teammate, trying to work within a more structured offense rather than remaining Chicago’s sole source of offense. Both sides of these “new” Bulls emerged in the 1991 NBA playoffs. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls swept the Pistons in four straight games, so dominating Detroit that the Piston players walked off the court rather than shake the victors’ hands.
In the fourth quarter of the deciding Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Jordan, now committed to his role as a team player, fed guard John Paxson for a series of jumpers that gave the game, and the title, to the Bulls. In addition to delivering Chicago its first-ever NBA crown, Jordan achieved something he had sought since the moment he had entered the league seven years earlier: The validation that comes as not just a great player, but a champion.
A Zen Master Coach
At the center of those Bulls title runs: Coach Phil Jackson. Hired as an assistant in 1987, Jackson replaced Coach Doug Collins after the Bulls’ 1989 loss to the Pistons. The move coincided with, and helped accelerate, the switch to a more team-oriented offense.
Whereas Collins relied on isolation-style basketball—give Jordan the ball and let him make a play—Jackson brought the Triangle offense, which Chicago assistant Tex Winter had created 30 years previously, to the Bulls. The motion offense took the pressure off Jordan, and created more opportunities for Pippen and other skilled players to excel. The team didn’t always run the Triangle—in the fourth quarter of a close game, a set offense would often go out the window—but gave the Bulls the balance of structure and spontaneity that brought them championship after championship.
Jackson’s calm demeanor allowed him to manage the traveling carnival that became the Bulls during their championship run. A self-professed “hippie” with an interest in Native American history who practiced Zen Buddhism, Jackson deftly navigated the egos and personalities in the Chicago locker room, Rodman chief among them.
Dennis Rodman’s Vegas Vacation
The Bulls had traded for Rodman in 1995, despite his prior role on the “hated” Pistons, and the history of antics that saw him wear out his welcome with the San Antonio Spurs. Krause believed Jackson, Jordan, and Pippen could provide Rodman enough structure to keep him in a constructive role.
Rodman excelled in two facets of the game that Jordan and Pippen both lacked: He served as a tenacious defender and monster rebounder. In the documentary, All-Star guard Gary Payton called Rodman the “f— -up guy,” for the way he would interfere with an opposing team’s game plan. Unfortunately for the Bulls, however, that moniker sometimes worked both ways.
Rodman’s value on the court didn’t come without a price. Rodman realized that, during Pippen’s absence in late 1997, Jordan needed him to play his best and keep the drama to a minimum. But the choir boy routine so chafed at Rodman that, after Pippen reneged on his trade demands and returned to play in January 1998, Rodman asked for, and received, permission from Jackson to take “a vacation” during the Bulls’ season.
As the documentary notes, Rodman extended his “vacation” far beyond the 48 hours of leave originally granted him. He spent several days in Las Vegas partying with his then-girlfriend, Playboy centerfold and “Baywatch” actress Carmen Electra. As she described it, Jordan ended Rodman’s “vacation” by barging into his hotel room—with Electra in it—and hauling him back to the team.
Even as the Bulls overcame their sluggish start to regain their prior form, clouds still lurked overhead. Shortly after Rodman’s “vacation,” the Bulls blew a 20-plus point lead and lost to the Utah Jazz, in a potential NBA Finals preview.
At the same time, just prior to the 1998 All-Star Game, Krause, who once defiantly claimed that “Players and coaches don’t win championships—organizations do,” reiterated that Phil Jackson will not return the following season. Jordan reiterated that he would not return if Jackson did not. As this week’s episodes end, with more talk of Bulls’ run coming to an end and the defending champions looking vulnerable, “The Last Dance” could become a sad one.
Episodes 3 and 4 of “The Last Dance” will re-air on ESPN and are available on Netflix. Episodes 5 and 6 will air next Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern, with further episodes airing the following two Sundays.