In sports, great teams and great players don’t always excel. They excel when they need to, when others least suspect it—and when others might stumble at the obstacles in front of them.
In chronicling the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls’ season, “The Last Dance” illustrates Michael Jordan’s level of exhaustion. The constant question surrounding the team’s future, and the pressure of living in a media bubble, made the game less of a joy than a slog.
As the playoffs began, the team did stumble. It needed overtime to beat an injured and overmatched New Jersey Nets team in the first round of the 1998 National Basketball Association playoffs, and lost a game in the second round to the Charlotte Hornets, on a buzzer-beater by Jordan’s former Bulls teammate B.J. Armstrong.
But in both cases, Jordan and the Bulls overcame the Nets and Hornets to advance toward their sixth championship. As Jordan himself said after the Bulls’ loss to the Hornets, “payback is a motherf—er.” Just as it had in seasons past, Jordan’s competitive fire compelled the team deeper in the playoffs, and toward their ultimate goal.
Jordan’s level of exhaustion in 1998 echoed his feelings in October 1993, when he retired from basketball just before the start of the 1993-94 season. As last week’s episodes noted, the superstar had become tired of the constant attention that followed him wherever he went, and the pressure on him and the Bulls to win championship after championship. The turmoil meant that the satisfaction of winning three straight NBA titles—the first team in the league’s modern era to do so—quickly turned into a feeling of relief more than joy.
Those complicated feelings soon gave way to tragedy and loss, after the death of Jordan’s father James in a roadside robbery in the summer of 1993. In an interview for this week’s episodes, the younger Jordan grew tearful at the loss of his father, more than a quarter-century after his murder.
Adding to the sense of mourning: Speculation that attempted to link Jordan’s well-known gambling habits with his father’s death. Some conspiracy theorists even tried to call Jordan’s “retirement” a secret gambling-related suspension by then-NBA Commissioner David Stern—which both publicly rejected. But Jordan felt the need to issue a statement saying his own “mistakes” had nothing to do with his father’s murder, not least because the attackers did not know James Jordan’s identity at the time of the crime.
Most Famous Minor Leaguer Ever?
During the press conference announcing his retirement, Jordan noted that “You can do whatever you want.” He did exactly that, following another passion of his by pursuing a career in baseball. His father had always wanted him to become a major league baseball player, and the two had talked about Jordan pursuing a baseball career in the months prior to James Jordan’s murder. In that spirit, Michael Jordan signed a minor-league contract with the Chicago White Sox—owned, like the basketball Bulls, by Jerry Reinsdorf.
While playing for the Birmingham Barons, the White Sox’ AA affiliate, Jordan showed flashes of promise for someone who hadn’t seriously played baseball since high school 14 years previously. He hit safely in 13 straight games to start the 1994 season, and batted in over 50 runs.
He did so while navigating a constant media circus. In the documentary, Reinsdorf admitted that Jordan had to play AA ball because the lower-rung teams of the White Sox organization didn’t have the press facilities to accommodate the hordes of reporters that showed up to watch Jordan and the Barons.
More importantly, Jordan re-discovered a love of the game, and coped with the trauma of losing his father in a very public, very tragic manner. Some thought Jordan’s early retirement, and his baseball gambit, self-indulgent; the documentary cites one particularly critical Sports Illustrated cover story telling the star to nix his baseball dreams. But as Jordan said in an interview for the documentary, he had fulfilled his responsibilities to Chicago and the Bulls by delivering a team that had never reached the NBA Finals three consecutive championships. Self-indulgent or not, Jordan had earned the right to conduct his life as he saw fit.
Reinsdorf said he believes that, with additional practice and seasoning, Jordan could have become a major league baseball player. But the baseball strike that cancelled the 1994 World Series and persisted into 1995 altered the trajectory of Jordan’s sporting career yet again.
Unwilling to participate as a replacement player with major league players out on strike, Jordan left the Barons in March 1995. A series of intense practices with his former Bulls teammates sparked rumors of a comeback. Soon enough, Jordan announced his return to basketball with a simple two-word press release that he himself drafted: “I’m back.”
The Bulls welcomed Jordan back to the team—and none too soon. In 1993-94, the team had performed well without Jordan during the regular season, as forward Scottie Pippen had a chance to emerge from Jordan’s shadow and shine on his own.
But in the fourth quarter of a critical playoff game against the New York Knicks, Pippen took himself out of the game when Coach Phil Jackson called for teammate Toni Kukoc to take the last shot instead of Pippen. Kukoc sank the shot to win that game, but the Bulls ended up losing the series—and as Jordan said when he called Pippen after the game, the incident ended up haunting Pippen for the rest of his career.
The following year, Jordan’s return helped a team that had struggled to stay above .500 for most of the 1994-95 season. But while he returned physically, Jordan’s skills—and more specifically his stamina—had atrophied. He sank a buzzer-beater in his second game back to defeat the Atlanta Hawks. But in the playoffs against the Orlando Magic, and former teammate Horace Grant, Jordan often seemed tired, and the Bulls floundered. In Game 6 of the playoff series, Jordan air-balled a shot that would have sealed the game for Chicago, and Orlando came back to win the game, take the series, and send Jordan packing.
Returning to the Mountaintop
As his Bulls teammate Steve Kerr admitted, the playoff loss in 1994 meant Jordan spent the offseason “frothing at the mouth.” While shooting the comedy film Space Jam that summer, Jordan spent months converting his baseball physique into a body better suited for basketball.
He insisted Warner Brothers build him a gym on the studio backlot, so he could lift weights and practice his jumpers after 12-14 hour days shooting the movie. He also invited fellow NBA players to the gym, so that he could test his skills against the league’s best; Hall of Fame guard Reggie Miller said the scrimmages represented some of the most intense basketball he ever played.
Multiple anecdotes within this week’s episodes illustrate how Jordan constantly felt the need to drive himself and his teammates. In March 1993, Jordan said that Washington Bullets guard LaBradford Smith had talked trash to Jordan after Smith scored 37 points against him. Jordan later admitted that he made the story up just to motivate himself to play better against Smith the next night—which he did, scoring 36 points in the first half.
In preparation for the 1995-96 season, Jordan harassed his teammates in practice even more than usual. When Bulls guard Steve Kerr took exception to one of Jordan’s hard fouls and shoved Kerr, Jordan retaliated by clocking Kerr in the face. Jordan immediately apologized for crossing a line, and said that incident actually proved a turning point, because it proved to him that Kerr, who had not played on the Bulls’ three prior championship teams, would stand up for himself under pressure.
In the end, all the competitive fire and intimidation worked. The Bulls traded for Dennis Rodman, their former rival on the Detroit Pistons, who provided the rebounding and defensive skills that they missed after Horace Grant had departed for Orlando. With their retooled lineup and a lean, mean Jordan, the Bulls cruised to a 72-10 regular-season record—at the time the best ever, until beaten by the 2015-16 Warriors, coached by Kerr. But unlike Kerr’s Warriors, who lost in the 2016 NBA Finals, the 1995-96 Bulls backed up their claim to the “best ever” title by winning the NBA championship.
But anyone as competitive as Jordan recognizes that a true test of a champion lies in answering the question, “What have you done for me lately?” As a result, the 1997-98 Bulls still had much to prove as they traveled deeper into the playoffs. Next Sunday, the last night of “The Last Dance” will explore the closing stages of the Bulls’ championship saga.
Episodes 7 and 8 of “The Last Dance” will re-air on ESPN and are available on Netflix. The final two episodes will air next Sunday at 9 PM Eastern.