Last things first: He pushed off. In the culmination of the ESPN documentary “The Last Dance” and Michael Jordan’s career with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan hit a last-second shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, bringing the Bulls from behind to beat the Utah Jazz and capture the Bulls’ sixth championship.
The shot—the last Jordan would ever take as a member of the Bulls franchise—proved controversial, both then and now. Prior to taking the jumper, Jordan “initiat[ed] contact” with Jazz guard Bryon Russell, but officials did not call a foul on him for doing so.
In the documentary, Jordan claimed he had gotten Russell off-balance prior to any physical contact, giving his touch an incidental effect not worth the referees blowing their whistles. But under today’s rules paradigm, which more tightly regulates contact amongst players, Jordan likely would have faced an offensive foul call that could have ended the game in the Jazz’s favor.
Tough Playoff Series
Jordan knew the experience of having an opponent push off to sink a game-winning shot. As episode nine of the documentary chronicles, Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller pushed off of Jordan in Game 4 of the 1998 Eastern Conference finals, allowing Miller to sink a last-second shot that defeated the Bulls.
The final two episodes of the documentary examine the Bulls’ final two championship runs, in 1997 and 1998, both of which feature a seasoned team trying to defend its lofty perch from challenges by hungry upstarts. In the 1998 Eastern Conference finals, Indiana took Chicago to a series-deciding seventh game—only the second team to do so of the 24 the Bulls faced in their six championship runs.
Ironically, the same player who hit the game-winning shot in Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference finals had also hit the game-winner in Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals the year before: Guard Steve Kerr. Kerr, who since retiring as a player went on to win three championships as the Golden State Warriors’ head coach, shares an unlikely bond with Jordan: Just as the superstar lost his father, James, in a 1993 murder, Kerr’s father Malcolm, a professor of Middle Eastern studies, was killed by jihadists in Beirut in 1984.
As Kerr and Jordan overcame personal tragedy off the court, they needed to rise above adversity on the court as well. Episode nine discusses the famous “flu game” of the 1997 NBA Finals, in which Jordan suffered from vomiting, dehydration, and other flu-like symptoms the morning of a game against the Utah Jazz.
Jordan and his trainer discussed the history of the incident for the documentary. In their telling, Jordan’s late-night hunger pangs led to the order of a pizza delivered by five separate individuals. Jordan’s trainer all-but-accused the pizzeria of deliberately sickening Jordan so he couldn’t play effectively against Utah the next night.
Whatever the cause of Jordan’s malady or the pizzeria’s motivation, it didn’t succeed. Jordan scored 38 points in the game, and among his 15 points in the fourth quarter were a crucial 3-pointer that helped seal the victory. Jordan’s heroics helped the Bulls take a 3-2 series lead, and Kerr’s shot in the next game led them to the 1997 NBA Championship.
The next year, the Bulls faced a rematch with an improved Jazz team in the 1998 NBA Finals. The series did not come without challenges, on the court and off.
After the Bulls held the Jazz to 54 points in Game 3 of the Finals—an all-time scoring low for any team, in either the regular season or the playoffs, since the NBA instituted the 24-second shot clock in 1954—Bulls forward Dennis Rodman went AWOL from the team. He soon emerged on television, appearing at a wrestling match with Hulk Hogan in Detroit.
While Coach Phil Jackson appreciated Rodman’s defensive intensity and rebounding skills on the court, it often came with off-court drama—in this case, at the worst possible time. The documentary records an hilarious scene in which Rodman, having returned to the team, sprints out of the Bulls’ practice facility by a side door and into a waiting car, trying to make a quick getaway from the media hordes chasing in hot pursuit, wanting to ask him about his wrestling gambit.
Will to Win
In the end, Jordan’s last game as a Bull—Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals—showed his grit and determination. Forward Scottie Pippen injured his back early in the game, making him ineffective for the remainder of the contest. As a result, Jordan had to put the team on his own back, playing virtually the entire game and scoring 45 points—more than half the team’s total—to will the Bulls to the victory.
Whatever one thinks of Jordan’s contact with Russell—and it has ranked on lists of the worst officiating calls (or no-calls)—his actions during that sequence still stand out. In the span of less than a minute of game time, Jordan drove down the lane and scored a bucket to bring the Bulls within one point. He then got the defensive stop the Bulls needed by stealing the ball from Jazz forward (and league MVP that year) Karl Malone, brought the ball up court, and hit the game-winner.
That will to win defined both Jordan and the Bulls’ success. All of the accolades, advertisements, endorsement deals, global publicity—none of that long endures without sustained success on the court. Jordan consistently demonstrated over his career the determination to win, which when coupled with his natural talents and abilities, enabled him to excel over and over again.
The documentary’s last episode briefly explains how the 1997-98 season did become the Bulls’ “last dance.” Owner Jerry Reinsdorf asked Coach Phil Jackson back for another year—notwithstanding earlier statements calling the 1997-98 season Jackson’s last. Jackson demurred the offer, saying he wanted no part of the rebuilding effort to which the team had committed.
Jordan questioned why Reinsdorf and Bulls management didn’t offer to bring back him and the team’s other stars on one-year contracts, to try and win a seventh championship. Given their exhaustion following the 1997-98 season, another run in 1998-99 could well have ended in heartache and defeat, rather than the storybook ending to Jordan’s career with the Bulls that defined the 1998 NBA Finals.
But in interviews for the documentary, Jordan said that the Bulls management denying him and his teammates that shot at a seventh crown still gnaws at him. So great is his desire to compete that he would rather have lost on the court in 1998-99 than to have seen that chance to win again taken away from him by forces outside his control.
For that reason alone, Jordan should get the last word. In the closing moments of episode seven, the producers asked him about his intensity, and whether he felt it jeopardized his reputation as a “nice guy.” The clip showed the determination that defined Jordan’s career, and which “The Last Dance” made plain:
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 11, 2020
Episodes of “The Last Dance” will re-air on ESPN and are available on Netflix.