Amid the biggest dearth of sports in a century, ESPN has swooped in to rescue us with “The Last Dance,” a docuseries about Michael Jordan’s final year with the Chicago Bulls. While the highly anticipated show’s first installment doesn’t offer too much that wasn’t already public knowledge, it’s still a fascinating look into perhaps the greatest sports dynasty in American history.
The hype for this show was enormous. Not just because COVID-19 has knocked us into an athletic purgatory with no end in sight, but also because the documentary itself is 22 years in the making. In 1997, Jordan, Bulls coach Phil Jackson and owner Jerry Reinsdorf agreed to let a film crew follow them during what would be their final season together, but with one exception — Jordan would have full control of the footage, according to ESPN.
The footage then sat untouched in Secaucus, N.J. for more than two decades before ESPN Films finally put it together. The show will consist of 10 episodes, released two at a time for five weeks, chronicling the tense final year of the Bulls’ dynasty as egos and feuds threatened to tear the team apart.
Through the first two episodes, it lives up to the hype. The first hour’s main function is to frame Bulls GM Jerry Krause as the show’s de facto villain. The former baseball scout was a shrewd GM, notably bringing in Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman to surround Jordan with the talent he needed to win six championships. But he also “had a way of alienating people,” owner Jerry Reinsdorf says, which was part of the reason the Bulls’ future was in doubt in 1997.
Krause, who as Mark Vancil (author of “Rare Air: Michael on Michael“) says “grew up as a little fat kid” and “had the little man problem,” wanted more credit than he was getting for the Bulls’ success. As Jordan, Pippen and Jackson were getting all of the praise, he grew resentful.
“[Krause] was good,” Vancil says. “But he wasn’t good enough to do it without Michael Jordan.”
(Not to mention the fact that Jordan and Pippen often openly mocked him to the rest of the team. Multiple instances show them towering over Krause, ripping on his physical appearance.)
His relationship with Jackson deteriorated when the coach didn’t get the compensation he wanted. To Krause, everyone other than Jordan was replaceable. Krause was grooming Iowa State coach Tim Floyd to be the next head coach, and invited him to his stepdaughter’s wedding. Everyone else on the team was invited, too – except Jackson.
Jordan was adamant that he wouldn’t play for another coach, and Jackson signed a one-year deal to coach for the ’97-’98 season. Krause famously called Jackson into his office and told him, “I don’t care if you go 82 and 0, you’re f–king done.” (Floyd replaced Jackson the next year, and lost almost 80 percent of his games in three-plus seasons before getting fired.)
Which is how Jackson concocted his theme for the season: “The Last Dance.” Everyone knew this would be their final chance to win a sixth championship.
The first hour concludes with the camera following Jordan onto a dark United Center court, fans erupting as the Bulls’ famous intro, “Sirius” by The Alan Parsons Project, plays in the background. Goosebumps.
The second episode focuses on Scottie Pippen, well-known as Jordan’s sidekick, the second Hall of Famer that pushed Chicago over the top. But throughout their run, Pippen was only the sixth-highest paid player on the team – and the 122nd in the league. He signed a seven-year, $18 million deal in 1991, before the Bulls truly turned into a dynasty. So by the time they had five rings under their belt, Pippen became frustrated with the front office when they wouldn’t give him a raise.
Heading into the 1997-98 season, Pippen had a ruptured tendon in his foot. But instead of getting surgery in the offseason, he waited to begin his rehab until much later than he could have. “You know what, I’m not going to f–k my summer up rehabbing for a season where they weren’t looking forward to having me,” Pippen says. He was trying to force Krause to change his contract – which the GM refused to do. This didn’t sit well with Jordan.
The Bulls began that season 4-4 without Pippen, losing their first four road games. It took them two overtimes to get their first road win, against the bottom-feeding Clippers.
The episode then dives into Jordan’s second season with the Bulls, when he suffered a broken bone in his foot and was forced to miss 64 games. Itching to get back onto the court, Jordan went back to UNC, where he played basketball without telling the Bulls brass. When he returned – at the earliest possible moment – doctors said he had a 10-percent chance of re-injury, and the team placed him on a strict minutes limit.
Of course, Jordan was furious about the restriction. “I told Michael, ‘if you had a terrible headache and I gave you a bottle of pills, and nine of the pills would cure you and one of the pills would kill you, would you take a pill?”’ Reinsdorf said. Jordan’s response: “Depends on how f–king bad the headache is.”
Jordan eventually was able to play without restrictions in the postseason, and scored 49 and 63 points, respectively, in Chicago’s first two playoff games against the 67-win Celtics. The Bulls still lost the series. It’s not necessarily supposed to be a contrast with how Pippen handled his injury, but it showed how badly Jordan wanted to win – and how hard it was to do on his own.
Back to 1997. Pippen traveled with the team, rehabbed, but wasn’t playing. Around that time, his relationship with Krause hit a point of no return, and he started verbally abusing the GM in front of his team. “I couldn’t tolerate him anymore,” Pippen says. “I didn’t respect him.” Pippen demanded a trade and said he wouldn’t return from his injury until he was off the Bulls. The next episode promises to show how that went down.
If there is a knock on this documentary, it’s that so far, nothing here is really “untold,” other than an anecdote about the “traveling cocaine circus” that characterized the also-ran Bulls teams of the early ’80s. Maybe the story will tap further into something like Jordan’s alleged gambling, which has always been more of a rumor than fact.
But that’s nitpicking. The episodes are both a rush of nostalgia and a two-hour journey into a world where sports exist again. Everyone who is anyone appears, including two presidents (Barack Obama and Bill Clinton). And the footage is excellent: the shots make you feel like you’re there, in the crowd, in the locker room. Props to ESPN for not releasing it all in one fell swoop, because this is the only appointment television sports fans are going to get for the foreseeable future.