The basketball event of our quarantined lives is finally upon us. On Sunday, ESPN will premiere The Last Dance—a 10-part documentary series framed around Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Bulls. Its full scope cannot help but be larger.
The Michael Jordan story extends in all directions, which naturally means that it comes with homework. There’s no way to comprehend Jordan’s footprint as a player without making an effort to understand him as a competitor, as an icon, and as a salesman. An overwhelming number of athletes around the world are influenced by him in some way, or influenced by someone who was influenced by him. Those with nothing to do with sports still see Jordan’s influence in the way they talk about leadership or the way they think about work ethic, whether they realize it or not. It’s in a pair of shoes, a value structure, a way of life. This is some archetypal, Joseph Campbell shit.
So for the sake of our sanity, let’s start smaller—by looking at supplementary materials that aid our understanding of where Jordan was in 1998 and what was at stake for the already legendary Bulls. This is your syllabus for The Last Dance.
Tip-Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever by Filip Bondy (2007)
A great prologue to The Last Dance is the story of how Jordan wound up with the Bulls in the first place, and how the Trail Blazers talked themselves out of drafting him. The bullet points are already part of the Jordan legend, but in structuring his book around the 1984 draft class as a whole, Bondy tells a much larger story by way of all its interlocking pieces. Not only will you learn about Jordan, but also his contemporaries from that legendary class: Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, and the ill-fated Sam Bowie. Then, by extension, come Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler, and Patrick Ewing. The gallery of Jordan opponents is almost fully represented here, all backdropped by the philosophies that led Houston, Chicago, and Portland to their fateful picks.
For the Bulls, Jordan was a selection years in the making that came in defiance of their general manager’s own basketball worldview. Rod Thorn believed in drafting bigs whenever possible, as to best stabilize the franchise in a big man’s league. What swayed his choice was the team’s impatience. Not only was Jordan an impressive prospect, but as a guard, the Bulls expected he might be able to help the team sooner. They wound up drafting the best player of all time without explicitly believing he was the best player available.
Game 6, 1997 NBA Finals
The 1998 Finals are immortalized for obvious reasons, but the previous year’s championship series—also between the Bulls and the Jazz—was a high-stakes grind to the finish. Three of Chicago’s four wins in the series were decided by four points or fewer, including one on another, lesser known Jordan game-winner over Bryon Russell, and another in Jordan’s flu game. The finale was a theatrical show of attrition: a double-teamed Jordan, a one-legged Pippen (a subplot that would continue into the following season), and a collection of spot-scoring role players staggering to the finish. In watching this final game, two things are made clear: These Bulls were a miracle of will; and, even in 1997, they were exhausted and nearly broken.
“Be Like Mike” (1998)
Gatorade’s original “Be Like Mike” commercial campaign, released in 1992, was a runaway success—a wholesome, bouncy earworm that became a touchstone, all while insisting that you might enjoy some electrolytes. The 1998 reprisal was built around the idea that we already knew the words. Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Chris Berman, Mia Hamm, Jordan confidante Ahmad Rashad, and Jordan costars Bugs Bunny and Marvin the Martian drop by for the sing-along, again with the requisite thirst quenching. (The exact cadence of Larry Bird’s twangy “I’m not gonna sing,” is burned forever into my brain.) As marketing, it was selling a product by way of having already sold it. As a pop cultural artifact, it was an echo. The second edition of “Be Like Mike” ran in the middle of another Jordan three-peat, only in the six years between the two spots, Jordan had become almost preposterously famous. Wanting to be like Mike wasn’t just a wish to fly or to win—it became a collective means of engaging with Jordan’s celebrity. Our only hope of grasping what it feels like to be larger than life is to become it, or at least to drink Gatorade.
“Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building” by Wright Thompson (2013)
This is the definitive story of Jordan’s post-playing career, a revelatory look at who Jordan was and what he’s become. Jordan, then 50 years old, dwells on his playing weight and his want to return to it. When Jordan lashes out at a SportsCenter segment comparing Joe Montana and Tom Brady, you can see him warding off LeBron James and his own mortality. One of the things Jordan inherited from his father was his love of Westerns. One of his favorites is Unforgiven, a movie about a former gunslinger called back for one more job after packing that part of his life away.
Crucial in understanding Jordan as a player is seeing him once his competitive outlet was finally stripped away: as an older man desperate to beat the world at Bejeweled, sudoku, and word searches. “I can’t help myself,” Jordan said. “It’s an addiction. You ask for this special power to achieve these heights, and now you got it and you want to give it back, but you can’t. If I could, then I could breathe.” This is Jordan trapped in a different kind of life, with all the same intensity, loyalty, pettiness, command, and cruelty. Then, from the quiet of his closet floor, he looks for nostalgia in the contents of a locked safe for which he’s forgotten the combination. Jordan’s new crunch time is being nine guesses in with a safe that will go into lockdown with a 10th wrong combination.
“Second Generation” (2006)
Jordan iconography is a part of the American consciousness, to the point that many of his signature moments are recognizable even to the generations of fans who never watched him play a live game. You don’t need to know the full context behind The Shot to recognize the air that Jordan gets on his game-winning jumper, and then again on his fist pump. Through repetition and cultural osmosis, the dunk that became the “Jumpman” logo became the single most recognizable image in all of sports. This TV spot from Wieden+Kennedy, longtime custodians of the Jordan mythology, brings that idea down to its most fundamental. You don’t even need Jordan to invoke a Jordan highlight. It’s about how a player moves, or palms the ball, or sticks out his tongue. All the specificity you need can be found in the way a kid chews his gum. The details have become a part of us, even for those who don’t know exactly how they got there.
“Senseless” by Rick Telander (1990)
In 1989, a 15-year-old boy was strangled to death by his friend, and his body dumped in the woods near their school—all over a pair of Jordans. This was hardly the first murder committed for the sake of sportswear. The thought of one teenager killing another, however, registered differently when the name of the brand they coveted was also the name of a person. Jordan and Nike had managed to make their shoes cool. In time, however, they became a status symbol with a real human cost.
Consumerism has always been a key component of Jordan’s story and an undeniable source of his power. This list alone features two commercials of Jordan hawking shoes and sports drinks. Both serve his mythology, as does the appeal of the brand he created. “Our commercials are about sport, they’re not about fashion,” said Liz Dolan, Nike’s director of public relations at the time of this story. She could not have been more wrong. Selling Air Jordan was always about so much more than selling sports. It was about the shoes the NBA didn’t want you to see. It was about Spike Lee and Little Richard. It was about style. Those at Nike understood this better than anyone, but understandably feared any association with violence. But just because you manufacture a product doesn’t give you the power to control what it comes to symbolize.
Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made by David Halberstam (1999)
Two decades before The Last Dance, Halberstam wrote the definitive account of the Bulls’ 1997-98 season. What he didn’t have (and what The Last Dance does) was Jordan’s account; the primary figure of the book famously did not grant the author an interview, resulting in one of the most astounding write-arounds in all of sports journalism. Halberstam, in telling the story of a turbulent championship season, manages to tell the story of Jordan’s career, render him fully as a person and as a teammate, and then wrestle with the very idea of him. A thorough accounting of a regular-season game falls comfortably down the rabbit hole of league economics, cultural trends, or personal backstory—not just of Jordan, but also Pippen, Toni Kukoc, Phil Jackson, and the central cast of the ’98 Bulls. The book was released just a year after the season ended and still it managed to capture the enormity of what was in play. This was history fully understood in real time.
In that way, Jordan and Halberstam had something in common. From his telling of the decisive game and shot that would secure another Bulls title:
“The great strength of Michael Jordan, thought B.J. Armstrong as he watched that game, was that he had the most acute sense of the tempo and mood of every game of any player he had ever seen. A lot of players and coaches can look at film afterward and point to the exact moment when a game slipped away, but Jordan could tell it even as it was happening. It was, thought Armstrong, as if he were both in the game playing and yet sitting there studying it, completely distanced from it.”
From there, Halberstam continues into a series of vignettes from people in and around Jordan’s life for their reactions to Jordan’s game-winning shot. There was Leroy Smith, the ball player who famously beat out Jordan for the Laney High varsity team; Chuck Daly, his onetime nemesis as coach of the Pistons; Dean Smith, who coached Jordan at North Carolina under the burdens of system, perhaps to Jordan’s later benefit; Tim Grover, Jordan’s longtime trainer; Frank Layden, the architect of the losing Jazz; Buzz Peterson, Jordan’s college roommate; and Roy Williams, the assistant coach at UNC whom Jordan had trusted for his candor. It was the documentary before the documentary.
Jordan and Pippen vs. Kukoc (1992)
The most memorable game played by the greatest basketball team ever assembled was a grudge match against an oblivious, 23-year-old Croatian. Toni Kukoc was one of the most heralded basketball players outside the United States in 1992, and he drew the fascination of Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. Chicago’s two superstars, however, were more focused on the fact that Krause refused to extend Pippen’s contract because he wanted to make Kukoc a $3.7 million offer.
Kukoc, then, became a stand-in for Krause, whose relationship with Jordan had long been fraught. There was always some feud between them: over a contract, a trade, a draft pick, or a public comment. Krause would insist—loudly and pointedly—upon the importance of organization over star players, which didn’t exactly sit well with his star player. Beyond their many arguments, Jordan would reportedly mock Krause by mooing at him whenever the GM boarded the team bus. When Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, he infamously recalled the many slights against him, both real and perceived. He took time to single out Krause. “Jerry Krause is right there,” Jordan said. “I don’t know who invited him. I didn’t.”
If Jordan couldn’t dunk on Krause, he could at least dunk on Kukoc. Pippen and Jordan asked Team USA coach Chuck Daly—more for courtesy than permission—to play extended minutes and to trade off in defending Kukoc. What followed was a vicious display: two of the best defensive players in the world at their most merciless. Pippen picked up Kukoc first, challenging his every step starting in the backcourt. Jordan relieved him with equal hostility. “Dude, it was scary what they did to Kukoc,” Charles Barkley told Jack McCallum for his book, Dream Team. “And beautiful to watch.” Between them, Pippen and Jordan totaled 11 steals in the first half alone.
Decades later, Kukoc maintained that he had no idea what was going on. His wife was about to go into labor with their first child. His homeland had been brutalized by war. And here were two of the world’s best living basketball players, pressing him for reasons he did not understand or participate in. “It was a strange time for all of us, just to be competing for Croatia after all that had happened in my country,” Kukoc told McCallum. “We were happy to be there, but we were also sad about the war.” It wasn’t the last time that Kukoc would draw Pippen’s frustrations for what he represented.
Dennis Rodman on Late Show With David Letterman (1996)
Rodman is the kind of person best experienced in living color. There is nothing resembling a modern comparison; imagine the static in today’s league if a critical member of the defending champions started skipping practices in the middle of the NBA Finals. Or built his brand overtly around his antics. Or, in promoting a book for which he posed nude on the cover, wore a wedding dress, announced he was bisexual, and staged a wedding to himself. You can read about and appreciate these exploits, but to get the full effect, it’s best to watch professionals of any kind do their best to wrangle Rodman into any sort of structure. This was the job of Phil Jackson and the Bulls staff for three seasons, but for a 10-minute segment in 1996, that responsibility fell to Letterman. The segment feels true to the Rodman adventure more broadly at that time, which is to say that it stays just barely on the rails.
“Without Dennis Rodman, you don’t have the entertainment,” Rodman said in an interview with Bob Costas in 1998. “You’ve got the Kobe Bryants doing the dunks, Michael Jordan with the tongue. But you’ve got Dennis Rodman with the whole plethora. With the whole chameleon. You’ve got that. You’ve got to have that. You’ve got to have some type of distraction.”
Throughout Rodman’s tenure with the Bulls, there was an open question as to whether he was bored or distracted at any given time. During this interview with Letterman, he talks about feeling burned out and considering retirement at the end of the season. This might seem strange until you realize that Rodman was 35 years old going on 70. He was battling 7-footers on the court, juggling all sorts of projects (during the interview alone he plugs his book, talks about his show on MTV, and lays out the basic outline for Double Team, the film he would colead with Jean-Claude Van Damme), and doing whatever other unimaginable things Rodman might do in his free time.
“Last Running of the Bulls” by Phil Jackson and Rick Telander (1998)
During his final season with the Bulls, Jackson recorded a running diary. I’d hesitate to make it the official record; Jackson has never been a particularly reliable narrator, though at the very least he spoke to the events of the season as he saw and digested them. Jackson is as frank in this article as we’ve come to expect: about the writing on the wall for the Bulls, the way Shaq and the Lakers caught his wandering eye, his opinions of Rodman (whom he praises considerably, but also refers to as “mentally handicapped”), his own disputes with Krause, the concerns of a coach from game to game, and the usual sideswipes at players who drew his ire. Consider it an internal monologue from one of Chicago’s principal stakeholders, featuring the pouch of literal bull testicles Jackson had hanging on the wall of his office.