The first episode of The Last Dance, ESPN’s 10-part docuseries on Michael Jordan, opens near the story’s end. It’s November 1997; Jordan, under the spotlight in white nylon Bulls warm-ups, stands at center court in the United Center. “To all the fans in the city of Chicago,” he says, “if you guys remember in 1984 when they drafted Michael Jordan, I said then when I got here, that we would be champions by the time I leave. We’re five-time champions going for six.”
This Jordan, who speaks in third person and is in the business of promising championships, is contrasted later in the episode with Jordan on draft night. “Hopefully I can go in and contribute,” he tells a reporter sheepishly, 21 years old and baby-faced, “and maybe turn it around.” When Jordan arrived, Chicago had reached only two of the last nine playoffs. Thirteen years later, he’d catapulted the Bulls into the same category as the NBA’s premier teams.
“I just want the franchise and the Chicago Bulls to be respected as a team like the Lakers or the Philadelphia 76ers or the Boston Celtics,” he said on draft night, as highlighted in the doc. “It’s very hard for something like that to happen. But it’s not impossible.” Jordan didn’t just change Chicago. He became Chicago. But The Last Dance wants to examine more than just MJ’s greatness. It addresses the ugly—from Jordan, from general manager Jerry Krause, from that final 1997-98 season—that came with it.
The Last Dance reveals its thesis statement within minutes: The Bulls front office ended one of the most prolific dynasties ever by triggering an early rebuild and forcing out Phil Jackson, their winningest coach in history, after the 1997-98 season—which ended with Jordan’s fifth MVP and sixth and final championship. It was the end of his career in Chicago, and the end of Jordan’s career in Chicago was, of course, the end of the Bulls.
Had the basketball world not frozen in time in the wake of the coronavirus, we’d have been watching the NBA playoffs on Sunday. Instead, the most captivating two hours of sports this week is a story with a known ending. Jordan retires. Scottie Pippen is traded. Jackson exits. Dennis Rodman leaves for L.A. Chicago doesn’t reach the playoffs again until 2005.
The Last Dance, originally slated to run this summer, was released early after high demand. It won’t fill the void, because nothing will replace the excitement of high-stakes basketball. The documentary satisfies a different hunger, though, in reliving an era and an icon that are timeless.
Let’s break down the best moments and quotes from episodes 1 and 2 of the documentary.
Highlight of the Episode: Meeting Young Jordan
Our legend’s origin story is well known. Jordan was cut from the varsity team his sophomore year in high school, a factoid that’s been written in locker rooms, hallways, and under the lid of yogurt cups for decades. Between that, vying for his father’s attention, and his older brother never showing mercy in any competition, an everlasting fire was lit. The Last Dance spends time examining Jordan’s transformation at North Carolina under Dean Smith. His skill, demeanor, and even his name changed in Chapel Hill; Jordan was listed on the UNC roster as “Mike Jordan.” Meeting this teenager through the eyes of others is remarkable because the moment a person realizes what he’s going to eventually become is so apparent. A smile stretches over current-day MJ’s face—not the smirk he wore throughout his career on podiums and on the court, but the kind of smile that usually precedes tears—as he watches a recording of his mother, Deloris, read a letter that he wrote to her in college asking for money and stamps. He was very much a regular college student. For all of one month.
“I was better than him,” said teammate James Worthy, “for about two weeks.” What made Jordan’s development in college remarkable was the speed in which he evolved. “He was sucking up information,” Worthy said. Later in the episode, Bulls general manager Rod Thorn mirrored Worthy’s comments: “Everybody on that Bulls team, within a two-week period, knew he was the best player we had.” Those stories weren’t ever once-in-a-lifetime for Jordan. The last shot Jordan took as a freshman was a 16-foot jumper with 15 seconds left that won the 1982 national championship against Georgetown, a shot “that turned my name from Mike to Michael Jordan,” he said. Roy Williams referred to it as “The Shot,” which is how UNC still remembers it. Seven years later, Jordan stole another big win with another clutch jumper, this time for the Bulls against the Cavaliers (and over Craig Ehlo) in the deciding game of the first round of the East playoffs. It’s rare to have one bucket known as “The Shot.” Jordan boasts two.
Meet the Villain: Jerry Krause
“After I bought the Bulls, [Jerry Krause] came to see me and said he’d like to be the general manager of the Bulls,” owner Jerry Reinsdorf said. “I asked around the league and, uh, everyone I talked to said, ‘Don’t touch the guy.’”
The antagonist of the 1997-98 season was undoubtedly Krause, whom Reinsdorf hired despite the warnings. Various Last Dance interview subjects accuse Krause of having a resentful nature, a terrible reputation, a “counterproductive presence,” and short-man syndrome in the span of minutes. Krause, who died at age 77 in 2017, is portrayed in the episode as hellbent on rebuilding the team despite winning titles in five of the past seven seasons. Reinsdorf speaks to Krause’s motives in the documentary. “After the fifth championship, which was ’96-97, we were looking at this team and we realized other than Michael, the rest of the guys were probably at the end of their high-productive years,” Reinsdorf said. “We realized, maybe this is the time to do a rebuild, and not win a sixth championship.”
It doesn’t get more counterproductive than blowing up a historically good team and ruining the immediate chances of winning another championship in the hopes of someday winning another championship. Reinsdorf eventually told Krause to wait, but it created tension between Krause and the team for the entirety of the 1997-98 season, especially after he made it clear coach Phil Jackson—the winningest coach in Bulls history—would not be asked back next season. Footage from Jackson’s office in 1997 reveals the inspiration for the title. On the cover of the team handbook, he printed The Last “Dance”? knowing that this would, in fact, be the end. “[Krause] called me into his office,” Jackson said, “and said ‘This will be your last year with the Bulls. I don’t care if you win 82 games and the championship.’”
Krause broke up a title team that he put together. The filmmakers painted a resentful image of the executive through select interviews, though his own quotes suggest the same. “Players alone don’t win championships,” Krause famously said, “organizations do.” The Last Dance shows footage of Jordan and Pippen openly teasing Krause. Before Pippen asked for a trade, he was screaming at him from the back of the team bus. “He had a way of alienating people,” Reinsdorf said. Breaking up the team was probably the most striking self-sabotage in NBA history—particularly because Jordan had warned against it.
In the press conference that immediately followed the ’97 championship, reporters asked Jordan about the divide between Krause and the rest of the team. “We are entitled to defend what we have until we lose it,” Jordan said, still wearing his championship hat. “If we lose it, then you say, ‘OK, let’s change.’ … Phil should be the head coach, and I shouldn’t be put in a position to have to make a choice to have to play for another coach other than Phil Jackson. Sadly as it may be, I have choices. I will not choose to play for another coach.”
Most Valuable Line: Roy Williams
“Michael Jordan’s the only player that could ever turn it on or off,” said Roy Williams, who was an assistant coach for UNC while Jordan was a Tar Heel. “And he never freaking turned it off.”
History Lesson: Scottie Pippen’s Contract
Pippen’s career will always be remembered in the context of Jordan’s. The pitfall of being a sidekick—even arguably the most important one in basketball history—is never being recognized for your contributions alone. In any argument trying to knock Jordan’s place in history, Pippen is used as proof that he wasn’t the holy being everyone claimed. He could never have done it without Scottie ... and Jordan agrees. In the first two hours of a 10-hour documentary, he repeats it multiple times.
That logic is what makes Pippen’s time with the Bulls more devastating than championed. In 1991, after the Bulls’ first title, Pippen signed a five-year, $18 million extension. It was good money, but not for a superstar, let alone a generational player. “I don’t recall the terms of the deal,” Reinsdorf said, “but I do recall that it was a longer contract than I thought was smart for him. … I said to Scottie the same thing I said to Michael: ‘You might be selling yourself short.’”
“It was embarrassing,” Jackson said, “because he was maybe the no. 2 player in the NBA.” The Last Dance pleads Pippen’s case—like many journalists, coaches, and players did in the ’90s—with his stats: During the Bulls’ championship run, Pippen was second in scoring, second in rebounding, second in minutes played, first in assists, first in steals, and somehow 122nd in salary in the NBA.
His contract expired at the end of the 1997-98 season, and Krause was open about Pippen’s time running out in Chicago. Despite five (soon to be six) championships in seven years, Pippen understood that he wasn’t going to get his due. He was so disillusioned with the Bulls front office that he delayed surgery on a ruptured tendon that had been bothering him since the spring. Pippen opted to have the surgery close to the start of the season to prove that Chicago needed him. “Every day that Scottie wasn’t playing,” Jordan said, “gave someone else confidence that they could beat us.”
The second chapter of the doc ends with a threat. Pippen demands a trade in November 1997 after years of being underpaid and suffering the plight of being the glue guy.
Best Jordanism: The 1986 Series Against Boston
It’s odd in 2020 to glorify some Jordan stories. As the documentary shows during Pippen’s absence in 1997, he lashed out at teammates in a way that went beyond “expecting a higher standard.” Separating the obsessed from the cruel has always been a thin line in the hypercompetitive world of sports. But The Last Dance shows the delightful Jordanisms, too, like the 57-year-old posted up for his interviews in an armchair with a cigar and a glass full of brown liquor on his end table.
In Episode 2, we see his ruthless nature come across in a positive way. After willing Chicago into the playoffs—clinching the 8-seed despite a losing record—and losing the series opener against the top-seeded Celtics, MJ and Boston shooting guard Danny Ainge play golf the day before Game 2. As Ainge tells it, he won some money off Jordan that day. The next day, Jordan beat the single-game playoff record for points scored with 63, making a fool out of every Celtic thrown at him. Larry Bird says he’s still never seen a postseason performance like it. “That wasn’t Michael Jordan out there,” Bird said. “It was God disguised as Michael Jordan.”