Like any red-blooded member of the sports-starved citizenry, Don Sperling eagerly awaited the arrival of The Last Dance, the 10-part documentary series about the final season of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls dynasty, airing on ESPN over the next few weeks.
Sperling is the Ken Burns of basketball videos. During his tenure as an executive producer at NBA Entertainment, from 1983 to 1998, he was involved in the making of some 130 home video titles, from Dazzling Dunks and Basketball Bloopers to NBA Jam Session. Because his time at the league’s production arm happened to coincide with the rise of Jordan and the Bulls, no other single filmmaker has committed as much screen time to MJ and his dynasty.
To prepare for the Last Dance experience, Sperling recently blew the dust off a couple of Jordan-centric titles from his vast filmography: Come Fly With Me (1989) and Air Time (1993), each a classic entry in the NBA Entertainment canon. “I hadn’t seen them in ages! I thought I would look back and say, ‘Meh.’ But, you know, they’re still pretty good,” says Sperling, who’s now vice president and executive producer of entertainment for the New York Giants.
“The league back then was like Hollywood. You had high drama, you had huge personalities, you had the Bulls versus the Pistons, good versus evil. We had all this right in front of us!” he says. “Before the internet and social media, NBA Entertainment home videos, and later NBA Inside Stuff, were among the fans’ only windows to the players. We were behind the scenes, we were at Jordan’s house—we provided the access. Whereas now, every day, there’s access to players through Twitter and Instagram.”
Access to the NBA and its players was exactly what I craved as a Bulls-crazed kid growing up in rural Illinois during the ’80s and ’90s. When I was 8 years old, my subscription to Sports Illustrated came with a free gift: Untouchabulls, the Sperling-produced story of the Bulls’ second championship. Soon, my friends and I were wearing out VCRs watching all of NBAE’s Bulls and Jordan titles, rewinding choice highlights to study a Jordan dunk or a Scottie Pippen pass that we would then mimic on the driveway. Of course, we weren’t the only kids forging strangely intimate relationships with NBA Entertainment VHS tapes. “Kobe Bryant once told me in the mid-’90s that, while living in Italy as a child, he would watch all of my Jordan and Bulls videos hundreds and hundreds of times,” Sperling says. “That’s how he began emulating Michael.”
Early NBAE videos borrow from the work of NFL Films, which forged a distinctive style through the use of orchestral music, slow motion, and close-ups (a football spiraling through the air, linemen expelling breath in the cold), as well as absurdly florid writing overstuffed with martial metaphors. NBAE kept a similar voice-of-God style of narration (sometimes hiring the same talent as NFL Films), but Sperling and his collaborators preferred rapid cuts that showed off basketball’s exciting pace. Instead of French horn flourishes, NBAE scored videos with synthesizer-laden library music (a.k.a. stock music), tunes from adult contemporary composers (Yanni, John Tesh), and singles from R&B acts (Michael Jackson, Full Force). (A YouTube user has done yeoman’s work in compiling playlists of NBAE soundtracks.)
The X’s and O’s of basketball are of little concern in NBAE videos. It is a genre rooted almost entirely in emotion, its narratives driven by dramatic swings of fortune. When Jordan’s Bulls meet Magic Johnson’s Lakers in the 1991 Finals in Learning to Fly, for instance, the teams are depicted as nothing less than gods fighting on Mount Olympus as the fate of all mankind hangs in the balance. The prose is sometimes comically purple. A game is a “battle,” a playoff series is “war.” Defense and offense are “weapons.” Accurate 3-point shooting is a “devastating long-range barrage.” Victors leave their opponents “trampled in their wake.”
The sharp-edged perspective apparent in the best of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series is not the stuff of NBA Entertainment videos, which straddle the fence between journalism and boosterism. (NBAE is, after all, essentially the league’s propaganda arm.) Athletes such as Jordan are heroes to be worshiped. “We protected Michael, there’s no doubt,” Sperling says. “Calling him the golden goose is understating it, but Michael was important to the league. Plus, it was personal: He took care of us, we took care of him. We were friends. We admired him. I was a fan. I mean, how could I not be? And anyway, there were plenty of people out there trying to find the underbelly.”
In anticipation of The Last Dance, I recently revisited NBA Entertainment’s archive of Jordan and Bulls videos. Michael Jordan’s Playground, Learning to Fly, Three-Peat—repetition had branded the content of these tapes upon my brain. Yet all these years later, they still have the power to trigger goosebumps. If the steady drip of 10 hours of His Airness on ESPN doesn’t give you a proper fix, consult this guide to 12 additional hours of highlights, interviews, turgid lines of narration, examples of MJ’s boundless self-regard, incidents of Bad Boys villainy, and some supremely odd celebrity cameos.
Higher Ground: Chicago Bulls 1987-88 Season (1988)
Michael Jordan has often said that, facing adversity late in his career, he found strength thinking not of the banners he helped hoist but the six seasons of defeat he had endured before winning his first NBA championship. This video finds the Bulls, under head coach Doug Collins, squarely in the midst of their ascent from a one-man show to a cohesive unit able to compete with the league’s elite teams. General manager Jerry Krause wins executive of the year that season, chiefly for acquiring Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant in the same draft to round out MJ’s supporting cast. The pair of baby-faced rookies endure hazing by Charles Oakley, who is soon traded to New York for Bill Cartwright, the final piece of the championship puzzle. Meanwhile, Jordan, his killer instinct still developing, exhibits a lightness rarely seen in later seasons. “This is a winner,” the young gambler says, showing the camera his poker hand in an airport terminal during a road trip. “I’m gonna get rich! I’m gettin’ $30 million! We just lost to the Boston Celtics, but guess what? I’m winnnnning!”
Overheated narration: “Stirring within the Bulls was a new emotion: a thirst to consume everything on their playoff menu.”
Jordan on Jordan: “The basket looks like Lake Michigan. Whatever you throw up there is going to go in.”
Killer quote: Bulls assistant Johnny Bach memorably describes Oakley as “the kind of guy that if you went into a bar and saw him there, you’d want to buy him a drink, just so if something started, he’d know who you were.”
Best villain: Pugilistic Detroit power forward Rick Mahorn, who ignites a bench-clearing brawl during a midseason Pistons-Bulls game, mixing it up with Oakley and much of the Bulls’ coaching staff. A close second: John Paxson’s mustache.
Celebrity cameo: Jack Nicholson, Oscar-winning Lakers mascot, caught inhaling some high-calorie stadium food while slumming it at a Bulls-Clippers game.
Fun fact: Because the Bulls of this era fly commercial on road trips, each player humbly carries his uniform with him in case of lost checked luggage.
Michael Jordan: Come Fly With Me (1989)
“Hi, my name is Michael Jordan,” says MJ, kicking off this NBA Entertainment classic like Alistair Cooke introducing Masterpiece Theatre. “I want you to take a trip with me to learn the secrets that I have known for many years: that man was truly destined to fly.” (Yeah, sure, Mike, whatever you say.) No secret is made of the fact that this is a big, wet kiss from the league to its highly marketable star, who the narrator calls “the world’s most breathtaking athlete.” If there’s a thesis to be found in this portrait of a basketball deity, it’s this: that the guy grinning from the Wheaties box has actual dimension. On the court, he isn’t merely a prolific scorer and showboating dunker, he’s also a defensive workhorse; off the court, he’s not just a famous, filthy-rich star, he’s also a down-to-earth humanitarian with all-American roots. All the applesauce about flight—sample intertitle: “To fly: to move through the air by using wings”—is an excuse for beaucoup Jordan highlights that, fortunately, speak for themselves.
Overheated narration: “Michael’s airborne ballet is very much about dreams, dreams of unearthly grace. Of unrestrained freedom. Of majestic power. Dreams of flight. For Michael and his fans, basketball is a way of sharing the fantasy, like a small group of aerial voyagers. Michael evokes images of the stratosphere, the visions which dreams are made of.”
Jordan on Jordan: “People ask me, do you really believe you can fly? I said, ‘Yeah, for a little while. It may be a split second, but it’s flying.’”
Killer quote: “The guy, literally, is embarrassing the league,” Pistons coach Chuck Daly says in his smoker’s rasp. “He’s that good.”
Best villain: Jordan’s broken left foot, which sidelined him for 64 games in the 1985-86 season.
Celebrity cameo: PGA pro Peter Jacobsen, who says of hitting the links with Jordan, “It’s probably the only time that he keeps his tongue in his mouth, other than when he’s wagging it telling me how good he is. Other than that, I just really enjoy taking money from him.”
Fun fact: One of Jordan’s teachers bursts into laughter at the memory that she once advised her young student to pursue math, “because that’s where the money was.”
Michael Jordan’s Playground (1990)
Formally more ambitious than the typical NBA Entertainment entry, Playground interweaves highlights and talking heads with a fictional narrative about a teen named Walt (Tyrin Turner, who would later star in Menace II Society) trying to make his high school basketball team. That story line indulges a false premise that’s long been part of the Jordan origin myth: that he was “cut” from his high school team. The truth is that while Jordan didn’t make Laney High’s varsity roster as a sophomore, he starred that season on the JV team. Walt shoots hoops and swears off going out for the team the following year. Suddenly, à la Shoeless Joe in Field of Dreams, Jordan appears on the playground to dispense encouragement (“competing is not just a test of who’s bigger or stronger” and yadda, yadda, yadda). Of course, it’s all just window dressing for MJ footage and interviews with Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, Danny Ainge, Kevin Johnson, and Karl Malone, all of whom say glowing things about Jordan. He would go on to return the favor in the most savage way possible—by denying each of them in a Finals series.
Overheated narration: [Mystical pan flute music] “This is where it all begins. The one kid alone on the playground. This is where you fall in love with the game. This is where the fantasy begins.”
Jordan on Jordan: “I don’t know whether I fly or not, but I do know that when I’m up in the air, sometimes I feel that I don’t ever have to come down.”
Killer quote: “If you can defense [sic] Jordan,” says Dennis Rodman, “you can defense anything in the league—anything in the world!”
Best villain: If we’re being honest, our hero Walt is undersized, has no handles, demonstrates what Bobby Knight might call a piss-poor attitude, and gets straight-up bodied in the tryout. He deserves to be cut.
Celebrity cameo: R&B group Full Force with Lisa Lisa, whose music video for a jaunty tune called “Anything Is Possible” features Jordan lip-synching and shambling through choreography.
Fun fact: Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) directed Playground, his second credit.
Learning to Fly: The World Champion Chicago Bulls’ Rise to Glory (1991)
The most rewatchable of the dynasty’s championship videos opens on a sunrise over the gleaming skyline of Chicago—the dawning of a new era of basketball. The theme of the Bulls’ 1990-91 season, in which they won a then-franchise-record 61 games, is dispelling the notion that they are merely the Michael Jordan Show. After getting outmuscled by the Pistons for two consecutive years in the conference finals, Michael, Scottie, and Horace finally make it over the hump, sweeping the Bad Boys, prompting Detroit’s sour procession to the locker room as the final seconds tick off the clock. The sonorous baritone of longtime NFL Films narrator Jeff Kaye lends the proceedings gravitas, particularly the Magic-versus-Michael Finals, which maintains the feel of an epic clash of the titans even as the Bulls down the Lakers in five. For a generation weaned on NBA Entertainment, the titular Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song (released five days after the Bulls’ championship victory) will forever spark thoughts of champagne-soaked locker room celebrations.
Overheated narration: “As Michael Jordan soared, so too did the battered hopes of Chicago fans. Chicago had found a hero to deliver them from the NBA’s depths. But to mount an assault against basketball’s elite, he would need reinforcements.”
Jordan on Jordan: “People ask me, can I fly or do I like to fly. Well, I think, as a team, we have shown people that we can fly.”
Killer quote: “They would have to accept the beating that we was giving them,” says Pippen of the pleasure of trouncing the Pistons.
Best villain: The Pistons’ Bill Laimbeer, whose face mask only enhances his diabolism.
Celebrity cameo: Lakers fan Don Johnson—Crockett!—looking worried courtside at the Great Western Forum.
Fun fact: Jordan wears a Malcolm X cap in his interview; he contributed funding to Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic of the black nationalist leader.
Untouchabulls: The Chicago Bulls’ 2nd Championship Season (1992)
How will the reigning champs respond to opponents trying to knock off their crown? For one, by winning 67 games in the regular season. Jordan being Jordan, he becomes obsessed with defending his team’s position as king of the hill, with proving to the world that the first title wasn’t a fluke. Having vanquished the Pistons the previous season, the Bulls now face what will shape up to be one of their great rivals of the ’90s: the New York Knicks, whose malevolence is underscored by potent narration from ubiquitous movie-trailer voice-over actor Hal Douglas (Die Hard, The Silence of the Lambs, Goodfellas). In the conference semifinals, Patrick Ewing and his fellow bruisers push the Bulls to the brink—one of only three Game 7s Jordan ever faced. That series feels more monumental here than even the eventual Bulls-Blazers Finals. In the opener at Chicago Stadium, the famed “Shrug Game,” Jordan hits six 3-pointers in the first half, a feat that seems quaint by the standards of today’s 3-centric NBA. The video is punctuated by Michael Jackson’s music video for “Jam,” featuring Jordan teaching Jackson to play basketball and Jackson, in turn, schooling Jordan on the moonwalk.
Overheated narration: “Fortified by their unity, the Bulls decisively took control of the contest. Closing out the series, Chicago gratefully put this unexpectedly grueling test of their championship mettle behind them.”
Jordan on Jordan: “I started running for that 3-point line,” Jordan says of his performance in the Shrug Game. “I felt a great rhythm. It felt like a free throw, really, from that distance.”
Killer quote: “Last year was a honeymoon. It was a kiss of a beloved, almost,” Phil Jackson says. “This year has been an odyssey, a journey filled with travail and pitfalls ...”
Best villain: Xavier McDaniel, who talks trash to Pippen in Game 7 of the conference semifinals, stirring Jordan to get in the X-Man’s face—and, well, you don’t need to be a lip-reader to understand MJ. The message is clear: “Fuck you.”
Celebrity cameo: Film critic Gene Siskel glumly presenting the courtside camera with his famous thumb.
Michael Jordan: Air Time (1993)
Among NBA Entertainment’s Jordan-centric titles, Air Time feels like an actual work of sports journalism, rather than a piece of pure puffery. In a relatively candid interview, Jordan answers questions about some difficult subjects: Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis and retirement, sportswriter Sam Smith’s shit-stirring tell-all book The Jordan Rules, the NBA’s investigation into MJ’s gambling on golf with a reputed cocaine dealer, his budding friendship during the ’92 Olympics with “ugly American” Charles Barkley. He openly chafes at his own celebrity, and the attendant media glare: “Everything, every move, every shot is in the spotlight,” he says. “I’m a target now.” He expresses weariness with his position in the culture as a role model and smiling corporate pitchman: “I tried to live like everyone wanted me to live—the purest of all people,” he says. “There’s no such thing.” He loses his temper: “I was in a rage,” he recalls of fouling out in a ’92 triple-overtime loss to the Jazz. “You should’ve seen me in the locker room. I kicked chairs in. I broke the blackboard.” In other words, Jordan is human. And for the first time, he wants us to know it.
Jordan on Jordan: “If I have any problems away from the basketball court, if I’m out there playing, I got a solution for that. It’s like my psychologist or whatever. And if you ever take that away from me, I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Killer quote: Doug Collins, the Bulls’ coach from 1986 to 1989, says the play call that led to “the Shot” against the Cavaliers in 1989 was simply, “Get the ball to Michael, everyone else get the fuck out of the way.”
Fun fact: Jordan can throw a football 65 yards, a feat of strength he proves to Ahmad Rashad during an interview in MJ’s backyard.
Three-Peat: The Chicago Bulls’ Historic Third Championship Season (1993)
In the years preceding the ’92-93 season, the Lakers and Pistons each had been in position to win a third consecutive championship—and failed. Jordan now has the opportunity to accomplish a feat that Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas never would. Or as NBA Entertainment screenwriter Larry Weitzman turgidly put it, “The 1993 season was the culmination of a three-year odyssey and a personal journey to their place in history.” The Bulls sweep through the first two rounds of the playoffs. In the conference semifinals, MJ completes his torching of the Cavaliers’ Gerald “the Jordan Stopper” Wilkins with a buzzer-beater to end the series. But in the conference finals the Bulls run headlong into the Knicks, who force Jordan and Pippen to climb out of a 2-0 hole. The filmmakers assiduously avoid the big off-court drama: Jordan gambling in Atlantic City on the eve of Game 2. The six-game series boasts at least one all-time great play: clinging to a one-point lead in the waning seconds of Game 5, the Bulls make a critical defensive stand in the paint against Charles Smith, a moment immortalized in Marv Albert’s classic call: “Smith stripped ... Smith stopped ... Smith stopped again!” The other classic of this Bulls postseason: John Paxson burying his version of “the Shot” in Game 6 of the Finals to vanquish Barkley’s formidable Suns. Watching the clip today, you can almost forget what a mess Pax would eventually make of the front office during his tenure as a team executive.
Overheated narration: “But while the Suns took center stage, the Bulls glided into the series like a shark—silent and ready to attack.”
Jordan on Jordan: “I wanted to prove to [the Cavaliers] that no matter what you do, what changes you make, I’m going to overcome that challenge.”
Killer quote: “For us to win a third championship is not even worth talking about at this time,” the Zen Master, Phil Jackson, says before the season’s home opener. “It’s a journey that begins with a single step, this thousand-mile journey. We’ve got to remember that each game is that step that you take along the way.”
Best villain: Knicks ruffian John Starks, who says he approaches playoff games against Chicago as “all-out war,” replacing Laimbeer as the face of pure evil in the minds of Bulls fans.
Fun fact: The 1990-91 to 1992-93 Bulls become only the third team in NBA history to win three championships in succession. The other two: the Minneapolis Lakers (1951-52 to 1953-54) and the Boston Celtics (who won eight consecutive titles from 1958-59 to 1965-66).
Unstop-A-Bulls: The Chicago Bulls 1995-96 Championship Season (1996)
The murder of James Jordan. The first retirement. The 18-month baseball caprice. The “I’m back” fax. The no. 45 jersey. The loss to Orlando. It all leads to this miraculous season, in which Jordan and the new-look Bulls not only climb the mountain once again, but somehow find a higher peak, winning a then-record 72 games. Glaringly, the filmmakers don’t delve into the tension around the potentially volatile addition of Rodman. Instead the viewer gets GM Krause explaining that Jordan and Pippen told him, “If you and Phil think it’s the right thing to do ...” The Worm, we are told, “epitomized the meaning of team player,” but that season he also becomes a sensation in Chicago rivaling MJ. His ever-changing hair color, his wedding dress stunt, his head-butting a referee—none of it gets covered here. “72-and-10 don’t mean a thing without a ring,” the Bulls’ Bill Wennington says. That remains the rationale for those who insist this Bulls team is superior to the 2015-16 Warriors, who went 73-9 before losing to LeBron’s Cavs in the Finals.
Overheated narration: “Seattle tried desperately to mount a comeback, but the Bulls countered with a one-man explosion that was enough to lower the Sonics’ boom.”
Jordan on Jordan: “I’ve always been known as a player who could finish off a team,” Jordan says of losing to the Magic in the ’95 conference semifinals. “Here I was in one of those moments, but I let the team down.”
Killer quote: “Come on, I’ll give you a jump shot right here. I’ll give you a jump shot. Shoot it,” Jordan says, teasing a Washington Bullets player, who passes on the opportunity. “Oh, you don’t want it?”
Best villain: Future disgraced referee Tim Donaghy, who is shown shaking hands with Jordan before a game early in the season.
Celebrity cameo: Oprah Winfrey cheering on the Bulls during the playoffs from her courtside perch; Jordan waving bye-bye to Spike Lee during the conference semifinals series against the Knicks.
Michael Jordan: Above and Beyond (1996)
Though the material in Above and Beyond (narrated by ER’s Eriq La Salle) spans Jordan’s life and career, the video’s dramatic center is its star discussing the impact of his father’s murder. “It was a very difficult moment for me,” says Jordan, his eyes tearing up. “Somehow I just kept my head high and thought about all the things he used to tell me: ‘Turn a negative into a positive.’ And here I was dealing with him in that way.” Why did Jordan walk away from basketball after a third championship to pursue baseball? The long bus rides and the game’s relatively slow pace allowed him the space to mourn his dad. “Where baseball was different,” he says, “it gave me an opportunity to revisit all those moments that I had with my father and with some of those situations that never occurred to me and I never thought about [while playing] the game of basketball.”
Overheated narration: “Erasing any doubts that he would reassert his dominance, Michael tortured opponents with a barrage of scoring.”
Jordan on Jordan: “I guess it made me at peace with myself,” Jordan says of his short-lived baseball career. “So it was a therapeutic experience for me. And I needed it. I think if I hadn’t have done it, there’s no way I would’ve been able to come back to the game of basketball. I would probably have a tough time mentally dealing with a lot of things.”
Killer quote: “It felt like someone was closing a coffin,” Jordan says of attending his retirement celebration at the new United Center, when all he is thinking about is returning to basketball.
Best villain: Horace Grant, triumphantly hoisted onto the shoulders of his teammates after the Magic defeat his former team in the conference semifinals.
Celebrity cameo: Bill Clinton, who jokes at a press conference, “The economy has produced 6.1 million jobs since I became president. And if Michael Jordan goes back to the Bulls it’ll be 6,100,001 new jobs.”
Fun fact: During the filming of Space Jam in ’95, Warner Bros. constructs on the studio lot “the Jordan Dome,” a basketball court that allows MJ to continue working out. He plays pickup games with a rotating group that includes Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Reggie Miller, and Shaquille O’Neal.
Chicago Bulls 1996-97 NBA Championship Season (1997)
Sandwiched between the shining return to glory and the bittersweet Last Dance, 1996-97 tends to be the forgotten middle child of Bulls championship runs. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that after a record-setting 72 wins the previous year, Chicago got off to a franchise-best start with 12 consecutive victories. They would ultimately win 69 games, portrayed here as something of a disappointment, with the Bulls losing three of their last four games. NBAE once again whitewashes that season’s Rodman-related theatrics, including his kicking a cameraman in the groin during a game. The tension doesn’t really ratchet up until the Bulls-Jazz series is tied 2-2, leading to Jordan’s famed “Flu Game.” Stricken with a stomach virus, MJ guts out one of the most unforgettable performances in NBA history, scoring 38 and leading the Bulls to a critical victory. The bench, from Toni Kukoc to Jud Buechler, overachieved that season, and fittingly it is not Jordan but Steve Kerr hitting the go-ahead shot in the final seconds to seal the fifth championship.
Overheated narration: “With their unique blend of talent and teamwork, the Bulls were stampeding their way through the season—and having fun doing it.”
Jordan on Jordan: “I got into that zone,” Jordan says after scoring 55 against the Washington Bullets in Game 2 of the opening round of the playoffs. “And I couldn’t get out. I apologized to [Bulls assistant] Tex [Winter] after the game: ‘Sorry about the triangle [offense], Tex. I kind of forgot about the triangle.’ Once I got into that mode, I just couldn’t turn it off.”
Killer quote: “Phil told Michael, ‘I want you to take the last shot.’ And Michael said, ‘I don’t feel real comfortable in these situations, so maybe we ought to go in another direction,’” Kerr joked at the Bulls’ championship celebration in Chicago’s Grant Park, recalling the huddle that led to his game-winning shot in the Finals. “And then Scottie came in and said, ‘Michael said in his commercial that he’s been asked to do this 26 times and failed ... so why don’t we go to Steve?’ So I thought to myself, ‘Well, I guess I’ve got to bail Michael out again. But I’ve been carrying him all year, so what’s one more time?’”
Best villain: The Heat’s Alonzo Mourning, for elbowing Pippen in Game 1 of the conference finals, leaving Scottie with an ugly knot on his forehead.
Celebrity cameo: Bill Clinton, who phones the Bulls in the locker room to congratulate them on the championship. Jordan can be overheard telling the president, “Tell Chelsea congratulations and I hope she enjoys college.”
Fun fact: Jordan made NBA history during All-Star Weekend that season, becoming the first player to record a triple-double in the game.
Unforgettabulls: The 6th NBA Championship Season of the Chicago Bulls (1998)
Centered largely on the final championship quest of the ’90s Bulls, this is the closest video document we’ve had to The Last Dance. The season starts inauspiciously, as Pippen makes a late decision to have surgery on his ailing left foot, sidelining him for the first 35 games. That leaves Jordan to babysit Rodman—a source of significant tension that goes unexplored here. The Bulls hold at 24-11 upon Pippen’s return, charging onward to 62 wins. In the conference finals, Miller’s Pacers take the Bulls to a Game 7 for only the third time in Jordan’s career. From the Finals rematch against the Jazz, everyone remembers Jordan’s series-clinching last shot in a Bulls uniform, but the camera captures a quieter moment that follows, as the star and his beloved coach embrace. “MJ! Oh, my God, that was beautiful. What a finish,” Jackson says. “I had faith,” Jordan replies. “I had faith.”
Jordan on Jordan: “I never make promises. I don’t even promise to my wife,” Jordan insists after losing Game 6 of the conference finals to the Pacers. “But we will win Game 7.”
Killer quote: “Michael Jordan, after the game, I told him I’m proud of him,” the Nets’ Jayson Williams tells the press after the Bulls eliminate his team from the playoffs. “On and off the court, I think he’s one of the most amazing men I’ve ever met in my life, besides my father, Bill Cosby, [and] Danny Aiello.”
Best villain: Former Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong glares at the Chicago bench after his Charlotte Hornets deal Jordan and Co. their first playoff loss that season in Game 2 of the conference semifinals. That prompts MJ to remark later, once the Bulls have thoroughly trounced the Hornets, “I think B.J. kind of forgot about us, what drives us. We utilized the energy that he used at the end of Game 2 to our advantage. We’re good at that. He woke us up.”
Celebrity cameo: Harold Ramis—Egon!—on the sideline looking concerned as the Nets take the Bulls to overtime in Game 1 of the opening round of the playoffs.
Fun fact: The Bulls set a record for the largest margin of victory in NBA Finals history, beating the Jazz 96-54 in Game 3. Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, looking at the box score during the postgame press conference, exclaims, “This is actually the score? ... It seemed like they scored 196!”
Michael Jordan to the Max (2000)
While NBA Entertainment crews almost always shot on video, high-resolution IMAX cameras are instead used to capture the Bulls with striking clarity during the playoffs and Finals of their Last Dance season. Narrated by Laurence Fishburne, this Jordan career retrospective interlaces that HD postseason footage with archival clips, photos, and new interviews. Jordan tries to offer a bit more insight into his exceptional talent and temperament: “I tend to be calm, things tend to slow down,” he says of high-pressure moments. “As I go into situations that people don’t know the outcome, I’ve already experienced them, just playing tricks with myself. ... Once I began to understand that, I became a master of the game of basketball.”
Overheated narration: “For fans who had watched him since his days as a Carolina schoolboy, what emerged now was not just the skill but the willpower.”
Jordan on Jordan: “Ten years from now, 20 years from now, what I would want people to say—and it’s simple—that if Michael Jordan was still playing the game of basketball, he would dominate.”
Killer quote: Jordan says Jackson’s lessons in meditation “gave me an understanding about life in a whole different frame. His teaching, the understanding of Zen Buddhism is how you view yourself to deal with the realities of life surrounding you and somehow be able to correlate that to a simple game of basketball.”
Celebrity cameo: Bill Murray, sizing up Jordan in geologic time, says, “Out of the 50,000 top athletes since prehistoric times—brontosauruses and pterodactyls included—he’s right there.”
Jake Malooley is a writer and editor based in Nashville.