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‘The Last Dance’ Delves Into the Worm and the Zen Master

How did Michael Jordan coexist with two unique spirits in Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson? The documentary examines their complicated but fruitful relationships that ultimately led to all-time greatness.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

So many elements of the ’90s Bulls were unlikely, from the characters involved to the paths they took to Chicago. The third and fourth episodes of The Last Dance focus on Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson coming to the team, two eccentric, multidimensional characters who thrived off each other. “He don’t look at me as a basketball player,” Rodman said about Jackson. “He look at me as a great friend.” In many ways, the two are opposites. Jackson is nicknamed the Zen Master because of his devotion to Buddhism, meditation, Indigenous American philosophies, and spiritual practices that he infused in his coaching. Rodman is harder to label, but I’m comfortable ruling out “Zen” as a descriptor.

Chicago needed both. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen accepted both. That someone as hypercompetitive as Jordan could coexist alongside Rodman, who disappeared to Vegas for days at a time during the 1997-98 season, was the most interesting part of Sunday’s double feature, which also included the rivalry with the Bad Boys Pistons, the Scottie Pippen migraine game, Phil Jackson doing acid, and The Shot. Here are five things we learned:

Coaches Come and Coaches Go

Despite pivoting back and forth in time, The Last Dance centers around the 1997-98 season, so we’re reminded often that Jerry Krause wanted Phil Jackson gone. The documentary’s opening title sequence even dubs a line from one of Krause’s press conferences—“This will be Phil’s last season as coach of the Bulls”—over its theme music. In last Sunday’s premiere, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf reminded viewers that Krause was ironically the one who hired Jackson as an assistant coach in the first place. In the doc’s third and fourth installments, we learn how that came to be.

Krause plucked Jackson from the CBA’s Albany Patroons, the league’s 1984 champions, to be an assistant coach under Doug Collins, who was hired by Chicago in 1986. (A quick aside about young Collins, whom Jordan called “a breath of fresh air” and “Dougie”: The first Bulls game Collins coached was against a fierce Knicks team in the Garden. It was tied with two minutes to go; Collins, known for sweating through his shirts, was dripping wet. “Soaked,” he said in the documentary, and talked about how he’d chewed his gum into a powder that lined his lips. “I saw this hand come out with a cup of water,” Collins said, “and it was Michael Jordan. And he looked at me and said, ‘Coach, take a drink of that water, clean that stuff off your mouth. I’m not going to let you lose your first game.’” Chicago won, 108-103, and Jordan dropped 50 points, a record at the time for an opposing player at the Garden.)

In 1989, Jackson was promoted to head coach. Collins had refused the triangle offense that Krause was dying to institute, even banning veteran assistant coach Tex Winter—a triangle whisperer who “berated” Collins to use the system—from the bench. Eventually, Winter began grooming Jackson, who became a more appealing head coach to the front office. Had it not been for Krause pushing Jackson to run that offense, the Bulls wouldn’t have been as successful as they were, and Jackson never would’ve found the system that he swore by for decades. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention a story told in the doc by Jackson’s writing partner and longtime friend, Charles Rosen, about Jackson taking acid in Los Angeles when he was younger and thinking he was a lion. The origins of the Zen Master.


The Jordan Rules

The Pistons notoriously employed “The Jordan Rules” in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In the documentary, the 1989 Eastern Conference finals are used as a peg to explain the rules, set at the time by Detroit coach Chuck Daly as a means to stop Jordan.

“We had to do everything from a physicality standpoint to stop him,” said Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas. “When he was in the air, we had no shot. But when everything is on the floor, you can hold your own.” Hold is carrying a lot of weight here. Detroit pushed, shoved, elbowed, mauled, etc. “I don’t know how he came out of it alive,” James Worthy said. Here are various recollections from the documentary by former Pistons of what exactly the “The Jordan Rules” were:

Assistant coach Brendan Malone: “(1) On the wings, we’re going to push him to the elbow. And we’re not going to let him drive to the baseline. (2) When he’s on top, we’re going to influence him to his left. (3) When he got the ball in the low post, we’re going to trap him from the top.”

What happens when Jordan still manages to make it to the baseline?

“That’s when [Bill] Laimbeer and [Rick] Mahorn would go up and knock him down to the ground.”

Forward John Salley: “As soon as he steps in the paint”—Salley turned his right hand into a fist and smacked it with his left—“hit him.”

Forward Dennis Rodman: “Chuck Daly said this is the Jordan Rule: Every time he go to the fuckin’ basket, put him on the ground. When he goes to the basket, he ain’t gonna dunk. We’re gonna hit you and you’re gonna be on the ground. We were trying to physically hurt Michael.”

The Pistons beat the Bulls, figuratively and literally, in the 1989 and 1990 Eastern Conference finals. The 1990 loss inspired Jordan and his teammates to put a new focus on strength training. “Before the Pistons, Michael didn’t weight train,” said Bulls trainer Chip Schaefer. “After getting the shit beat out of him by the Pistons, he finally decided, ‘I got to put some muscle on.’”

Or as Jordan said, “I was getting brutally beaten up. And I wanted to administer pain.”


The One Where Dennis Rodman Goes on a Bender

“Dennis was bizarre,” Steve Kerr told Last Dance filmmakers, “but I think what made it work was Phil and Michael’s understanding that to get the most out of him on the court, you had to give him some rope. And, um, they gave him a lot of rope.”

When Pippen returned from his offseason surgery in January 1998, Rodman asked Jackson for a vacation. “When Scottie was out, Dennis was a model citizen,” Jordan said. “To the point where it was driving him fucking insane.” As Jordan told it, Jackson advocated for giving Rodman a break; the three settled on 48 hours in Las Vegas. No one should be spending more than two nights in Vegas, anyway, athlete or not.

“It was definitely an occupational hazard to be Dennis’s girlfriend,” Carmen Electra said. She was with Rodman in Vegas at the time, and while she was laughing during the interview as she recalled it, dating Rodman turned out to be a serious hazard for her and other women in the future as he would go on to be involved in multiple domestic violence cases. There’s footage in the doc of him partying and drinking, and dancing and drinking, and singing and drinking, and standing on stage and drinking. Rodman did, of course, stay much longer than his allotted 48 hours. Jordan flew to Vegas and personally “[got] his ass out of bed” from the hotel room.

“And that’s the way it went that year,” Jackson said.


Emotions Are Good

After winning his first championship in 1991, Jordan was so relieved to have achieved what he’d aimed for since entering the league in 1984 that he became overwhelmed with emotions amid the celebration in the locker room. As he should be! But it was the ’90s, it was sports, and it was Michael Jordan, so his display of emotions is portrayed as unthinkable. His reputation was one giant, toxic masculinity norm: MJ was too tough, too relentless, too cold-blooded to have emotions. His body hung over the trophy as he hugged it; he met Magic Johnson between locker rooms and cried on his shoulder; he jumped and smiled. There’s irony in how, even in 1991, the world was obsessed with crying Jordan.

“Sometimes we questioned whether he was human,” Bulls center Will Perdue said, “whether he had feelings. It’s just a guy who was totally focused on one thing and one thing only. The only emotion we’d ever seen out of him was anger or frustration. We were literally stunned to see those emotions.”

A Dissertation on Male Apologies

With Pippen sidelined, Jordan leaned on Rodman. But the trust wasn’t there right away. Fifteen games into the 1997-98 season, Chicago was just 8-7. The season before, it took the Bulls 56 games to rack up seven losses. The team needed more reliable production from Rodman than it was getting. The third episode of The Last Dance shows him walking through an arena tunnel, a step ahead of a gaggle of reporters. “I’m bored as hell,” he told them. “Gotta find some way to put a log on the fire.”

The major on-court criticism of Rodman was that he often lost interest. When he was focused, he was one the best defenders ever—even on a team with Jordan and Pippen. When he was checked out he would drift on the court, then make up metaphors to express how bored he was.

Jordan recalled one scene early that season when Rodman was tossed from a game. “He leaves me out there by myself,” Jordan, who was still without Pippen, said. “Dennis knew he fucked up.” That night, Rodman knocked on Jordan’s hotel room door, something he never did, and asked him, “Man, you got an extra cigar?” Rodman said it was his way of saying, “My bad.”

“He didn’t say an apology,” Jordan said. “He didn’t say anything, but by him coming to my room, it was his way of saying, ‘Look man, I fucked up.’” Talking it out without actually talking it out—a great tradition among men everywhere. “And from that point on,” Jordan said, “Dennis was straight as an arrow, and we started to win.”