Each of the past five Sundays, Isaiah Thomas has walked into his home theater just before 9 p.m. ET and asked not to be disturbed for the next two hours. ESPN’s The Last Dance has taken center stage at the Thomas household, just like it has across the nation. And though Thomas says his wife and kids have joined him for a couple episodes, he’s the one who has been locked in.
“I used to sneak out of church to go watch Jordan,” says the 31-year-old. “The Bulls vs. the Knicks, Bulls vs. Pacers, Bulls vs. Miami, all those. He was always the first game on Sunday, NBA on NBC.”
For Cody Zeller, 27, who plays for the Jordan-owned Charlotte Hornets, and Arike Ogunbowale, 23, of the Dallas Wings, the documentary has been something to look forward to every Sunday night—an event to schedule their lives around while the professional leagues are paused. And for 23-year-old rookie Admiral Schofield, who grew up an hour north of Chicago, and 27-year-old Harrison Barnes, a former Tar Heel, Sunday nights have become an opportunity to tap into both basketball nostalgia and education.
Last week, I asked Thomas, Zeller, Ogunbowale, Barnes, and Schofield about their experiences watching the monocultural event, their favorite parts of the series, their connections to Jordan, what they will take away, and more.
What was the most memorable moment of the documentary?
Harrison Barnes: I love just seeing [Jordan’s] competitiveness. Whether it was with his teammates, in practice, in games, he would motivate himself, and he was just a constant competitor. I think that was awesome to see.
Cody Zeller: The behind-the-scenes footage. I’ve seen a lot of his full games on NBA classic reruns, but I haven’t seen a lot of the highlights that they’re showing. The behind-the-scenes footage of MJ and Danny Ainge playing golf between games 1 and 2 [of the 1986 first-round playoff series between the Celtics and Bulls], and some of those. [Dennis] Rodman going to Vegas, them on and off the bus, MJ smoking a cigar in his hotel room. Stuff like that. You hear stories and you see his highlights, but I think they’re doing a pretty good job of developing what his life was really like, especially talking about the amount of people that would be outside of his hotel and then at the arena, in the locker room—there was no way for him to get away from that. Wherever he went, he was recognized.
Arike Ogunbowale: Just how passionate Michael was about winning it, how he might’ve looked like a bad guy to a lot of people and even maybe some of his teammates, but all of it was good-natured. That’s how it is when you’re trying to win. Not everybody gets along with teammates, not everybody gets along with their coach, but in order to win, you have to do things. ... It doesn’t matter how it’s done, it doesn’t matter if you hurt people’s feelings or not, just [be] competitive. I think that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve taken from it.
Admiral Schofield: I would say the most memorable moment would be around Jordan’s third championship, when he started making those documentaries, Airtime, Come Fly With Me. I had those growing up and that’s what really motivated me to be a basketball player. So to see what was going on around that time was amazing. Growing up outside of Chicago, I didn’t know all of this. I always heard about the Bulls and them winning six championships. I never knew how they broke up, and why all this went down.
Isaiah Thomas: I got a couple. The Kobe moment was dope, just because you can see all of the older superstars talking about a 19-year-old. You could tell he was going to be special from there. Then obviously the end of Episode 7 ... I think he shook the world with that one. Just Michael basically explaining who he really was. “I do whatever it takes to win, that’s just who I am. If it rubs people the wrong way, so be it.” So those two parts are something I’m always going to think of when I think of The Last Dance.
What is something you learned about Jordan or the Bulls?
Barnes: I think you get a better look at some of the personal dynamics, whether it was the team with the front office, the team with coaching. Some of these small details you didn’t really notice, right? You just saw how the team played, you saw how great they were, you know every team has ups and downs, but I think to see them talk so candidly about it, that’s been really interesting.
Zeller: The front-office stuff. I didn’t know anything about Jerry Krause or the [Scottie] Pippen contract negotiations. [When I was young] I couldn’t wrap my mind around all the front-office stuff, so I’ve actually learned a lot from watching the documentary.
Ogunbowale: Well, I didn’t know a lot, just because this was before my time. Like Dennis Rodman, I didn’t know how crazy he was. Obviously I’ve seen pictures and I’ve heard stories, but I didn’t know that’s actually how he was. I didn’t know about Scottie, I didn’t know he wasn’t getting paid anything basically, I didn’t know about Jerry Krause. There’s so many things. The only thing I really knew is [Jordan] had six rings, that’s about it.
Schofield: I would just say a lot more has been confirmed about Mike. I’ve always [wondered] how much of a savage Mike really was, how much of a killer he was on the court, how hard he worked, how much trash he talked. And to see all of this, it just makes me just shake my head like, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”
Thomas: Probably just all the drama they had with the front office. I didn’t know any of that when I was younger. Obviously I was watching Jordan, especially the ’96 finals when they played the Sonics, but I didn’t know all the drama they had with the GM. I didn’t know the Scottie Pippen stuff. I didn’t know [the front office] told Phil Jackson, “Even if you go 82 and 0, this is your last year.” … After the first couple of episodes, I was like, “If there was social media back then, they couldn’t do anything without it getting out.”
Whose backstory did you enjoy learning about most: Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, or Phil Jackson?
Barnes: I would say Dennis was the most entertaining. But I didn’t really know Scottie’s background in terms of, like, how he was a point guard and he grew, and how he got to the team.
Zeller: I had seen the 30 for 30 on Rodman and so I knew a little bit more about him. But I mean he’s just such a character that there’s so many stories I’m sure they can’t tell or can’t show. Like the behind-the-scenes footage of him partying in Vegas and hearing his teammates talk about how he was wired. ...
I probably learned the most from the Pippen part of it. I knew how good of a second player he was behind MJ, but I didn’t know much about his background, especially with the contract negotiations or how he was viewed in the league. They do a good job of developing each of the players.
Ogunbowale: I would say the Dennis story and how he literally asked for a break in the middle of season to go to Vegas. I think that’s unheard of, and the fact that he actually was granted the break.
Schofield: It really helped me have bigger respect for Pippen. Just to know that he was the second-best player in the league at the time. You can see almost a little bit of LeBron in Pippen, how he played the game. It’s just crazy how great he was on defense and how respected he was. And then Rodman, I mean Rodman was an architect at rebounding … It’s [cool] to get a closer look and see their mindsets and their approach toward the game.
Thomas: Probably Rodman, just because you know how he impacted the game on the court and you know how crazy he was, but you didn’t know all the other stuff. You didn’t know how loved he was—even Michael Jordan basically said he needed him. You didn’t know the background of Dennis Rodman like that.
Bonus question: How do you think it would go over if you were to ask for a break today?
[Laughs.] I don’t think that’ll work. First of all, it would be the biggest story—nobody would be able to keep it in. Nowadays somebody’s going to tell the media and they will blow it up. But how they kept that under wraps is crazy, because he literally just went to Vegas.
What was your favorite moment from the Jordan interviews?
Zeller: He doesn’t do many interviews, so it’s really cool to hear him talking about different stories. Obviously there’s so many iconic moments throughout his career—Isiah walking off the court after finally beating him, that story about, “Will you take the painkiller if nine out of 10 are good and one of them will kill you?” Stuff like that’s pretty cool. He’s a good storyteller, too.
Ogunbowale: I would say anytime he has that iPad, that’s perfect meme-worthy stuff. When Isiah Thomas was talking and he was looking at that, and then recently with the Glove, he was looking at the iPad, too. So definitely those. Just watching his reaction live.
Thomas: I think, for me, the craziest one was how he laughed about Gary Payton ... especially because I’m from this area. I’m from Tacoma, Washington, south of Seattle. I grew up on Gary Payton and him being the best defender that I’ve seen at the guard position. For [Jordan] to laugh at that and just be like, “I had no problems with the Glove,” those moments are probably the coolest for me. The moments where he found motivation against Clyde Drexler, with Dan Majerle. When George Karl didn’t say hi to him in the restaurant. All those types of moments are very cool to me. He had the last laugh.
Barnes: Probably the one where he was laughing at Gary Payton … [that] was so disrespectful. And then when he was watching the one with Isiah [Thomas]—it was like he was reliving those moments. So in one sense, he’s laughing, and in the other sense, it’s like that anger from all those years competing against Detroit was coming back up. So I think it was interesting to see how those competitive rivalries, those drives, they don’t really fade. Those still seem very fresh to him.
Bonus question: Can those grudges happen or grow in today’s NBA?
I’m not saying it can’t happen in this period, but a lot of those teams they were going against, they were established, doing this for longer periods of time. That Boston team, that Detroit team, that Lakers team, whether it’s Utah, whether it’s New York, those guys were together. And I feel like your team, your squad, your guys, that was built up over years and years of just being in the trenches. Now, I think there’s a little bit more movement in terms of going from team to team.
Growing up, did you know more about Jordan the basketball player, or Jordan the cultural figure?
Barnes: I would say I probably knew more about the player. My mom was a huge Jordan fan. We had a bunch of tapes on VHS that I would watch all the time. Now, though, I feel like his story has evolved so much from him going from the player, to the minority owner [of the Hornets], to the majority owner, to having one of the best-selling shoes of all time, to all of the things that he’s achieving now. I feel like that story is still being told.
Zeller: We had an unfinished basement at the house and I mean it was not glamorous at all. My dad had a little TV that couldn’t have been bigger than 15 inches … so some of my earliest basketball memories are watching the Bulls and Jazz playoff series. I obviously knew how good of a player he was since I was such a big basketball junkie. I looked up all of his stats and knew all of his points and rebounds and MVPs and everything else. But I think—and especially with the younger generation—it is obvious the Air Jordans are still such big iconic shoes, and there’s Space Jam and all this other stuff. So it is kind of interesting to hear how people talk about it depending on how old they are. It is unfortunate that kids, even younger guys on my team, the only thing that they know about MJ is stories they’ve heard or highlights that they’ve seen on YouTube. It’s just not the same as seeing him in his prime.
Thomas: I think most people know him from the culture, the shoes. Ask the younger generation now and that’s all they know of. People who love the game, I think they were Michael Jordan fans. But a lot of people are probably in awe of what’s happening on The Last Dance, because they didn’t know anything. Obviously they know he was probably the best of all time, but they didn’t see it.
Ogunbowale: I would say basketball, just because I’m a basketball player. But I’m sure everybody that wasn’t a big basketball player learned about him through the shoes.
Schofield: I would say it’s a mix of both, but mainly basketball. Seeing all these highlights of Mike, it makes me feel like a kid again, going back to those moments of running back and forth on my Fisher-Price hoop. One of his lasting impressions [in Chicago though] is his shoes, for sure. It’s not like Mike lives in Chicago anymore or comes back as much because he owns the Hornets. It’s like his lasting impression is his shoes. For us, it means something different to have a pair of J’s, or to wear J’s, or to have your J’s cleaned.
Bonus question: How many Jordans do you own?
I know I have at least 30. I have 30 boxes at home. [Pauses to count.] Here, I have, let’s see: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12. I have 13 pairs here in D.C. So, about 43 total.
What is your favorite Jordan highlight from his career?
Barnes: Honestly, I enjoyed him a little bit more in his later years. When it was more him in the post. As he got older, he changed his game a little bit. I feel like that’s one of the things I really appreciated about watching him, because as great as he was when he was younger, some of the things he did only he could do. You can’t go out and replicate just the unbelievable finishes, hanging in air, the crazy things he’s able to do. But as he got older, it’s like, “Oh, I can practice that. I can go out on my outdoor hoop and I can try these things out.” So I think that was probably what I enjoyed most about his game.
Zeller: The Jazz rivalry was always really cool to me because the series always seemed to go down to the wire. I’ve seen the highlight of him making a couple of the game-winners, and especially the one in Utah, but they did a pretty good job of telling the backstory behind it. I had never seen a lot of that before so that was cool to see.
Ogunbowale: I think it was when he said he was on the golf course with somebody the night before a game, and he told them he was going to kill him. Then the next day he actually did that and put up 50 or 60. I don’t remember what the score was, but he said he was going to do it and he did it. That’s pretty dope.
Schofield: My favorite highlight would have to be the dunk contest in Chicago. His swag was unbelievable. Ever since then, I’ve tried to rock the two gold chokers, the low chain. From that point on, his swag, everything about Jordan was just everything I wanted to be growing up.
Thomas: Obviously I think it has to be the shot in ’98. Probably the flu game, too. Everybody remembers the flu game. When I think of Michael Jordan, I think about those moments.
Who was the Jordan for your generation?
Barnes: I think the guys you grew up watching, the guys who were on TV. The Kobes, LeBron, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Shaq, Dirk, Tim Duncan. Those were guys who were winning championships. I feel like those were the guys who people really emulated and gravitated towards, and each of them added a different element. That’s not an all-inclusive list, but each added something to the game that I feel really affected younger players. Usually when players say, “Oh, Kobe was my Jordan,” or “Dirk was my Jordan,” or Tim Duncan, it was because of the impact that those guys had. But all of those guys that I mentioned were impacted by Mike.
Zeller: I think it was Kobe and LeBron, but especially Kobe. I grew up in Indiana so I was a huge Reggie Miller fan. I always appreciated Kobe and his abilities, but as a Pacers fan, I wasn’t necessarily cheering for him. At the same time, it’s just tough not to respect his game. I mean to see the championships that he was winning and the kind of performances he had. Now, obviously LeBron is the guy of this generation. … He’s on another level than most guys in the league. So it’s cool to kind of test yourself against the best. I’m sure when my career’s over, I’ll tell my kids how I played against LeBron and Kobe.
Ogunbowale: I would say Kobe, just because I’m the biggest fan of him. But after he retired, I started thinking, “Oh, LeBron’s actually kind of good.” So I’ve been a big fan of him since. Definitely those two though, for sure.
Schofield: I would have to go with LeBron. When Jordan came into the league, it was more of a stereotypical league. Guards were a certain height, bigs were a certain height. If you were this height, you played that position or you would fall into that category. That’s why when you had a 6-foot-9 point guard, it was a little shocking. They could do different things. For LeBron to be as big as he is and to be able to do all the things he does, I just say he’s a player that has changed the game and showed what true skilled all-around players really look like.
Then there’s the way LeBron has handled himself off the court. I think he’s a great role model. Just those two things alone, I feel like he’s definitely the Jordan of our generation. I would be interested to see his documentary. I couldn’t imagine being followed around since being 13 years old, and being on a national stage, and every time I played a game it’s like I’m being analyzed by the best analysts, I’ve got NBA players commenting about me, and I’m still in high school. That’s powerful, man.
Thomas: Kobe Bryant. He did everything the same as Jordan, everything. The way he carried himself, all of that. I think the next generation is LeBron and then the generation before me got Michael Jordan. But I’m going with Kobe.
If you had to pick one active NBA player to eventually get a multipart documentary, who would it be? Your answer cannot be LeBron.
Barnes: I’m going to change the question a little bit. Even though he’s not playing anymore, rest in peace, it would probably be Kobe. So many people from all different disciplines, not just basketball, but all different disciplines, were impacted by his work ethic, by his drive, by his desire to be the best. And when you talk about Mike and the impact he’s had, I think the closest player that we’ve ever seen do that has been Kobe.
Zeller: I mean LeBron would be the obvious choice. Who else? [Carmelo Anthony] would be cool. He’s been in a little bit of drama here and there, he’s been on some good teams. Chris Paul’s had a great career. He played with a lot of big-market teams and there’s always a lot that surrounds him. In a few years maybe Giannis, especially with the international element. We played Giannis in Paris this year, and it’s pretty cool to see the kind of international connection that he has and the draw that he has over there. Especially if he wins a few championships and he gets on that level, I could see something special like that for him as well.
Ogunbowale: I think Allen Iverson needs one for sure, I will watch that in a heartbeat. WNBA, I’d probably say either Maya Moore or Diana Taurasi.
Schofield: Can I give you four? One, I would say, Damian Lillard: four-year college player, mid-major program, top-10 pick. And from Oakland. Two, Draymond Green because we play similar positions. I think I can do some things better than he can, like shoot, but I would love to get a look into his toughness. I respect his toughness, I respect his mindset, I respect how he plays the game. My thing has always been to look into people’s mentality, to look into how people did it, and to fit it into how I do things. How can I make what I do better by what they did? Three, [Russell Westbrook]. Definitely, Russ. I would like to know more about his coming up, especially his years at UCLA. I feel like that dude has a mindset like Kobe and Jordan. And Kawhi Leonard for sure.
Thomas: I think it would be Steph Curry, just because nobody thought he would be like he was. Like LeBron, everybody knew he was going to be great. Kevin Durant, I kind of knew he was gonna be great. Steph Curry going in, they had a lot of questions about him. Was he going to be good enough? For him to win three championships, go to what, five straight Finals, I think he changed the game. Not culturally, but he changed the game of basketball. Two-time MVP, the only unanimous MVP. When he came in, he wasn’t supposed to be there.
How do you think Jordan would fare in today’s NBA?
Barnes: Oh, he’d dominate. I mean, if you can average 37 when you’re hand-checking, when people throw you to the ground, in this day and age he would dominate.
Zeller: I think he would do well. Obviously the game has changed. A lot of 3s and layups, but I definitely don’t think it’s as physical as it was back then. No matter what generation he’s in, I think that he would still be effective and put up huge numbers. And people forget how good of a defender he was. … I think there were a lot of guys that used to post up, play that midrange game and people were used to guarding it, but if you threw them into today’s league, I don’t think many guys would know how to defend a guy of his size in the post. And so I think he would cause a lot of problems because he would not be the typical player you see every night.
Ogunbowale: I think he would do the same thing. There’s just something about him. … I don’t think a lot of the players back then would dominate in today’s NBA. But Jordan would still kill.
Schofield: I don’t care what anybody says [about midrange vs. 3-pointers], if you can shoot, you can shoot. It doesn’t matter who is in front of you. The best scorers in the world will tell you the same thing. It doesn’t really matter who is in front of you. It’s just about how you’re shooting the ball. That man, Michael Jordan, is unbelievable. I’m not going to even predict what he would do in today’s game. But I would say this: The midrange would separate him. If you look at guys like Kawhi Leonard, DeMar DeRozan, they’re midrange guys, and I feel like they stand out because of how efficient they are. Well, Michael Jordan was the most efficient. He shot 50 percent on his career. I don’t think it would be a drop-off.
Thomas: I love Michael Jordan, but I think it would be a lot tougher for him today. Obviously, he would be the best player in the NBA in skill, but each and every night would be rougher for him than it was when he played. Because everybody’s his height, everybody’s just as athletic, everybody’s just as fast. No disrespect to those guys back then, but nobody was his height that was guarding him. Everybody else was 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3 if you really look at it. So I think it would be a lot tougher in today’s game. I think he would still be the best, it just would be a little more challenging.
What is your lasting takeaway from the documentary?
Barnes: I forgot which episode it was in—they were talking about how Michael’s done all these different things, he’s an emerging star with the Bulls and he’s got all these other things going on off the court. And he said, “My game was the biggest thing that drove all of it.” I think that’s really profound. All of these things were going on around him, and as we see, it was chaotic. But his commitment to the game was unmatched. And I feel like that drive, that singular driving force in him, is something that you just admire. It makes you motivated to go and work on your own game and to attack anything in life with that sole commitment to be great at it.
Ogunbowale: [Jordan’s] killer mentality in general and how bad he wants to win. He was going to make that happen by any means necessary. As a leader—and I’m growing into that position on my team—it has to be that way. Whether it’s going to hurt people’s feelings, whether it’s going to be OK, it doesn’t matter. As long as the goal is to win, as long as that’s what you’re working toward, that’s what you have to do. So you might have to be the bad guy sometimes, some people might not like you, but they have to respect you and you just have to go out there and show them. I think he played as hard in practice [as in games], and that’s something that not a lot of people do. Some people take practices off or they go light, but that’s how you get better. He was the hardest worker, and that’s how he got his team’s level to rise.
Schofield: Michael Jordan’s mindset is unbelievable. He’s able to put his own little things in his head to motivate himself. That’s so amazing. That’s a level of mental toughness that I would love to learn. It’s amazing to see all the stuff Jordan dealt with throughout his career and all the stuff he’s overcome in his games, and situations in his life, on and off the floor, and just how much of an impact he’s made around the world.