It took almost 10 hours to get to the question. “Was it satisfying to leave at your peak?” Michael Jordan is asked in the final minutes of ESPN’s The Last Dance, “Or was it maddening?” The 10-part documentary ends right before Jordan announces his second retirement from the Bulls. There’s no mention of his 2001 return or the Wizards. The audience would’ve gathered less enthusiastically for those chapters. ESPN an director Jason Hehir dropped The Last Dance early out of demand, speeding up its release date to appease millions of really bored, really antsy people. The doc became appointment viewing on Sunday night the past five weeks, when for the first time in my lifetime, no other sports-related broadcast could claim the same.
The Last Dance would’ve put up big numbers regardless. It promised hours of exclusive footage and the chance to reminisce with some of basketball’s most familiar faces, including Jordan, with his cigar and an endearingly fluctuating glass of dark liquor. More than the cameos or the unearthed work of a 1997 film crew, the chance to hear Jordan provide a director’s commentary on his career instantly sold the project to the general public. Particularly of interest is the lingering question Hehir eventually leads us to in Episode 10: Why end it?
At the end of the finale, Jordan is handed a tablet to watch a video of Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf explaining why the team broke up in 1998. “I can’t wait to hear this,” Jordan says, “We’ve never had any dialogue about why. I’ve made my own assumptions why.” He watches as Reinsdorf says it would’ve been “suicidal” to bring back veterans Steve Kerr, Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper, and Scottie Pippen because of their market value, and that Phil Jackson—who had already been publicly pre-ousted by general manager Jerry Krause before the season—didn’t want to go through a rebuild.
Jordan dismisses the idea and throws out his own: They could’ve returned on one-year deals, all of them, including Jackson. The way he talks about it—“Now, Pip, you would’ve had to do some convincing, but …”—it’s clear he’s played out this scenario before. Realizing that Reinsdorf and Jordan never spoke about the opportunity to try for another title, something they both wanted, is astonishing. Krause has been painted as the villain, but in the end his perceived rebuilding agenda didn’t matter if Reinsdorf was directly offering Jackson the opportunity to stay. That it wasn’t a concerted, organization-wide effort—or that there wasn’t even one conversation between owner and franchise-altering player—makes one of basketball’s greatest what-ifs boil down to a lack of communication.
Back to the question: Was it satisfying to leave at your peak? Or was it maddening?
“It was maddening,” Jordan says, “because I felt like we could’ve won seven. I really believe that. We may not have. But, man, just to not be able to try. ... That’s something that I just can’t accept for whatever reason. I just can’t accept it.” By Jordan’s account, another Bulls run was possible. (In a lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the tapped-out Bulls would have gotten a respite.) By his account, he only retired, maddeningly, because of front-office decisions made before the season. It’s a sharp contrast in tone from the man who fiercely willed everything in his career to happen, but it’s the answer everyone wanted—one that feels like Jordan is ending the narrative on his own terms.
“If this is the last dance,” a 1998 NBA Finals broadcast says in the doc, “you might as well have it on your own dance floor.”
Highlight of the Episode: Jordan’s Final Minute As a Bull
No one goes out on top this far above the rest. Jordan won the regular-season MVP award, the All-Star MVP, the Finals MVP, and a third straight title the year he left the league. And in Game 6, in the last minute of the last playoff game of his last title, Jordan delivered arguably the best sequence of his career:
Fact Check: The Flu Game
It turns out, one of the most iconic Jordanisms is a lie. It wasn’t the flu that Jordan overcame for 38 points and a win in Game 5 of the ’97 Finals—it was food poisoning. Here’s what happened:
On the eve of the game against the Jazz, Jordan and his trainer, Tim Grover, order a late-night pizza to the team hotel in Park City, Utah. Five guys show up to deliver it, according to Grover. Three explanations for this:
- They’re fans of Michael Jordan. It’s 1997. Who isn’t? They just want him to sign a box.
- They’ve poisoned the pizza in the hopes of incapacitating Jordan for Game 5. Let’s see the plan through together, one says, failing to consider how alarming it will be to see five delivery guys in one car.
- Heavy pizza.
Grover sees the troupe it took to deliver this pizza and grows nervous. “I have a bad feeling about this,” he tells Jordan, who eats the pizza anyway. (Not included in the documentary is the part where Jordan spits on the pizza before eating it so no one else hanging with him can have a slice, a tidbit that Hehir shared with Jalen & Jacoby.) By 3 a.m., MJ—the only person who ate the pizza, for obvious reasons—is violently throwing up. He feels weak; he looks weak; alas, this is Michael Jordan. He plays anyway. The Bulls win Game 5.
But we can’t start suddenly calling it The Food Poisoning Game. We just can’t. Catchiness always tops technicality. Neil Armstrong didn’t say “one small step for man.” He said “one small step for a man.” Darth Vader never said “Luke, I am your father.” It was, “No, I am your father.” And it wasn’t the flu that Jordan had, it was a gastrointestinal gut bomb exploding inside him. Remember that the next time someone annoyingly says, “This was your flu game.”
Best Jordanism: Saying Bye to Larry Bird
Larry Bird should be proud of the 1998 Eastern Conference finals. As a rookie head coach, Bird helped Indiana become only the second team to push the Bulls to a decisive Game 7 during Chicago’s championship era. That clash was remarkable by way of existence, even though the Pacers, as Jalen Rose put it, went out like “a ninth-grade JV team that had no shot.”
At least Bird, who endured plenty of battles with MJ during his playing days, felt some love from the fellow legend after the game. “Enjoy yourself, dog,” Jordan says to his former Dream Team teammate, and, in what may be the greatest two seconds of the entire 10-hour documentary, leans in to whisper, “You bitch, fuck you. Y’all gave us a run for our money.”
Bird says bye with a smile, and Jordan yells that Bird will finally have some time to work on that golf game of his. It’s their language of love.
Who Annoyed Jordan This Week: Bryon Russell
My favorite recurring bit in The Last Dance is Jordan cackling at players who earnestly believe they could’ve contained him. When he was shown a clip of Gary Payton, a nine-time All-Defensive first team selection, suggesting “The Glove” took a toll on MJ during the ’96 Finals, Jordan threw his head back and boomed laughter. In the ninth episode, that poor adversary is Bryon Russell. Jordan scoffs at his name. “Yeah,” he says, “Bryon Russell?”
They first met during the 1993-94 season, when Russell was a rookie with the Jazz and Jordan was playing baseball. “This kid Bryon Russell comes up to me,” Jordan says, “and says, ‘Man, why’d you quit? Man you knew I could guard your ass. You had to quit.’ … From that point on, he’s been on my list.” This of course implies that Jordan had a list of names, which, after 10 hours of a documentary largely fixated on him demoralizing other players, I would still like to see.
They two really met in Game 1 of the ’97 Finals. Russell was Jordan’s primary defender, and by then, “I knew how he played,” Jordan says. He breaks it down for the filmmakers: “Russell plays on the front of his toes, so give him a head-and-shoulder fake. Go this way. He won’t be able to stop.”
Jordan needed to study Russell that closely; he was one of Utah’s best defenders, and would undoubtedly be the primary man thrown at him. But I’m convinced he would’ve learned Russell’s habits either way. The story reminded me of the analysis Jordan gave ESPN’s Wright Thompson in 2013 on how to stop LeBron James, a player he knew he’d never face. In The Last Dance, Jordan exudes every hyperbolic trait we’ve been taught to associate with him, including hyper-obsessive. So of course Jordan remembers that Russell plays on his toes more than 20 years later. It worked, too. Twice. In Game 1 of the ’97 Finals, Jordan hit the winning shot over Russell. The next postseason, in one of basketball’s most iconic moments, he did the same in Game 6.