What we learned about the Last Dance
For most under the age of 40, the Last Dance was a learning experience. If you were a basketball fan and old enough to understand the game of basketball, there weren't a lot of things that were brand new. If you lived in Chicago at that time, nothing was really surprising. But that didn't make the 10 one-hour episodes any less interesting, because it focused not only one of the greatest athletes in the history of team sports, but a collection of eclectic role players that surrounded him.
At 50, I've witnessed thousands of college, NBA, high school and AAU games live, streaming or on TV. I have to admit that while I respected the Bulls dynasty, I never really rooted for them and lost my fair share of money betting against them or playing in playoff pools. Great players are recognized by their rings nowadays and that's not altogether fair. It wasn't fair for Charles Barkley, Karl Malone or John Stockton, because they couldn't get past Jordan.
But what some learned is that Jordan didn't do it by himself. He was great when he arrived in the league in 1984, but wasn't a complete player until Phil Jackson brought in the Triangle defense and Jerry Krause added Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and a multiple of role players. If not for guys like John Paxson, B.J Armstrong and Steve Kerr, sitting out on the perimeter, he might not have won six championships. It was Jordan, believing in those teammates when he was double-teamed, giving up the rock to help make those guys heroes.
What else was learned in this documentary that we might not have known before?
Krause was booed basically everywhere because it was well-known that he was considering breaking up the Bulls and that Jordan and Pippen didn't like or respect him. Pippen finally did give Krause credit at the end of the documentary and while he looked like a fool at times, he wasn't alive to defend himself. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf seemed to deflect the blame elsewhere when he was basically just as responsible for team disassembled after the 1997-98 season. We did find out that Krause basically said before the season that Jackson could go 82-0 and they would go with another coach.
The Gus Lett story was something that I wasn't aware of. He was Jordan's bodyguard and after his father was killed in 1993 and became a father figure. Lett was struggling with cancer and Jordan reportedly paid for his medical expenses. Lett passed away from cancer in 2000.
*We also saw the emotional part of Jordan. His crying in the locker room on the floor winning the title in 1994 was known, but most never heard the audio.
“I know he’s watching,” said Jordan during his post-game interview with friend Ahmad Rashad. “To my wife and kids, to my mother, brother and sister, this is for Daddy.”
*We learned from director Jason Hehir, who brought all this practice footage together showing the very competitive side of Jordan, getting or even harassing guys like Scott Burrell or getting in a fight with Steve Kerr. Was that really needed to get these guys going? Not really. But it added to his stigma as a competitor, right or wrong. He wanted everybody to be as competitive as he was and cold-blooded. The guy carried a grudge and made some just to add fuel to the fire. Nowadays, guys get mad on Twitter or Instagram and it doesn't really translate to the court. The bigger news for the NBA is made during free agency when there's a Woj bomb, and if that's the sad part of the sport.
*Yes, Jordan did not like Isaiah Thomas, but apparently he had nothing to do (come on) with Thomas not making the 1992 Olympic team. That might have been a collective effort, but basketball is about chemistry and a lot of guys admired his talent but not the person.
*Dennis Rodman was the least shocking part of the documentary. He skipped practice to go to Las Vegas and then wrestler for WCW. That was Rodman in a nutshell. If you added Rodman, you were going to have deal with an insane rebounder and defender, and deal with the off-the-court shenanigans.
*To me, the story of Pippen was more fascinating. He was a great player in his own right, but didn't have the "dog" in him to be that guy to take the game-winning shot. That's why Jackson went to Toni Kukoc (when Jordan was playing baseball), instead of Pippen in Game 3 against the Knicks in 1994. Pippen wouldn't go back in the game and that sullied his reputation.
There was so much more to talk about, because in five weeks, we were able to witness all 10 episodes on Sunday night on ESPN. We were able to see clips of Jackson coaching in the CBA and Kerr talking about his father Malcolm's assassination in 1984 in Beirut. Then it ended with Jordan's shot to beat the Jazz in Game 6, where he casually pushed off Bryon Russell (not as bad as it looked 22 years later).
Maybe the most revealing thing out of the whole documentary was that "The Flu Game", which was Game 5 of the 1997 Finals, was actually more about food poisoning. Jordan and his confidants ordered a pizza outside a suburb in Salt Lake City. His person trainer Tim Grover found five people there to deliver the pizza outside the hotel room and decided not to eat it. Jordan did and suffered for it as hours later, he suffered the consequences. Yet he managed to score 38 points in 44 minutes, despite trying to be the "decoy". That actually makes it more remarkable considering the toll it took on him.
Jordan was one of a kind. He didn't have to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Oklahoma City Thunder to win titles. He waited for the team to improve and he adapted. Jordan was larger than life before social media. I could only imagine what it would have been like had his prime taken place in this era. I could only imagine how Twitter would have exploded for every Rodman story or Pippen's migraines or contract beef. There will be dynasties, but there will never by anything like Jordan and the Bulls.