As the world is locked away during the COVID-19 pandemic, ESPN bumped up the release of their highly anticipated Chicago Bulls docuseries “The Last Dance” from June to April to help fill the void of the lack of live sports.
The series, which was originally slated to air after the NBA finals, chronicles the final season and subsequent history of Michael Jordan’s tenure with the Bulls. And in its first weekend of episodes, the docuseries shows there was more drama off the court than on.
Covering everything from injuries to egos, from Dennis Rodman’s unusual attire to coach Phil Jackson’s zen philosophy to the game, the series also shows is that if fans thought they knew everything about the squad, they were wrong.
Here are five takeaways from weekend one about the GOAT and the dynasty his team built.
1. Jordan’s Drive a Result of Sibling Rivalry and Urge to Prove Everyone Wrong
It has been widely speculated that Michael Jordan had a drive like no other player. The first to arrive at practice and the last to leave. In many ways he set the example for star athletes who came later, like the late Kobe Bryant, soccer superstars Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo, as well as gymnast Simone Biles.
“The Last Dance” gives an inside look into his drive and will to always win unlike ever before.
Early in his life, Michael Jordan became a competitor thanks to the lessons his father, James, taught him. When James, a technician for GE, would be in the garage working on a car or home project, his son, Larry, would be there lending a hand. When Michael would want to help, James would chastise his ignorance and masculinity, saying Michael would have no idea what tools to use and would tell him to go back inside. This forced Michael to want to prove something to his pops.
Larry and Michael would engage in competition both at home and in sports, like baseball and basketball. Larry was poised to be the star athlete of the family due to his height and mass, but it was Michael who wanted to break the records and he did.
After getting cut from the Varsity team early in his high school career, Michael worked as hard as he could to prove everyone wrong. “If you want to bring out the best in Michael, tell him he can't do something or he can't do it as good as somebody else," his father said.
Michael became not only the best basketball player in his high school, he was the best player in the state. He was recruited and played for UNC. There, Jordan said he “went from Mike to Michael Jordan,” and the country soon knew his name. Opting out of his senior year of college, Jordan entered NBA draft in 1984 and was taken 3rd in the first round by the failing Chicago Bulls.
When Jordan arrived in Chicago, the team was hardly a talking point to fans and were fledgling in the standings. Soon, Jordan turned things around by becoming the star and the most talked about athlete in the Windy City.
Attendance rose and while the organization allegedly wanted to tank the season for a better draft pick, Jordan would not accept that.
2. Jordan Nearly Lost Everything Before His Career Really Took Off
Michael Jordan broke his foot early in his second season. He was forced to stay out and doctors told him he had 90% chance of full recovery while a 10% chance of him never playing again if he didn’t follow their orders.
Ever the competitor, Jordan wanted to play and the owner of the team, Jerry Reinsdorf, told his star player that he was crazy. He compared Jordan's condition to a headache, saying if he offered Jordan 10 pills and one of them would kill him, would he take it?
“Depends on how f****** bad the headache is?” Jordan replied.
3. Scottie Pippen Was in Constant Danger of Being Cut
“I would never be able to find a tandem, another support system, another partner in the game of basketball like Scottie Pippen,” Jordan says in episode two. “Whenever they speak Michael Jordan, they should speak Scottie Pippen.”
Scottie Pippen joined the Bulls in 1987, three years after the team signed Jordan. Pippen would soon become the missing link Jordan and the Bulls would need to go deep into the playoffs and push to bring Chicago a championship.
However, what “The Last Dance” reveals is how underappreciated Pippen was by upper management and how the player handled the situation poorly.
While then-Bulls general manager Jerry Krauss pushed for Pippen to join the team in the 1987 draft, Krauss moved heaven and earth to get him on draft day after he was originally drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics. Yet, Krauss’ love with Pippen would soon wear off.
In 1991, Pippen, the youngest of 12 siblings from Arkansas, signed a seven-year contract worth $18 million. The athlete says in the series that he took the deal in order to provide for his family but would constantly push for a renewal after each championship the team won.
Pippen, who led the team in assists and was second to Jordan in scoring, was the sixth highest paid player on the Bulls and the 122 highest player in the league going into the squad’s final season. But management viewed Pippen as expendable and believed he could be traded for money and other players in the 1997-1998 season.
Following the Bulls’ fifth championship in less than eight years, Pippen was slated to have ankle surgery, but the player pushed it off.
“I’m not gonna f*** my summer up,” Pippen said. But his decision was met with ire from both Jordan and management.
“I felt Scottie was being selfish,” Jordan said in the second episode.
Pippen had the surgery right before the start of that season and he was out for many months, while sidelined, it showed how valuable he was the organization due to the Bulls’ sluggish start. Pippen then became outspoken against Krauss, who would not offer him more money and threaten to leave the team.
Pippen stayed on and helped the Bulls win their sixth title during the 1990s.
4. Phil Jackson's 'Battle Plan' Was a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Former NBA champ Phil Jackson had a strange way about him. The son of preachers, he would find himself in the hippie lifestyle that marked the 1960s.
Jackson joined the Chicago Bulls as an assistant coach in the late 1980s after he was hired by Krauss. By 1989, he was promoted to the head coach position and brought a philosophy that would change the sport forever. Introducing philosophical methods and meditation to his approach to the game, he was given the nickname the “zen master.”
Jackson, who documented everything, would draw up playbooks as if they were battle plans as he outlined each season and his expectations. For the 1997-1998 season, Jackson called it “The Last Dance?” due to threats from Krauss and management that he would no longer coach the team.
The controversy had been brewing for years, as Jackson, like Pippen, wanted more money, while the front office felt otherwise. After winning their fifth championship, the Bulls management seemed to be courting others to take Jackson’s spot, but once star player Michael Jordan got wind of this, threatened to leave basketball if Jackson was not his coach. Jackson then signed a one-year contract with the team and hoped that if he won a sixth championship, he could stay on as coach. Management felt otherwise.
Calling his final season with Bulls “The Last Dance?” foreshadowed the events to come and would later become the title of the docuseries.
5. A "Former Chicago Resident" Makes a Special Appearance
The pleasures of watching “The Last Dance” as a fan have been seeing a candid Michael Jordan, the unprecedented access and rare footage, the drama off court, and we are only two episodes in.
As the nostalgia factor plays a major role in keeping the audiences attention and emotions up, it still has a bag of surprises. One surprise was seeing President Barack Obama pop up in the series and labeled as “former Chicago resident.”
In episode one, after a montage of Jordan’s early Bulls career was played over Eric B and Rakim’s classic, “I Ain’t No Joke,” a familiar voice enters the screen and Obama is seen sitting in a chair explaining the difficulties he had getting tickets to Bulls matches during the Jordan years.
While his lower third may be peculiar, a similar tactic was done with President Bill Clinton, who was labeled the “former Governor of Arkansas,” when he talked about his admiration for Scottie Pippen.