Here are my five takeaways from episodes 9 & 10 of “The Last Dance,” the documentary series on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 championship season:
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1. They deserved a shot at No. 7.
No revisionism here in my takeaways from Episodes 5 & 6 -- my point then mostly was about Jordan’s initial retirement and whether the Bulls would have kept the rings coming in 1994 and 1995. He was fried and needed that baseball break.
But stringing together four in a row by coming back in 1998-99? That should have happened. At least, that group should have had the chance.
We got a glimpse of what might have been late in Episode 10 when Phil Jackson talked about Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf asking him back. But we also saw Reinsdorf -- as Jordan watched it on the tablet handed to him by the film crew -- carping about what he might have had to pay the many free agents on that team.
Jordan spoke for a lot of Chicagoans and NBA fans when he made clear he, and most likely all those other valuable teammates, would have revved up for one more dance on one-year deals.
“I felt like we could have won seven,” Jordan said, calling it “maddening” that he had to leave at (or near) his peak. “We may not have. But man, not to be able to try … that’s something I cannot accept.”
🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆 pic.twitter.com/B19r3MtSYL— NBA (@NBA) May 18, 2020
It would have been tricky, and far from guaranteed.
The 1998-99 season actually got truncated to just the “1999 season” when a labor lockout lasted into January before the balls bounced. The regular season got whacked to just 50 games, an advantage for an older team like the Bulls.
The disadvantage was that, sometime during the extended layoff, Jordan cut a finger on his right hand with a cigar cutter. It was an injury that prevented him from palming the ball and reportedly needed surgery, with a two-month rehab. Would that have left enough time for the Bulls to pull it together?
Could Chicago have beaten the New York Knicks and the San Antonio Spurs, the two Finals teams that season? Heck, they might have been stymied by Miami or Indiana in the East bracket. But they had earned the right, and the rest of the league deserved, to have that dynasty end on the court.
Not in Jerry Krause’s head.
2. So what was up with that pizza?
Rumors about foul room service, specifically a delivered pizza, sprang up in real time on the night of Jordan’s “flu game,” Game 5 of the 1997 Finals. The Bulls had spent that week in Park City, a ski town outside of Salt Lake City, so limited late-night food options sounded plausible. Jordan and trainer Tim Grover, among others, confirmed Sunday that it was a pizza that only Jordan ate.
Hey, at least it wasn’t Monty Python’s killer salmon mousse.
38 PTS, 7 REB, 5 AST and the W in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals.— NBA (@NBA) May 18, 2020
The Last Dance on ESPN pic.twitter.com/1grXk1xZeA
“The flu game” did slip into NBA lore more nicely than something called “the food poisoning game.” For those among us who have had both -- I had a bout of food poisoning in Salt Lake City a few years later, coincidentally -- many would point to the gastrointestinal disorder as the greater ill.
But what was up with five delivery guys showing up to Jordan’s room? And what could they conceivably have put on his pizza that would have been nasty enough to make him sick but not so extreme as to trigger criminal charges? Does the joint Jordan called even exist now?
Maybe it was just some bad pepperoni. But all those questions get answered if it happens in 2020.
3. Voices heard and not heard
We got some new voices Sunday night, with John Stockton and Reggie Miller taking big roles as storytellers. Larry Bird had a couple of moments too, the best coming in candid footage of his profane exchange with Jordan after Game 7 of the 1998 East finals.
We also got cameos from Jordan’s three oldest children, Jeffrey, Marcus and Jasmine, providing the only glimmer of his family then or now in the series. Their mother Juanita, to whom Jordan was married from 1986-2006, never made an appearance. Nor did his current wife Yvette, with whom he has two young twin daughters.
The director, Jason Hehir, has said he felt there are plenty of voices in the doc. Their absence does feel a little conspicuous, though. So, for that matter, does the topic of other female attention that came Jordan’s way in his rise to prominence. We got gambling, we saw drinking and smoking, Jordan talked briefly of vices embraced by teammates when he first got to the Bulls … and that was it.
We never got much Charles Barkley, for a rival/friend who shared Jordan’s era. We heard more from bench guys on those six title teams -- Jud Buechler last week, plenty of Steve Kerr Sunday -- but nothing from starter Luc Longley and precious little across 10 parts from Ron Harper.
By the way, hearing Isiah Thomas as a game analyst throughout stood in contrast to the long minutes spent on his and Jordan’s dislike over Pistons and Dream Team snubs. Every time we heard Thomas (working alongside Bob Costas on NBC broadcasts) talk about Jordan, he never let any resentment or envy bleed into his work.
Karl Malone didn’t sit down for the filmmakers, apparently. But the clip of Malone on the Bulls’ bus after Game 6 in ’98, another heartbreaking loss for him, to congratulate the winners oozed class.
And of course, we didn’t get much closure on Krause, the effective but irritating GM who undermined his own masterful moves with his unpleasant style. Krause died in 2017 and couldn’t speak for himself. But Scottie Pippen’s praise of Krause so late in the final chapter was jarring, playing like some sort of “well, we’d better” edit.
4. The most basketball in the series
And it was spectacular. Other episodes were charged with whole seasons or several years of Jordan’s playing career with Chicago. But the last two took the time to drill down first into the Bulls’ near-loss to the Indiana Pacers in the East, then the rematch with the Jazz in the ’98 Finals.
There was a real sense of dread for Bulls fans that their heroes might indeed see their dynasty end on the court, given how well Indiana matched up with them that spring. We even got to see footage of a pivotal jump ball in the clincher vs. the Pacers, with Jordan and Rik Smits grabbing for the ball -- while Jordan’s foot steps on the endline (no call).
The severity of Pippen’s aching back in Game 6 of The Finals got fully flushed out, making it clear this was no “migraine game” or “1.8 seconds gaffe” for him. He had gutted through his own version of the, ahem, pizza game.
Moments like Jordan anticipating the Jazz’s defensive help and making sure Kerr was ready for his pass are the reasons we love the game itself. Same with his breakdown of Bryon Russell in ’97, foreshadowing their climactic moment a year later.
We didn’t see the dispute in the final Jazz game about Howard Eisley’s 3-pointer right before halftime that, by ref decree, came late and cost Utah some cushion. But seeing Jordan’s skill, cunning and knack for seizing the moment in the final minute that night -- culminating in his famously held follow-through on the winning shot -- was nostalgic and instructional all at once.
5. Jordan was an original
After five consecutive Sundays and 10 hours of our lives, it’s funny to think that most of us would welcome another five, another 10. The documentary reminded many of us why Jordan rose so high and loomed so large over the NBA, over sports, over American culture. For others, especially those younger, it was as thorough as any online course they’ve been taking lately.
The debate over Jordan’s status as the greatest of all time wasn’t addressed in the series, nor was it answered for a lot of basketball fans. You can toss out five, six, seven names of legendary NBA players -- you know the usual suspects -- and build persuasive cases why each could lay claim to that GOAT title.
What Jordan did have going for him that those who have come since, such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, haven’t is his originality. He laid down the Air Jordan footprints that they later followed. From his breathtaking basketball exploits to his immense crossover appeal, from the baggy shorts and shaved head to his meticulously planned attire and heady financial success off the floor, he led where the others have followed.
When their documentary projects come out, it will be the same, all over again.
No one has scored like Jordan and won like him and played both ends like him and looked so graceful and powerful while doing it quite like him. The NBA had marquee stars before him -- George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson -- but none of them transcended the game and opened up the world to the NBA and the sport like Jordan.
Since then, we’ve seen players sporting his No. 23, wearing two jersey numbers, sobbing over the Larry O’Brien trophy and targeting the same basketball and business success Jordan staked out. But they’ve had someone to emulate. Jordan just went about being himself. He had a Marques Johnson poster on his dorm wall at UNC, but he invented his own above-the-rim game. And impact.
Then he added experience, aggressive leadership and the manic desire to win, at all times and at most costs.
“Michael Jordan gave me a dream,” James once said. “He was like my superhero growing up.”
These days the cape is off. Jordan is a billionaire, the owner of the Charlotte Hornets and something of a recluse, at least compared to his so-very-public persona of his playing days. He participated in pulling the curtain back for the series, and our image of him is more fleshed out now.
But those late shots Sunday of him sitting in silhouette, not walking in the surf and sand but gazing out from inside his south Florida mansion, left plenty of Jordan story untold. That’s rare these days, too.
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