“Michael’s a mystic. He was never anywhere else.” — Mark Vancil, Author, “Rare Air”
These reviews, after each week’s episodes of ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” have focused heavily — almost to the point of obsession — on Michael Jordan. The reason I did this is the same reason why this documentary told its story through his lens: Without him, the 1990s Bulls dynasty doesn’t happen. And without him, “The Last Dance” doesn’t make it to our television screens.
In episodes nine and 10, we see the difficulties of the Bulls’ impending breakup, exacerbated by the fact that the team, though beaten and battered, is still highly functioning and on the doorstep of its sixth NBA title of the decade. When you have the game’s best player (Jordan) and its best coach (Phil Jackson), how do you break that up? If you’re owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Jerry Krause, the answer is simple: your egos get in the way. Jackson and Jordan get most of the credit for the Bulls’ run; Reinsdorf and Krause need it. This is how a great dynasty shatters.
Breakups are hard. By the end of the Beatles’ run, John Lennon was strung out on heroin and barely recognizable. Ringo Starr and George Harrison barely look like they want to be there. Paul McCartney puts on a brave face, but he, too, is fronting. The burden of being the biggest thing in the world got to them much in the same way it gets to the ’90s Bulls. Jordan is emotionally exhausted. Scottie Pippen, Jordan’s skillful sidekick, is hobbled by a back injury. And Dennis Rodman, the eccentric rebounding mastermind? Yeah, he’s off to fight Hulk Hogan in World Championship Wrestling between Games 3 and 4 of the ’98 Finals. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Rodman take a folding chair to the back of Diamond Dallas Page.
Nevertheless, the Bulls are worn out, which makes their last title all the more incredible. Chicago is taken to seven games in the conference finals by the Indiana Pacers, and Jordan pulls out a superstitious ace in the hole: his personal security man, Gus Lett, who is suffering from lung cancer. This is the hardest championship for the Bulls, though, because Krause has already said that no matter what, Jackson will be leaving the team after the season, and no matter what, Jordan won’t play for another coach. As Bob Costas says in the documentary, if the Bulls flame out by losing to a superior opponent, there is closure. If someone in a suit — and it isn’t difficult to figure out who that is — ends the Bulls, then that outcome is all the more difficult to accept.
That dumb egotism, contrasted with the Bulls’ singular focus — Rodman be damned — on winning a championship, is what makes the conclusion of the 1997-98 season all the more fulfilling and haunting. Jordan’s shot over Utah’s Bryon Russell to clinch the Bulls’ final title, complete with Russell’s tumble to the floor and Jordan’s held pose after his shot, could be a painting. The striking contrast between the two men, with 20,000 Jazz fans knowing disaster is about to strike, is the type of tension movie directors live for. In this case, though, it was real, and Jordan, with his occasionally godlike tendencies, had summoned the supernatural one last time.
Vancil’s quote at the top of this article is extremely important when trying to understand Jordan’s success. People spend their entire lives trying to be more present; Jordan was always there, wherever “there” was. The greatest thing for him was the next practice, the next shot or the next game. The future didn’t matter as much as the present. That’s why he thrived so well off of insults and slights; he remembered everything that was said to him and wanted to make sure he capitalized on the opportunity to make that person pay the next time he saw him. To Jordan, that was as good as any of the Bulls’ six titles.
But, with everything, the Bulls broke up, and maybe too soon. At the team’s championship parade, Jordan says that his heart is with the city of Chicago; Pippen, on the other hand, seems more resigned to the team’s fate, thanking the fans for their support throughout the team’s “last dance.” But eventually, everyone knows it’s over.
And while we’re on the subject of Reinsdorf and Krause, the men who broke up the Bulls, it becomes very clear who the bigger villain is if you watch Sunday’s episodes. While Krause had a big ego and wanted to build the team in his image, Reinsdorf hid behind financial constraints as an excuse for not keeping the team together. Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, Steve Kerr and Luc Longley were gone the next year. Krause’s reasoning for the rebuild — that the team needed to do so instead of enduring a slow decline — was terrible, but at least understandable. But Krause was only the general manager until 2003; Reinsdorf is still the owner and the Bulls’ organization is still screwing things up. Reinsdorf, ironically, fought for a salary cap in the NBA, which rendered keeping the team together at its market value impossible.
But egos aside, the Bulls have one last moment in the sun, and it’s beautiful. Jackson, who we’ve seen discuss zen practices and Middle Eastern religious philosophies with his players, calls a meeting after the season to tell him that he’ll be stepping away as the team’s coach, which was a virtually predetermined fate. Jackson, in characteristic fashion, talks about his wife, who has a degree in social work and participates in a ritual that helps people release grief. He ignites a fire and tells his players to write notes about what the Bulls meant to them; once they are done, they toss the notes into the fire.
Of course, Jordan’s note garners the most attention in the documentary; we don’t know its contents, which is a real shame. Jordan tosses it in the fire, and the poem, along with the Bulls’ dynasty, is in ashes before either were meant to be.
Thank you so much for reading these. It has given me something to do during this difficult time, and I hope you all enjoyed “The Last Dance” as much as I did.