For the first time in what felt like forever, there was programming on ESPN that intrigued sports fans everywhere – to the tune of more than 6 million viewers (the record for an ESPN documentary). Although this wasn’t necessarily live sports, it still felt like it was Super Bowl Sunday all over again.
“The Last Dance” documentary featuring Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty dropped last weekend and it was an even bigger hit than expected. As someone that was born in 2000, I unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to witness the true greatness of MJ and the dominance of the Bulls in the 90’s. Even for older viewers that lived through the Jordan era, the documentary featured never before seen footage from their last championship season in 1997-1998. The greatest duo of all time, the best dynasty in the history of sports, the GOAT of basketball, and 6 titles, including two separate 3-peats. With all that said, I think I speak for the majority of viewers in saying that I easily could’ve binge watched the remaining 8 episodes that night.
As a person that pretty exclusively watches sports in a world with suddenly no sports, this series is quite literally one of the only things I have going for me. It’s sad, but it’s true. So, from this point on, I will be recapping the most interesting parts of each week’s two episodes. Here are my highlights from episodes 1 and 2:
Jerry Krause’s Ego
Well, move over Carole Baskin, you’ve been replaced as the most hated person of quarantine. Jerry Krause might’ve singlehandedly derailed the Bulls championship dynasty after he let his ego get in the way of the team’s success. Footage from the documentary shows Krause in an interview insisting that there is more to a team’s success than just the players and coaches, essentially craving some credit for the Bulls’ NBA titles.
Yes, Krause deserves some recognition for contributing to the drafting of not only Michael Jordan in 1984, but also for drafting Jordan’s eventual sidekick Scottie Pippen in 1987. However, he tried multiple times to get rid of Pippen in trades. Then, after the Bulls won their 5th championship in seven years in 1997, Krause had the balls to tell head coach Phil Jackson that he was gone after the following year regardless of results.
I mean, who the hell would want to play for a guy like that? I guess there’s no wondering why the Bulls players, specifically Jordan and Pippen, constantly poked the bear by making jokes about Krause’s height or weight. It’s very possible that all of the shit thrown at Krause fueled his fire to make more moves and show that he was a primary contributing factor to the championships. Either way, I have strong beliefs that the Bulls would’ve continued their winning ways well beyond their 6th title in 1998 if it weren’t for Jerry Krause and his little man complex getting in the way.
MJ vs. Load Management
The first thing that comes to most people’s minds when they think of Michael Jordan is his killer mindset and his relentless will to win under any circumstances. In his second year in the NBA, Jordan suffered a foot injury about 15 games into that season that sidelined him for a good part of the year. When he returned to action at the end of the regular season, the Bulls were fighting for playoff contention, but the coaching staff was limiting Jordan to a mere 14 minutes per game. It was almost like an abbreviated version of tanking from a front office that just wanted to get a better draft pick by limiting their star player’s play time and ultimately missing the playoffs.
MJ hated the front office, specifically the aforementioned general manager Jerry Krause, for imposing this load management. Jordan begged the coaching staff to start playing him during the most crucial parts of the game for his limited minutes so he could have his biggest impact on the game. After a lucky game-winning shot by point guard John Paxson, the Bulls slid into the last playoff spot. They would, however, find themselves staring down the #1 seed Boston Celtics and Larry Bird, among three other future hall of famers. Although the Bulls would end up getting swept in four games, Jordan imposed his will on the Celtics scoring 49 and 63 in the first two games of the series, effectively putting the entire NBA on notice for years to come.
My favorite part of this particular scene in the episode came when Jordan was referring back to his forced load management. When he asked doctors what his reinjury risk would be if he played a normal amount in games, they answered 10%. The catch, though, was that if he did happen to reinjure his broken foot, his career would be over. So, the doctor proposed a hypothetical situation where he had a headache and a bottle of 10 pills to cure the headache – 1 of the pills would kill him. When the doctor asked if he was willing to take that risk, MJ hilariously responded “Well it depends how f***ing bad the headache is!”
Point being, all Jordan cared about was winning and he made it very clear that he would go to all ends to get the job done. I would love to hear his opinion on the “load management” we see nowadays in the NBA from star players all across the league. Coming from a guy that played in all 82 games in 9 of his 15 seasons, and in at least 78 games in 12 of those seasons, I guarantee he would not have kind words for those players.
Scottie Pippen: A.K.A. “Robin”
Probably the most outrageous “statistic” that came from these first two episodes was Scottie Pippen’s salary during the Bulls’ championship run. During their last championship season in 1997-98, Pippen would earn a measly $2.8 million, good for 6th highest on the Bulls alone and 122nd (!!) in the entire league. Now, this was nobody’s fault really but his own, because Pippen signed the 7-year, $18 million deal before the Bulls’ success took off. Pippen signed the deal in 1991-92 as a way to protect against potential injury and make sure his family was secure. It should be mentioned, also, that at the time he agreed to the contract, he was the 16th highest paid player in the league. What was in 1991 regarded as one of the best contracts in the NBA, was quickly outdated by the time it expired in 1998.
Yes, Pippen would go on to sign better contracts later in his career and end up doing just well with around $110 million in career earnings, which remarkably was $20 million more than Jordan. But you know the saying: “Hindsight is 20/20.” Looking back on that contract now, Pippen was egregiously underpaid for a player widely considered to be top 5 in the league. A lot of people even considered him to be the second best player in the league at the time, right behind his running mate Michael Jordan.
I mean, in the documentary, current-day Jordan even spoke to the greatness of Pippen by saying, “I didn’t win without him, that’s why I considered him my best teammate of all time. When they speak Michael Jordan, they should speak Scottie Pippen.” Those are absolutely incredible words coming from the mouth of the greatest of all time. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Jerry Krause made it clear that once a contract is signed there is no renegotiating; but you’d think they would’ve made an exception for a player like Pippen who is bringing them championship after championship. Yet another misstep from the front office of the Bulls that would eventually lead to displeasure from players, especially Pippen.
Bulls “Traveling Cocaine Circus”
One of the more interesting parts of these first two episodes occurred after Jordan was drafted and started his rookie season in Chicago. When Jordan was drafted out of North Carolina, the Bulls were historically a joke of a franchise and desperately looking for the player that would bring them to relevance. With that said, Jordan quickly had his eyes opened to some of the realities of being on the road as an NBA player. In a more direct sense… drugs and strippers. Present-day Jordan looked back on his time as a rookie in 1985 and specifically one road trip where he was searching throughout the hotel for his teammates. He knocked on the door of a room and heard his teammates ask who it was from inside. When he responded “MJ”, they opened the door and he described what he saw as, “You had your lines (cocaine) over here, your women over there, and your pot smokers over here.” Hence, the origins of the team’s nickname of the “Bulls Traveling Cocaine Circus.” Jordan made it clear that he was not partaking in any of these “extracurriculars” and inserted that he did his own thing the rest of the season – get some rest and wake up ready to play the next day.
Now, imagine being a member of that 1985 Bulls team and you’re sitting down to celebrate and watch this documentary with your family. What an awkward scene that might’ve been to be blindsided by this random tidbit of information. Yikes.
Bulls = Beatles
If you didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of the Chicago Bulls’ popularity after Jordan was drafted, and especially during the 1990’s, then the trip they took to Europe before their last championship season in 1997-98 was eye-opening for sure. I mean, Jordan had European reporters and players harassing him for autographs and memorabilia immediately before and after games – not exactly something you see every day. Not only had Jordan and the Bulls taken the United States by storm with their historic run, but this was the first evidence that he, and they, had become global icons for the sport of basketball.
“The Last Dance”
The origins of the title for the documentary – “The Last Dance” – were revealed in the episode after head coach Phil Jackson signed a 1-year contract to come back for the 1997-98 season. Let me just remind you that this is the same coach that had previously won 5 championships in 7 years with the Bulls, and the general manager was telling him that this was it. Regardless, the head coach made folders for each year with a unique saying on the cover. For the 1997-98 season, the front cover read “The Last Dance.” At this point, none of the players or coaches liked Krause, Reinsdorf, or any other front office people so this title was pretty much a big “F*ck you” to those people in charge of the organization.
As we know it, the Chicago Bulls would go on to win their 6th NBA championship in 1998 and complete their second 3-peat. Just as he was told prior to the season, Phil Jackson was let go even after winning another title, and he ended up in Los Angeles with Kobe, Shaq, and the Lakers. Those Lakers would start their own championship run the following year in 2000, culminating with an eventual 3-peat (yes another for Phil Jackson) in 2002. Yet another misstep from GM Jerry Krause and the front office letting Jackson walk. I must say… what an idiot Krause really is.
Challenges of Maintaining a Dynasty
As seen with the Bulls of the 1990’s, sustaining a championship team over a long period of time does not come without a number of challenges. For one, contracts and money, especially during today’s NBA, get in the way more than actual basketball issues. However, the biggest dilemma that most dynasties run into is the managing of egos. In Chicago, general manager Jerry Krause evidently wanted more credit, so he began to experiment with trading Scottie Pippen, his second best player. Not only did he do that, but he told his 5-time champion head coach, Phil Jackson, that he had one last season in 1997-98. Krause wanted more credit, Pippen wanted the money he felt he deserved, and the Bulls dynasty eventually collapsed.
The next real dynasty after the 90’s Bulls came from Phil Jackson’s next destination – the Los Angeles Lakers with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. That tandem would go on to win three championships in a row from 2000 to 2002, only to find themselves in a similar situation as the Bulls. Kobe and Shaq began to feud towards the end of their championship run as they each wanted the majority of the praise for the titles. It got to the point where Shaq would eventually be traded a year later to the Miami Heat, where he would team up with Dwyane Wade. Shaq would eventually win another title with the Heat in 2006, and Kobe two more himself in 2009 and 2010. However, looking back now, if they could have resolved their differences and stayed together, it’s almost inevitable that they would’ve won at least a couple more.
The most recent dynasty came from the Golden State Warriors and their three championships in 5 years from 2015 to 2019. They won their first in 2015, followed by a regular season record 73 wins in 2016. However, a loss in the finals that year to Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers forced the Warriors to reach out to Kevin Durant, whom they had just beaten in the Western Conference finals. I think we all know the story from that point…. two championships in a row, followed by a loss to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA finals after Durant went down with a torn achilles. We all know about the sideline feud between Draymond Green and Durant early in the 2019 season, but there’s more to the falling apart of that team. Even after everything Durant did to contribute to the back-to-back championships in 2017 and 2018, he still felt that fans and outsiders were awarding too much praise to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Durant would eventually depart for the Brooklyn Nets in free agency, but I think we can all agree that the Warriors were primed for more NBA titles had he stayed put in the bay area.
All three of these dynasties would go on to win at least three championships, then begin to deteriorate in similar fashion. In all seriousness, it is hard for me to imagine all three of these teams never winning another championship if the players and staffs could’ve just gotten out of the way of their own egos.