Just like MJ did in Laney High and Scottie did in Hamburg High, the SLAM PH Team will be doing a “Book Report” on each week’s drop of The Last Dance. Here’s the first report on episodes 1 and 2.
Uncertainty tends to linger. Not being able to determine something as a fact creeps into our minds, leaving us anxious, concerned, and frankly, afraid. Who would willingly subject themselves to such mental torture? Uncertainty is an awful, but alas, it’s with this very uncertainty that we find the beauty of basketball.
It’s established that in every basketball game there are winners and losers. Sometimes the overwhelming favorites get the easy win. Then there are times that the underdogs pull off the improbable upset. The very reason we play the game is because of that uncertainty, that unpredictability between that orange ball and the hoop that makes the game exciting.
That same uncertainty is what drove Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to be quite possibly the best team the sport has ever seen.
We’ve all come to know and revere Jordan for what he is: a fierce competitor that birthed a legendary basketball story. Jordan played every game as if it was his last, a cliched line that’s almost a mandate in the production of every Jordan tribute piece, but it remains undeniable because it is the truest thing anyone can say about him. This ferocity to win stuck with his teammates in the form of cusses and grudge matches during practice, yet it was all in a day’s work when you’re constantly imposing a reign of terror on the rest of the NBA for most of the 90s.
Uncertainty due to the constant competition from the teams coming for their crown was already a great motivating force for the Bulls. But ironically enough, it was certainty that fueled the Bulls to finish what they had started. That’s what the first two episodes of The Last Dance revealed about the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls.
Building up to the 1997-1998 NBA Season, and eventually the Bulls’ 6th title in six Finals appearances, was a montage of the Chicago’s championship victories over Magic Johnson’s Lakers in 1991, Clyde Drexler’s Blazers in 1992, Charles Barkley’s Suns in 1993, Gary Payton’s Sonics in 1996, and Karl Malone’s Jazz in 1997 that made it all look like child’s play for Jordan and the Bulls, a testament to their greatness. Perfection was theirs for the taking, but the human ego intervened.
Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause became the very antithesis to the dynasty he practically architected. The first episode highlighted Krause’s complicated relationship with the rest of the team, most prominently Jordan and Head Coach Phil Jackson. The Last Dance reveals Krause’s story, most especially of his underdog complex that climaxed after the Bulls won their 5th title.
“Organizations win championships, not players” were the bullets Krause supposedly fired, the very words that turned uncertainty into certainty. Krause was fed up with the lack of attention he received, which to his defense, he deserved for being a competent General Manager of the greatest basketball team at that time. Yet, those words were just enough to posit an impression of credit-grabbing in the eyes of the players who put their bodies on the line night in and night out. The episode went on to detail the rifts between Krause and Phil Jackson, prompting the former to issue an ultimatum: that was going to be Jackson’s final coaching year, and will be the last we will see of that version of the Bulls.
If there wasn’t enough friction was unfolding in episode 1, the drama persisted when episode 2 revealed the unspoken maltreatment of Chicago’s often unspoken hero, Scottie Pippen. It’s not enough that Pippen has been criminally underrated for the totality of his career, but his infamous contract of $18 million for 7 years in 1991 was unearthed for the world to remember, and yet another domino piece to the enigmatic relationship between Chicago’s All-Stars and Krause.
The certainty of the 1997-1998 season being the last of this iteration of the champion Bulls exposed the mortality of the team. A slow start to the season, turmoil in the front office, and Pippen’s imminent trade demand marred the beginning of their second three-peat campaign. They pulled it off before, but the thrill of uncertainty wasn’t on their side this time around, only the seemingly unchangeable truth of certainty. For a second there, Chicago looked… normal, like any other team.
Except, this wasn’t just any other team. This team had Jordan, and he wouldn’t let any semblance of what the future holds get to him, whether it’s set in stone or not. He was there to win, and if it meant scoring 45 points every other night, so be it.
Of course, The Last Dance wouldn’t be a basketball documentary if it was just exclusively about the drama and had nothing to do with basketball. The first two episodes were able to narrate Jordan’s ascension to legendary, or more fitting, Messiah status. They told the story of the kid that got cut from his sophomore team in high school, the kid that got the attention of respected UNC coach Dean Smith, the kid that dropped 63 (!) points against the almighty Celtics, the kid that got in a stand-off with the General Manager (everyone’s dear friend, Jerry Krause) because he was willing to take that 10% risk of a career-ending injury to win. More importantly, this is about the team that this kid almost single handedly put on the basketball map through sheer determination.
I think Zach Lavine put it best in his tweet when he said that he could have watched all 10 episodes of the series in one go. For what it’s worth, The Last Dance is not just a fail-safe remedy to the lack of basketball action in this sportsless hell we’re in, rather, it’s a fitting and refreshing tribute to His Airness and the Bulls’ success. If the opening slew of episodes is an indication for the weeks to come, The Last Dance will change all that we thought we knew of the legend of MJ and the Chicago Bulls. It already has.
The inaugural week’s crop of episodes ended with Scottie Pippen’s trade demand to Jerry Krause, a crossroads moment for the Bulls as their fate hung in the balance, and even if we already know how that all turned out, the gripping revelations of this week’s episodes are more than enough to leave everyone pandering for more stories from respected journalists, coaches, managers, athletes, and “Former Chicago Resident” Barack Obama.
Give me more Krause. Give me more Jordan. Give me more drama. Give me more basketball. I’m more than ready to have this dance again next week.
The Last Dance Report
Episode 3 & 4: The Beautiful Marriage of the Bulls and the Triangle
Episode 5 & 6: The Difference Between Being like Mike and Being Mike
Episode 7 & 8: The Trials of a Mortal Man
Episode 9 & 10: The Bulls were the brightest star of the 90s