The Last Dance
They have called it The Last Dance.
With no live sports to watch these days, this multi-part series airing on ESPN has captured the attention of viewers whose interests go beyond those who have followed the NBA.
The Last Dance, is about the run of the Chicago Bulls who captured the NBA title three straight years on two separate occasions: The first from 1991-93, then again from 1996-98.
First NBA title
The title is about the final championship run in 1998, when it was established that the team would be broken up at the end of that season, and that head coach Phil Jackson would not return. It was a decision by the organization that there would be a rebuilding process getting underway with a new leader at the helm.
But in reality, The Last Dance is about the incredible ability, determination, human frailty, and despair surrounding Michael Jordan.
I have received countless messages from people I know, and those I don’t, who have heard many of my calls of the games involving Jordan and the Bulls, even before they became dominant.
I did not call any of the NBA Finals during their run in the 90’s, as NBC obtained the national TV contract from CBS, but I was the commentator for many of Jordan’s memorable performances, and crucial Bulls playoff games in the 90’s.
In seeing them come to life again, I realize I’ve been truly blessed to have been in the right place at the right time.
I had a wonderful relationship with Jordan in my time broadcasting NBA games for CBS and TNT.
We had a ritual of exchanging cigars in the locker room prior to the game.
I was sitting near him in the Eastern Conference locker room at his final All-Star Game, when every player on BOTH teams, came in to see him, one at a time, to express their admiration appreciation and future good luck.
I was at the mike for his first great moment with the Bulls. He was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 1985, so everyone had an inkling of what was to come.
But on April 20, 1986, in the second game of the first round of the playoffs between the Bulls and the Celtics in Boston Garden, Michael Jordan sent a message to the basketball world and beyond.
He scored 63 points, more than he would ever score in a single game, and grabbed the attention of Larry Bird and the rest of a Celtics team that would go on to win the title.
Describing that marvelous exhibition remains one of my career thrills.
63 point game
The Bulls were worse than a mediocre team at the time, in fact they slipped into the final playoff spot with a 30-52 record.
That’s right. It’s not a misprint. The Celtics won that game despite Jordan’s 63-point effort, and swept Chicago in the best-of-three series. But Michael Jordan was the future, and, as we all know, would get the help he needed, and then some.
The NBA, in those days, was about paying your dues, before earning the right to move on to elite status.
The Detroit Pistons had to endure years of defeat at the hands of the Celtics before they finally knocked off Boston and captured back-to-back NBA crowns.
The Chicago Bulls were in the same boat. They couldn’t beat the Pistons, until they finally did. And then they took off.
The Last Dance is filled with drama-rama, that would put the best soap opera (do they still have them?) to shame.
Or maybe a five year series on Netflix.
Let’s start with Isiah Thomas, the great Pistons point-guard. At the 1985 All-Star Game, there were strong rumors that Thomas had instructed his teammates on the East squad to freeze-out Jordan, who was having a banner rookie season.
Not to pass him the ball. Do I sense envy here?
Jordan wound up with seven points. He made only 2 of 9 shots. There is no definite proof, but it sure looked like they were avoiding Jordan. There was talk many players on both teams felt he had an arrogant attitude.
One thing we may know. Michael Jordan might have carried a grudge.
Years later, when the 1992 Olympic Dream Team was put together, Isiah Thomas was excluded from the team.
Did Jordan say he would refuse to play if Thomas were named? We’ll never know for sure.
But it might be that the arrogance that turned off many NBA stars to the rookie in ’85, might have been the same trait for Isiah, that turned off some of the Dream Team in ’92.
The intrigue was heavy for the Bulls during their days of dynasty. Before Chicago became big winners, Doug Collins was the head coach who wanted Jordan to score a million, if he could, every game.
That wasn’t the idea of General Manager Jerry Krause. He knew MJ was a huge star, but desired a team approach.
Jerry Krause and Phil Jackson
Krause, is shown as a punching bag and a punch-line for Jordan and many of the players. But this was a shrewd man who put the organization first, and carried out his job running the club. Even if it meant not paying stars like Scottie Pippen what he desired. It was Krause who acquired the likes of fearsome rebounder Dennis Rodman and later, 6-10 long-range Croatian whiz Toni Kukoc, who were not unanimous pick-ups.
Jerry Krause was also responsible for bringing Phil Jackson to the NBA as a head coach.
Jackson had been a key bench player for the New York Knicks in their two championship seasons in the early 70’s, and Krause saw the potential when Jackson coached in the minor leagues.
Jackson brought in another Krause favorite, Tex Winter, a brilliant college coach, who taught the “triangle offense” which became the philosophy of attack for the new head coach.
But this was an offense that involved everyone on the floor, not just the superstar.
Michael Jordan, to his credit, bought into it as well, solidifying his mantra that winning was paramount, more than his own individual stats.
But Jordan was the center of everything, not only for the Bulls, but for the entire league.
As great as his talent, Jordan was anything but the most popular player on his team. His obsession with the Bulls being ready to play and winning, affected everybody. He would demand, cajole, embarrass, and tease his teammates to practice better, even his second lieutenant, Scottie Pippen. No one was above Michael Jordan’s relentless ways, even if they were often delivered with a smile.
The Bulls had little chance of continuing at that extraordinary level, when Jordan retired after the 1993 championship season. In July of that year, his father, James, was shot to death in his car, while taking a nap off of a North Carolina highway. Jordan and his father had been inseparable, best friends really, with his father, and mother as well, attending nearly every game he played.
The rumor mill was deluged with the possibility that gambling had a role in James Jordan’s death.
Michael loved to gamble. Whether it be golf, flipping coins, you name it, Jordan liked to bet.
In an earlier Conference playoff series against the New York Knicks, Jordan journeyed to Atlantic City, on an off-day, to spend an evening at a casino.
That event made headlines like everything else Michael Jordan did.
So did his foray into baseball when he played a season of Double-A ball for the Chicago White Sox farm club in Birmingham. He was retired from hoops, so that didn’t bother Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who owned the White Sox as well.
Baseball in Birmingham
Jordan started his baseball career slowly, got better, and who knows how far he would have gone. But he was 31 years old.
Michael Jordan couldn’t stay away from basketball, and he returned for the 1995-96 campaign. The Bulls won 55 games the first season without Jordan, but lost in the conference semi-finals. They were nine games worse the next year and again failed to reach the Eastern finals.
When the superstar returned, the cast of characters was decidedly different from the Bulls early 90’s juggernaut.
The desire to dominate also came back, and Chicago was off and running once more.
The story of the Chicago Bulls is well-chronicled, with candid, behind the scenes conversation and current interviews of the principles, especially the “Man” himself.
The capper is, without doubt, the Bulls winning their third consecutive title since Jordan’s return, on Father’s Day in 1996.
The post-game scene in the Bulls locker room shows Michael Jordan in his most emotional moment.
Fathers Day Championship
There are still two more episodes to be shown for The Last Dance.
What we all learn, and some of us who have been close to the sports scene know, is that a team is actually a family.
A family which includes varying degrees of success, hard times, temperament, dislike, and failure.
It’s just that in sports, you’re under a constant microscope. There’s no place to hide.
It is never more evident than in The Last Dance.