In some ways, the primary challenge for the makers of “The Last Dance” documentary is the same one that Christopher Nolan faced making “Batman Begins”: Everybody already knows the story. It has become mythology. What new details, what new twists can be added to pull everyone into a story arc they may love but already know where it leads and ends?
With this Bulls documentary, it is the details and honest commentary we have not seen before. The new footage. It made the old feel new again (and the lack of basketball, or any sports, on our televisions for a month helped fuel that hunger).
Episodes 1 and 2, broadcast Sunday on ESPN, gave us a lot of details setting up the drama and tension that made the 1997-98 Bulls so memorable. So legendary.
And so you don’t miss anything, here’s The Last Dance recap of those episodes.
Ego was at play early on
Episode 1 worked hard to show how general manager Jerry Krause — with the blessing of owner Jerry Reinsdorf — was ready to blow up one of the great teams of all time. Krause’s ego was on full display, rather than trying to keep the greatest and most marketable player in the world happy, rather than keep a coach who could reach the players, rather than keep the core of a team that had won titles five of the last seven years together, he was ready to break it up.
“We’re entitled to defend what we have until we lose it,” Jordan is shown saying after winning the 1997 title. “If we lose it, then you look at it and change. Rebuilding? No one is guaranteeing rebuilding is going to be two, three, four, five years. The Cubs have been rebuilding 42 years. If you want to look at this from a business thing, have a sense of respect for the people who have laid the groundwork so you could be a profitable organization.”
Krause was convinced he could rebuild quickly. It was a terrible miscalculation. It’s also worth noting just how much the power has shifted in the NBA toward star players: If LeBron James wanted Rob Pelinka fired, if Giannis Antetokounmpo wanted Jon Horst fired, there’s no doubt who wins that battle. (Maybe Jerry Reinsdorf is the exception, he did stick with Gar/Pax far, far too long.)
What Krause did was give Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan a target they used to unify the team. Jackson seized on it early, he was the one who titled the season The Last Dance.
Krause, unfortunately, is not alive to defend himself. Episode 2 does get into the things Krause did right in building that team, such as drafting Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, trading Charles Oakley for Bill Cartright, and more. Krause put this team together, but as Steve Kerr said well, he couldn’t get out of his own way. He set himself up as the villain.
Episode 2 also tells the Scottie Pippen story, starting with his rise from rather “meh” 6’1″ guard entering college to 6’8″ dominant forward owning small college games a couple of years later. His game, like his height, progressed much faster than anyone expected.
Pippen came to the Bulls and became the Robin to Jordan’s Batman, one of the league’s elite players and a perfect second option for the team. He also had agreed to a seven-year, $18 million contract — he came out of real poverty and wanted the security for his family — that left him woefully underpaid. The Bulls would not renegotiate the contract (something that could have been done under the rules at the time, but the Bulls would have had to do it with cap space, and they didn’t have any). It’s a situation no modern player would find himself in because the CBA mandates shorter contracts (the owners wanted that to prevent long, bad contracts, opening the door for today’s player movement and power).
And then Pippen wanted to move on
By the time of the 1997-98 season, Pippen was done with Krause. Pippen admitted delaying foot surgery until close to the season because he didn’t want to spoil his summer, and implied his contract issues were part of the reason.
“I’m not going to f*** my summer up to rehab for a season,” Pippen said to the camera. “They’re not going to be looking forward to having me, so I’m going to enjoy my summer. I’ll use the season to prepare.”
Jordan called Pippen’s decision “selfish.”
Episode 2 also has more Jordan highlights — of course — including the 63 point game against Larry Bird and the Celtics in the 1986 playoffs. It’s the game that led Bird to say he played against “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
There were other highlights from the first two episodes. There was Bulls GM at the time Rod Thorn admitting he would have taken Hakeem Olajuwon over Jordan.
“Olajuwon would’ve been first by anybody who picked, including me,” Thorn said.
In that era, teams were built around centers and Olajuwon went on to be an all-time great — two NBA titles, MVP, 12-time All-NBA, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and eventual Hall of Famer. With hindsight, you can say Jordan should have been the top pick, but nobody could or should question that pick. The episode briefly touches on Portland thinking they already had Clyde Drexler so they took Sam Bowie over Jordan.
Then there was Reinsdorf talking about how Krause — a scout/front office guy for the MLB’s White Sox — came up to him and said he wanted to be GM, everyone told Reinsdorf it was a bad idea, and he did it anyway. Can you imagine if a baseball scout tried that in today’s NBA?
And now, Barack Obama
The funniest moment of the first two episodes was the description they gave Barack Obama.
"Former Chicago Resident" LOL pic.twitter.com/EtC5Nt8I20
— NBA RETWEET (@RTNBA) April 20, 2020
A close second was Jordan’s reaction to the Bulls before and just after his arrival being described as a “traveling cocaine circus.” Jordan talks about distancing himself from that drug culture on the team at the time.
Mostly, however, the first two episodes of the 10-part Bulls documentary laid a foundation for the drama to follow. That drama includes a lot of Dennis Rodman in Episode 3, airing next Sunday.