The Last Dance may be a documentary in form, but it follows a far more traditional story arc: It is the hero’s journey. With Michael Jordan as the hero.
Every hero’s journey needs a mentor. Enter Phil Jackson. There needs to be a shapeshifter, someone who blurs the line between enemy and friend. Enter Dennis Rodman. And, ultimately, there needs to be a villain to vanquish. Enter Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boy Pistons.
Episodes 3 and 4 of “The Last Dance” — the ESPN documentary about Jordan and the 1997-98 Bulls, which aired Sunday night — focused on those parts of the journey. And it was a bumpy ride.
Dennis Rodman was the best part of the show so far
Can there just be a “Hangover”-style documentary only about Rodman’s mid-season vacation-turned-bender in Las Vegas?
It would make Tiger King look tame. “It was definitely an occupational hazard to be Dennis’s girlfriend,” was how Carmen Electra put it, which is a mild understatement considering Rodman later faced domestic abuse charges a couple of times.
It was fascinating to watch how Jordan and Scottie Pippen understood how much Rodman helped them on the court, so they worked with his “complex” and impulsive nature. The Bulls needed what he brought to the game. “Dennis Rodman was the f*** up person,” was the brilliant quote from Gary Payton, describing Rodman’s ability to disrupt the opposing offense.
The peak of all things Rodman came in the 1997-98 season for the Bulls (the focus of The Last Dance). While Pippen was out for 35 games to start the season following foot surgery, Rodman took on the responsibilities of the No. 2 role on the team. While Pippen was out, “Dennis was a model citizen to the point where it was driving him f****** insane,” was how Jordan put it. So after Pippen returned, Jackson granted Rodman a 48-hour “vacation” in Las Vegas to blow off steam.
And you thought they didn’t have load management in the ’90s.
Of course, Rodman didn’t come back in 48 hours. Or 72. Or… you get the idea. Jordan had to go to Rodman (why was it Jordan’s job?), knock on the door and send Electra scurrying behind the couch as she tried to hide, and he got Rodman.
Rodman walked back in the door and was good for the rest of the season; he didn’t miss another game.
But long before he was central to the Bulls winning titles, Rodman was central to the Bulls learning some hard lessons.
The Bad Boy Pistons are the villains Jordan needed to overcome
Every heroic epic is only as good as its villain. Star Wars works not because of Luke Skywalker but because of Darth Vader. The best James Bond movies are the ones with the best villains. It’s storytelling 101: without someone (or something) to push the hero to a new level of greatness they didn’t know they could reach, no story arc is compelling.
Enter the Bad Boy Pistons.
Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, John Salley, Bill Laimbeer, and the Pistons are the villains in Jordan’s story. They literally beat down Jordan until he could reach a new level where he was strong enough, the team around him was good enough, and Phil Jackson’s triangle system made Bulls other than Jordan a legitimate threat. It took all that to beat Detroit.
It just took years to get there.
Jordan was unquestionably elite — in 1988 Jordan won both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year — and the Bulls were a team on the rise. The Last Dance talked about how the Bulls climbed past the fast-rising Cleveland Cavaliers, focusing on “the shot” from 1989.
“They had Craig Ehlo on me, which honestly was a mistake,” Jordan said in a moment of brutal honesty. Jordan said Ron Harper played him better — and Harper agreed. Harper said he got in the huddle before that play and begged Lenny Wilkins “coach, I got Michael,” but Wilkens went with Ehlo on Jordan, and the rest was history.
Still in the way were the Pistons and their “Jordan Rules.” What were the Jordan Rules?
“As soon as he steps into the paint, hit him,” was John Salley’s honest answer.
Dennis Rodman was more honest: “Chuck Daly said this is the Jordan Rule: Every time he go to the f****** basket, put him on the ground. When he goes to the basket, he ain’t gonna dunk. We’re gonna hit you and you’re gonna be on the ground. We were trying to physically hurt Michael.”
The core of the rule was don’t let Jordan in the paint, and if he gets there foul him — hard. Because in that era you could. And make sure you did it before he left the ground. It worked.
It forced an evolution in the Bulls, in terms of roster and playing style, plus just commitment — Jordan added 15 pounds of muscle to handle the pounding — to overcome the obstacle.
That’s also how things were then, in an era before player empowerment, shorter contracts, and constant turnover. It took time for a team to learn how to win. The Bad Boy Pistons got their heads handed to them by the Celtics for years until Detroit got good enough to overcome Boston. Then Chicago took its lumps from the Pistons.
The Bulls also needed the right coach to take that step.
Phil Jackson was the coach the Bulls needed
That doesn’t mean Jackson was the one Jordan wanted — MJ was happy with Doug Collins and his Jordan-centric offense.
“I wasn’t a Phil Jackson fan when he first came in. He was coming in to take the ball out of my hands. Doug put the ball in my hands,” Jordan said.
Jackson came in with Tex Winter and the triangle offense. It was what the Bulls needed because it made players other than Jordan a threat, forcing the defense to either spread out or pay the price for loading up on Jordan. It worked, the Bulls offense improved by three points per 100 possessions jumped from 12th to 5th in the league. That still wasn’t enough to beat the Pistons in the playoffs the first year under Jackson.
The next year, the Bulls had the top offense in the NBA, handled the Pistons with ease in the playoffs, and then went on to beat Magic’s Lakers and win a title.
The documentary touches on Jackson’s odd path — from winning titles with the Knicks through coaching in Puerto Rico — to the Bulls bench. But the best mentors, the most interesting leaders, have unconventional paths. Jackson typified that.
And it turns out, typified winning when he was done. Even if he did unconventional things, like give Dennis Rodman a mid-season vacation.