Welcome to the party, Worm
I’m a believer in the power of story.
A good story can, if I may borrow a phrase from anthropologist and author Bob Deutsch, “distill our essences,” in the process teaching us something about ourselves. A good story can inform, can inspire or can immortalize.
In the HBO series Game of Thrones, story is even able to raise kings. “Who has a better story than Bran the Broken?” they asked. (For those of you who want to @ me for this reference, you can save your breath. Bran has a great story, even if the showrunners inexplicably refused to tell it.)
Why am I starting the review with all this? Because, dang, these Chicago Bulls have a good story.
From a narrative perspective, it’s almost hard to believe how well-plotted the franchise’s story played out. Consider what we know of it so far, just from watching The Last Dance’s first four episodes.
An also-ran franchise somehow drafts a sparkling young rookie, Michael Jordan, with unimpeachable character (at least this is what we’ve been told—remember the cocaine story from Episode I?). He quickly becomes the best individual performer on the team, and soon enough the league.
In his second season, he turns in a legendary playoff performance against Larry Bird’s Celtics but his team loses the series. This becomes the knock on Jordan. He’s a great individual performer. To ascend to Bird and Magic Johnson territory, he needs to learn how to win. He needs his team to learn how to win.
The roadblock that stands in Jordan’s way in the Eastern Conference, year after year, are the Detroit Pistons. And of course, they’re bullies. They call themselves “Bad Boys.”
They can’t stop Jordan, so they play dirty instead. They hold him, they hack at him, they knock him to the ground. In the end, they beat his teams, too.
Jordan, with the help of a sage new coach, learns to trust his teammates. And MJ leads them into a summer where they all get tougher—physically and mentally. And so the Bulls come back one year, bigger, stronger and better. Chicago exorcises their Detroit demon in a dominant four-game sweep.
That same year, Jordan gets his own shot at redemption. To be the next Bird, or the next Magic, he needs to win a championship. And who’s there waiting for him to be dethroned? Johnson himself.
You can’t script this any better than the way real life did.
Even with the time skips from the Bulls early runs to The Last Dance in 1998, everything makes sense. You get foreshadowing of the feud between Jordan and team management as early as ‘86. And you’ve even got a character that bridges the stories seamlessly in Dennis Rodman.
Welcome to the party, Worm.
Rodman, for the uninitiated, is one of the most colorful and controversial figures in all of NBA history.
The documentary series shows it all. The harsh and humble beginnings, the rifle in his truck incident in Detroit in ’93, the flamboyant outfits, the hair color, the partying… Carmen Electra and Madonna.
In his early career, he was one of the Bad Boy Pistons. In the series where Chicago wins, Rodman takes a cheap shot to Scottie Pippen, who shrugs it off as a sign of the Bulls’ new maturity. But in the time skips, Dennis is one of the Bulls. Not just one of them, but one of the big Three with MJ and Pippen.
View this post on Instagram
Through it all, Dennis being Dennis.
Rodman is a force of nature, with an underrated genius to him. You can see the former with every on-court highlight they show of him. The latter, you see when he talks about learning opposing players’ tendencies, the bounces and the angles of their shot. The Worm was always an otherworldly defender, particularly with his positioning, but the idea that everything he did was deliberate is a little insane.
To say he was difficult to deal with, though, is a major understatement. He can be out of control, he gets thrown out of games, and sometimes he asks for a mid-season vacation so he can disappear partying in Las Vegas for longer than the agreed upon length of time.
And only a team like the Bulls, with the iron will of Jordan and the unconventional wisdom of coach Phil Jackson, probably had any chance to tame him—at least to a degree.
Speaking of Phil, he has some great moments in Episode IV. I love Phil and Tex Winter. But I grew up with a framed poster of Rodman hanging over my older brother’s bed in our shared bedroom. Dennis will always be one of my favorites, so maybe I’ll find some more time for Phil in a future review.
The star of these episodes is still clearly Jordan, but Rodman is the scene-stealer here. A former rival turned ally, but still causing problems. He’s as charismatic as he is talented. And such an important part of the Bulls narrative.
And back to that narrative. Beyond that great plotting, it’s those little details that make it great. When the Bulls swept the Pistons, the Bad Boys walked off the court with 7.9 seconds remaining, leaving without shaking hands with the victors.
That detail drew them a lot of ire from fans and the media, and it seems like a sore point for a lot of the Chicago players today. You can clearly see some leftover animosity, particularly from MJ, lingering as they talk about that incident. “There’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an a**hole,” Jordan said of Detroit’s Isiah Thomas.
For a truly great story, the heroes need some good villains to go up against. And the Pistons played their part to perfection. We’ve put one of the great villains behind us, can’t wait to see what comes next.
I did a shout out to The Last Dance’s soundtrack last time, and it looks like it’ll be a regular occurrence moving forward. Those guys in the music department are killing it. I popped this week for Prince’s Partyman, which comes straight out of the 1989 Tim Burton Batman movie.
They showed a couple more of Jordan’s iconic moments. We saw “God disguised as MJ” last week and both “The Shot” and “The Move” in this one. Waiting for “The Shrug,” “The Flu Game” and, of course, “The Final Shot,” among others. The man is practically a mythological character at this point.
The poster above my brother’s bed was Rodman. The one above mine was of the Tazmanian Devil dunking on Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig in a playground court. Hoping we get some Space Jam in the coming episodes of the series!
Watch out for weekly The Last Dance reviews on Wonder. Stream the 10-part documentary series only on Netflix.
Words Mikkel Bolante
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver