A deep-dive into the first few episodes of Michael Jordan’s all-access 10-part documentary series
Warning: Spoilers ahead—if you don’t already know this story.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
In 1997—after winning a fifth championship in the last seven years—Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls returned the next season looking for title number six and a completion of a second three-peat. If you’re even a casual NBA fan, you know how this story ends.
The Last Dance, a 10-part documentary series on the Bulls historic 1997-98 season, doesn’t care that you know how it ends. It’s guessing you don’t know every compelling detail that went on in the middle.
Before we break down the episodes, here’s a disclaimer. I’m a Chicago Bulls superfan. From the Jordan era to the Baby Bulls to Derrick Rose-Thibodeau to the Fire GarPax era.
One of my earliest basketball memories was me as a kid listening in on adults explain to each other “The Move” (that’s Jordan’s iconic mid-air, switch-hands layup against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1991 Finals). I‘ve made the pilgrimage to the statue of MJ outside the United Center (I was, heretically enough, in a Charlotte Hornets jacket, which was the only one in my skinny 11-year-old self’s size.) To this day, I still own a Trapper Keeper, where I have pages of my brother’s and my basketball cards, featuring the Michael Jordans and the Scottie Pippens all the way down to the Jud Buechlers and Randy Browns of the second three-peat team.
All this to say, I watched this documentary with very specific Rose-colored glasses (pun very much intended). So your viewing experiences may vary from mine, if you don’t bleed Bulls red the way I do. We’ll be doing this every week as the episodes come out two at a time.
That aside, let’s jump in.
Much like my Trapper Keeper, page one of this documentary series focuses, understandably, on Jordan. Michael, MJ, His Airness, the GOAT. He is, of course, the face of the ‘90s Bulls. Arguably, the greatest player in NBA history on the greatest team in NBA history. He’s the obvious protagonist in this story.
He’s described as the alpha male of sports likened only to Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali. He received a “greatest ever” endorsement as early as the 1984 Olympics (before he even played an NBA game). He is a mega-celebrity, as can be seen in the team’s preseason trip to France. At this point in the documentary, he’s clearly getting a hero edit.
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We’re given a peek at his childhood and his years at the University of North Carolina. We see him as a charismatic teen in college with a beaming smile. We see him drafted into the NBA (in a nice cameo by a young, mustachioed David Stern). The best example: He gets to tell the story of “The Bulls Traveling Cocaine Circus,” the story of a rookie who finds his older teammates in a hotel room doing every vice imaginable, and him washing his hands off of the entire lifestyle. He just wants to play basketball and he wants to win.
And then the episode introduces the villain: Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ General Manager from 1985 to 2003.
Here was the man who wanted to dismantle a dynasty before it had ever lost its crown. Here was the man who wanted to trade away Pippen before he could get a much-deserved payday; the man who refused to bring back head coach Phil Jackson for even just a single more season.
Krause is described as having “The Little Man Problem,” as desperately seeking to receive the credit he thinks he deserves. He gets the chance to explain his famous quote: “Players don’t win championships, organizations win championships.” (He clumsily explains it away as a misquote, that he said players and coaches alone don’t win championships, but it still illustrates his mindset of a man wanting more credit for the success of the team.)
It’s amazing how this theme has resonated throughout the history of the Bulls franchise. There has existed a general mistrust on the part of the fanbase directed towards Bulls ownership and the front office. There’s a feeling that management has prioritized profits over winning—for decades. There was similar tension during the Thibodeau run due to the narrative (real or not) that the front office believed he was getting too much of the credit for the team’s success and not enough for them.
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They try not to judge Krause too harshly for this. Former center Bill Wennington outright says, “Was Jerry Krause a bad guy? No.” They point out, rightly, that he was good at his job—at least at building a competitive team. But it was clear that he was the center of the divide between the players and coaches on one side and management on the other.
And in a story of heroes capable of great physical feats struggling against the powerful and privileged looking to hold them down? It’s a tale as old as time—and real easy to pick a side.
Again taking its cue from my Trapper Keeper, the second episode puts in focus on Scottie Pippen.
Pippen, of course, is the Bulls’ number-two. He’s maybe the best number-two in the history of the game. He’s been described as the Robin to Jordan’s Batman but that feels a bit dismissive. He’s more like a Ben Affleck Batman to Jordan’s Henry Cavill Superman, not quite a sidekick but not quite the same thing either.
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Pip has a great story as well. He started college as his team’s equipment manager, then grew six inches in a year to become his team’s best player. He eventually made it to the big league and became the Bulls second-best player behind Jordan.
The tragedy in his story has always been money. As a small-town kid, he chose the security of a long-term deal over the potential earnings on a shorter contract. By the 1997-98 season, the focus of the The Last Dance, league revenues and player contracts exploded in the years prior. Pippen, a six-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA First Team selection and a five-time NBA champion at this point of his career, was only the sixth-highest paid player on the Bulls and 122nd in the NBA.
But this episode really was about his absence moreso than his presence.
As a way to stick it to a front office that tried to trade him the previous season rather than entertain the thought of giving him a well-deserved payday once his dirt-cheap contract came up, he chose to have elective surgery to correct an injury at the start of the NBA season, instead of the summer. That means he would miss the start of the Bulls campaign and they struggled without him.
The episode also features a flashback to a time before Jordan had Pippen: his sophomore season where he suffered an injury of his own. This is one of the enduring legends in the Jordan lore. He broke his foot in his second year in the league and fought against management that put him on a minutes restriction.
Believing that the Bulls wanted to miss the playoffs for a better draft position, Jordan raised hell in however many minutes he was allowed. Fighting against his own bosses, on top of the competition, he dragged the Bulls to the playoffs where they played the number one seed Boston Celtics, featuring the great Larry Bird and several other future Hall of Famers.
By the end of the series, the Celtics moved onto the next round, but not before Jordan set a new NBA record for most points scored in a single playoff game (63 points) and Bird declaring, “I think that was God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
The episode ends back in 1997 with Pippen pulling a selfish (or at least, self-motivated) move—on the quest for a sixth championship, he demands a trade away from the Chicago Bulls.
There are several themes at play here. Both Jordan and Pippen have parallel narratives of injury and animosity against the front office. But also, there’s a grimness to the tone of the campaign.
It’s called The Last Dance because management has all but declared that they won’t bring the team back next year—win or lose. There’s an existential futility there. If nothing changes whether we win or lose, then what’s the point? But that’s what makes the story poetic, in a way.
Why even try to win the championship? Why even play at all? Because, as stated in the episode, Jordan believed in this: “You do it at the highest level and you do it to win, all the time.”
Already so much drama going on and we’ve barely had any Dennis Rodman yet. Look out!
“I mean, Carlisle just wants his mommy.” Great color commentary from back in the day.
Two-for-two on POTUS appearances. Episode I had Barack Obama, who is famously from Chicago. Episode II had Bill Clinton, who was formerly the Governor of Arkansas, where Pippen played college ball.
The old hip-hop soundtrack for in-game montages have been top-notch: Been Around the World by Puff Daddy (feat. Notorious BIG and Mase), I Ain’t No Joke by Eric B. and Rakim, I’m Bad by LL Cool J.
Watch out for weekly The Last Dance reviews on Wonder. Stream the 10-part documentary series only on Netflix.
Words Mikkel Bolante
Art Mathew Fetalver