Sports

“The Last Dance” Recap Part 4

See “The Last Dance” Recap Part 3 HERE.

I’m writing this maaany days after watching episodes 7 and 8 because, well, even in quarantine, life gets in the way. Since the finer details escape me, I’m going to do my best to avoid them like the plague. See what I did there?

Anyway, here are some highlights from The Last Dance.

Episode 7

Two moments from late April of 1998

  1. During an interview with Jerry Krause, the unexpected star of The Last Dance, Craig Sager asks if there is any “backstabbing” going on between the Bulls front office, the team, media, etc. Krause, who is the knife, is stone faced claiming that nothing of the sort is happening. At the same time, he has refused to acknowledge Michael Jordan’s impending retirement, or the mutiny of Phil Jackson, which Krause himself led.
  2. During the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, Michael Jordan and the Bulls are facing the New Jersey Nets. Michael Jordan, fairly unprovoked, says that the Bulls would have to “fall asleep” to lose to John Calipari and the Nets. The Bulls would sweep the Nets, but not without being taken to the edge in Game 1 and Game 2, which they won by a combined eight points.

1993

The year the Chicago Bulls beat the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals would prove to be one of the most pivotal moments of Michael Jordan’s life, and of The Last Dance. The Bulls, led by Jordan’s record 41.0ppg Finals average, beat the Suns in six games. In the fourth quarter of Game 6, John Paxson hit the game winning three pointer. Those were the only Bulls’ points scored by anyone other than Michael Jordan in the fourth quarter.

When the Suns’ attempt to take the lead failed and the buzzer went off, the world couldn’t expect what would coming the months following.

Jordan and the Bulls best Regular Season MVP Charles Barkley, USATSI

July 23, 1993

James Jordan (Michael’s dad) was declared missing after he didn’t arrive on a scheduled flight. The initial family assumption was that he was in Hilton Head and had lost track of time playing golf. Nope. James Jordan was missing for weeks, until his car is found stripped and hidden on the side of a road in the Carolinas.

Sopan Deb, NY Times
Sue Ogrocki, Reuters

August 13, 1993

The body of James Jordan was found in a creek between North and South Carolina. Declared a murder — James Jordan was shot in the chest a single time. Michael and James had been on top of the world only five weeks earlier.

The media began publishing terrible things about MJ’s gambling catching up with him, and his alleged debts being the cause of his father’s murder. It was a real black mark on the media — at least for those who saw it for what it was.

The Last Dance features a clip of Bob Costas coming to the defense of Michael Jordan and shooting down any and all accusations that floated through the media. Costas proved once again that he is a stand up guy that just believes in good. Without a shred of evidence, the media drew false connections between MJ’s gambling and James’ murder.

Hear what Bob Costas thinks about The Last Dance.

Side Note: Bob Costas, like me, is a Syracuse University grad. I’ve heard so many stories about his time there, and I’ve been lucky enough to run into him on more than one occasion.

Once, while at the Belmont Stakes, some friends and I were standing near a broadcast desk when Costas walked onto “set” to warm up. We began cheering and doing all of the things you do after you’ve inhaled 14 cervezas. Of course, NBC security swarmed. Costas heard one of us yell that we were from SU and he quickly parted security like the Red Sea. We talked for maybe 15 minutes — mostly about Syracuse and the day’s races, but Bob also took a moment to make fun of one friend who had indulged a bit more than the rest. It was a really special moment to see how genuine he was. 

Our other run-in was in, of all places, Atlanta. I’ve spent a grand total of about 48hrs in Atlanta, and about 45min in the Terrapin Taproom at Truist Park. Time is a crazy thing because at that exact time, Bob Costas was also in the Terrapin Taproom.

October 5, 1993

The White Sox are in the ALCS and Michael Jordan is throwing out the first pitch. It’s during Game 1 that Michael Jordan meets with Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause to tell him that he would be retiring from professional basketball. Even without Twitter, you can imagine the news spread quickly. The White Sox lost Game 1, but the bigger news was Michael Jordan speeding away from the stadium while avoiding media clamoring for a statement.

Associated Press Photo

Redefining Retirement

Michael Jordan redefined retirement. The very day after making the Bulls front office aware of his plans to retire, the team and Jordan held a press conference that stopped the world. Jordan officially announced that he would be retiring (for the first time).

Jordan retires for the first time with teammates and front office by his side

“You can do anything you want, even come back.”

Michael Jordan, The Last Dance

Some people (crazy people) immediately started to speculate that the retirement was actually a suspension that the NBA and Jordan were too embarrassed to admit to. A suspension related to Jordan’s gambling, possibly including gambling on NBA games. Mark Vancil took advantage of the opportunity in The Last Dance to clear this up. You are insane if you believe that David Stern would tear apart the NBA and subsequently devalue the league’s crown jewel franchise and the league itself by penalizing Jordan for gambling. There was an investigation that found what you’d expect. Jordan liked to play golf and really liked to play golf with high stakes on each hole.

Do you remember that third championship Jordan and the Bulls won? Yea, only a few weeks ago if you’re following the timeline. Well, by the time John Paxson’s game winning three left his hand, Jordan had already made the decision to retire. At the time only he and his father knew how certain it was. But, in June of 1992 he had made his tentative retirement plans pretty obvious to a select group of close friends and media.

Herego, there was no secret suspension. Michael Jordan was on top of the world and was looking for something else to chase. Then his dad was murdered and he vowed to go chase that next thing — that next thing just happened to be professional baseball.

The White Sox

While the 1993-1994 NBA season has already started, Jordan is getting ready for Spring Training with Reisndorf’s Chicago WHite Sox. And don’t worry, although Michael isn’t playing basketball, Reinsdorf has decided to continue to honor his contract’s salary due to how drastically underpaid MJ had been through the early portion of his career. Michael made a lot of people around him a lot of money. And for that, he probably deserved to continue collecting his salary, however absurd that may sound.

Yea, Jordan was a BMFD. The greatest basketball player of all time (oops, I said it again) is playing PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL. This made so much noise that the White Sox had no choice but to put the guy at Double A. The Last Dance was the first time this had been made clear to me, it all makes sense now — generally a new player would be in Rookie Ball or Single A, but in this case those stadiums literally didn’t have the media capacity for Michael Jordan…

Well the experiment as many people called it, started pretty hot. Jordan got his feet under him and got himself into a 13 game hit streak. And then he met his maker — the breaking ball. Jordan drops into a slump and the media attacked. Sports Illustrated published “Bag it, Michael”, and because of that headline, Michael Jordan refused to ever speak with SI again after they failed to request an interview or get in touch before running that headline on the cover.

“Error Jordan”

All in all, Jordan averaged .202 and drove in 50 runs. A more than respectable stat line for a guy that jumped into professional baseball at age of 30. There are plenty of people on record believing that had Michael given baseball a full shot, he would have made it to the Majors at some point. Just think about that.

Can you imagine being a player on that team? And I’m not talking about losing innings or at-bats to MJ, but literally being on a team with Michael Jordan. Man, that’s a wild thought.

Back to April 1998

Players are talking about the pressure that MJ put on them. Taunting in practice, yelling after bad games, and so on. One specific example The Last Dance narrowed in on was Scott Burrell. Jordan targeted Scott during that season. He set his eyes on Burrell’s commitment and tested it. Jordan tried to get Burrell to fight him, but Burrell was too nice to break. The guy was too nice.

“Garbage, don’t bring that bullshit.”

Jordan to Burrell during a ‘98 practice

Will Perdue and Jud Buechler were actually AFRAID of MJ, but both called him a great teammate and knew he was pushing them to win. If The Last Dance makes one thing clear, it’s that everyone understood that Michael was more competitive and just flat out better at the game of basketball than anyone ever. It was best to just jump onboard.

Jordan wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything on the court, at practice, or in the weight room that he wasn’t already doing. And everyone knew it.

You could run through a brick wall after that segment of Michael lifting, running sprints, and breaking the pre-game huddle. The man’s determination and intensity simply cannot be matched.

October 1993

It’s the first workout without MJ. Pippen takes the lead role, and immediately displays a softer touch than Michael. He’s comforting players. He’s befriending players.

Toni Kukoc finally arrives in Chicago for his “rookie” season. He ends up taking last second shot in the ‘93 East Semifinals against the Knicks. Scottie Pippen is PISSED to be looked over by Phil Jackson. After all, he is the team’s leader now. Pippen proceeds to refuse to inbound the ball for the final possession. Kukoc nails the shot, regardless. 

Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc

The Jordan-less Bulls have a sincere come to Jesus moment after calling out Pippen for quitting. The team came to the conclusion that it was out of character for Pippen and accepted an apology. Despite that, during his The Last Dance interview, Pippen says he wouldn’t change it. The Bulls go on to lose the series to the Knicks. Both, Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan agree at that very moment that Pippen won’t live down the embarrassment.

Episode 8

March 1995

The MLB is in the middle of a players’ strike. The league is looking for players to play in replacement games, but the MLBPA has taken a hard stance. Jordan is a G, so he walks out of White Sox training camp after vowing not to cross the picket line.

With the baseball season in question, Jordan  meets up with BJ Armstrong and heads to Bulls practice to “say hey”. Inevitably, he Jumps into a 1-on-1 with Armstrong and ends up at three practices in a week. Momentum begins in media reports that Jordan might be coming back. During pre-game during this same time, Pippen stares into the tv cameras and asks the Air Jordan logo to come back.

On March 18, 1995, Jordan announces he is back via a simple message… 

The Bulls were 34-31 and needed a jolt of something. Michael Jordan is that something. Ya think? The Last Dance wouldn’t be here, if not.

Jordan played in his first game since his dad’s murder. He emerged from the tunnel wearing the number 45, which was the same number he wore throughout high school. He starts the game shooting 0-6, but gets back on track despite the loss. Six days later, hits a vintage buzzer beater and is officially back.

No surprise his eventual return to the Garden was a big fucking deal. Dubbed the “double nickel” game, Jordan scores 55 to overshadow Patrick Ewing and John Starks.

Penny, Shaq, and Horace

The Bulls are staring down a familiar face in the Eastern Conference Semifinals — Horace Grant. Grant had left the Bulls to become a true face with the Magic. The Magic take game 1 and are confident that they’ve stifled Jordan. Not so fast. When Jordan walks out of the tunnel for Game 2, he’s wearing the all too familiar 23 on his back. Jordan and the Bulls torch Orlando and Jordan gets a massive block on Shaq. 

“No. 45 is not No. 23.

Nick Anderson after Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals

For the first time ever, Jordan’s fitness catches up with him. Afterall, baseball shape is very very different than basketball shape. The Bulls fall to the Magic, and for the first time since 1990, Jordan won’t win a championship (in a year that he plays basketball).

It might have had something to do with Horace Grant taking center stage in Orlando’s celebration, but MJ made a quick call to his trainer, Tim Grover, and got right back into basketball shape. Michael has said it 100,000 times — “if you commit three hours of your day to watching me play basketball, you’re going to get my best.” Michael was getting back to his best.

Space Jam

So now, Michael Jordan is getting in shape, and oh by the way, he’s filming a movie. Warner Brothers went ahead and built a full gym for use during the duration of filming. Jordan’s days were looong. 6:00am call times for filming and then 9:00pm workouts. There were NBA stars regularly coming through the lot to play pick-up with Jordan. They said it was some of the most competitive basketball ever played. Just imagine being a part of that exclusive club.

The Jordan Dome at Warner Brothers Studios

1995-1996 Training Camp 

The 1996 team might have been the greatest of all time. It probably was the greatest of all time, though people say that about every Jordan team.

It all started in training camp, as any season does. Steve Kerr is guarding Michael Jordan. Can you imagine? Tensions rise and there’s a fight when Jordan reacts to a tic tac foul call. A small shove from Kerr turns into a black eye delivered by Jordan. Ironically, all of this changes the relationship for the better. This was in many ways an introduction to most players, who hadn’t been with the team for the first three-peat.

The Bulls start 23-2. That’s really really good for those of you not keeping up at home. It’s pretty obvious they’re chasing down the all-time wins record. But guess what… “It doesn’t mean a thing without the ring.” Inevitably, the Bulls and Michael Jordan end up in an Eastern Conference Finals rematch with the Orlando Magic. This one isn’t as close as 19994-1995. The Bulls sweep the Magic.

It was supposedly the greatest mismatch in NBA Finals history — Bulls vs. Supersonics. Gary The Glove Peyton, Sean Kemp, and George Karl. Names any NBA fan would recognize. George Karl snubs Jordan for a handshake or even “hello” while out at dinner before the series and that’s all Jordan needed for that little bit of extra motivation. Chicago is up 3-0 and Payton comes out guarding Mike in Game 4. He’s coming off a Defensive Player of the Year, but hadn’t been guarding Jordan. Payton talks lots of shit, gets physical, and gets the win to prevent the sweep. In Game 5, Payton proved again that he can do it at both ends of the floor. Karl had originally been afraid of tiring Payton out, who was coming off of a calf injury.

Teleport back to Jordan completing an interview for The Last Dance… Michael is watching the Gary Payton interview and maniacally laughing. Payton says he didn’t back down from Jordan the way others did, and because of that, he was able to shut him down. 

On June 16, 1996, Game 6 landed on Father’s Day. For the first time, James Jordan wasn’t there to see his son play in the NBA Finals. In case you were wondering, that’s all the motivation Jordan and the Bulls needed to close the series.

1997-1998 Eastern Conference Finals (Pacers)

Reggie Miller thinks he’s going to “retire” Michael Jordan. 😅

Part 5 (Episodes 9 and 10) Premiere Next Sunday, May 17th at 9:00pm ET.