Unless you’ve been living without access to the internet, sports radio, TV, or the print media, you are probably more than aware of the ESPN documentary series “The Last Dance” which wrapped up last weekend. The 10 episode documentary promised a deep dive on the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990’s, and the final championship run in particular. Focusing heavily on Michael Jordan, the series bounced back and forth in time, showing how he and the franchise pushed through obstacles, personal and professional, to become the most feared and dominant team of the ‘90s.
The jumping back and forth through time was one of my favorite gimmicks of the series. I thought it was an excellent study of how a persons past experiences inform the decisions they make throughout their life. The episode that focused on Scottie Pippen, his childhood, and the family issues that led to his constant drive for a better contract, was a great example of this. It brought a new perspective to the tired narrative that Scottie Pippen was (and is) a cheap, selfish bastard, constantly on the lookout for more money. When you realize that Pippen had familial responsibilities beyond just his own selfish desires you can sympathize with his decision to sign a long term contract that eventually underpaid him. And you can understand his frustration with the Bulls Front Office for not renegotiating such an unfair and ridiculously cheap contract when his talent on the court out-shined the monetary value to which he indentured himself.
The documentary was really at it’s best when it was sharing the stories of the players that made up those championship teams. There was a lot of good stuff about Michael Jordan to be sure, but I was mostly interested in the episodes about the “side” characters in the Dynasty story. A deep dive on Phil Jackson, Dennis Rodman, and Steve Kerr? Yes, please! In fact, that is my biggest criticism of the series, not enough of the “side” stories. You could do a 10 part documentary on Phil Jackson alone, and a 20 parter on Rodman. I suppose that’s the difficulty of trying to take a decade of dominance and distill it down to 10 hours. There was so much that was said, but you could never say it all.
One of the moments that really resonated with me was Jordan speaking about how he led the Bulls with an iron fist. A teary-eyed yet defiant Jordan defended his harsh treatment of teammates, and told the camera something along the lines of (and I’m paraphrasing); “You don’t have to do things the way I did them. I was leading the only way I knew how.” I found it a very touching moment, one that showed just how lonely it was for Jordan at the top of the NBA mountain. He was never liked by his teammates, he was never the one they went to for support, but he made them great, he lifted them to another plane of basketball existence, and for that they all seem to be grateful.
I’ve mostly kept away from the discussions happening around the documentary. Former teammates and opponents bashing or gilding the series and Jordan, so called experts nit-picking every interview or searching for inconsistency and hypocrisy, none of it has really appealed to me. The ‘90s Dynasty cemented my love for basketball and the Bulls. I will forever be grateful for Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, John Paxson, Steve Kerr, Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson, Tex Winter, etc, etc, etc. They showed the world greatness through sport. The humiliation, hunger, and determination of those pre-championship teams, the pride, defiance, ambition, and arrogance of the Dynasty; The Last Dance did a fine job of separating the humanity of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls from the Legend.
My biggest take away from the series is the reminder that it takes a nearly inhuman amount of determination to become a multi-time NBA champion. Talent aside, the pure will power to achieve greatness that the ‘90s Bulls, and Jordan in particular, demonstrated on a nightly basis, is what sets those teams apart from our current Bulls roster. The current team is not focused enough on winning, let alone talented enough, to get past teams that have both the competitiveness of champions and the talent to back it up. This Bulls squad needs to mature in a big way before even the glimmer of greatness can enter the hopes of we, the faithful.
Until we catch a glimpse of that greatness, thanks for reading, and GO BULLS!