Welcome to the first recap of 'The Last Dance' where we will be breaking down Jason Hehir's monumental 10-part documentary covering the most influential team in NBA history, the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls.
First things first, as a gigantic Chicago Bulls fan growing up, I have to say that I had forgotten nearly all of this.
I had purposefully avoided any reviews of the film and I have seen no previews, so I will be following along at home just like everyone else. My first impression is that Hehir did an amazing job of throwing us right back into how dynamic this team was in terms of story lines and personality.
That he is building up the dramatic narrative arc of this one championship season, as opposed to making the documentary strictly about Michael Jordan, is really exciting.
I was instantly reminded that there will never be another team with this level of influence and global charisma.
The simple fact is this: MJ wore a beret walking down the Champs-Elysees. It's basically a Serge Gainsbourg song.
This team changed everything.
Before this started I wondered how in the world you can spend 10 hours documenting a basketball team? I no longer have that question.
That Hehir spends just five minutes over the apparently well-known fact that the pre-Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls were a "traveling cocaine circus" shows that he has story lines to spare.
I never, ever, in my entire life imagined that I would hear Michael Jordan explain that he didn't do "lines" of cocaine in the 1980s, but here we are.
And after we are done with Hehir's 10-part documentary, I look forward to Ken Burns taking up his own 10-part documentary on the traveling cocaine circus of the pre-Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls.
In the era of social distancing, I found it poetic that we started with Jordan sitting alone in a gigantic white mansion in what has to be Miami.
With Mike sitting solo, I felt an isolated kinship.
And as we start this journey together, I hope we never lose track of the fundamental Shakespearean nature of why this story is being told: The Chicago Bulls, the most influential NBA team of all-time, were torn apart by the man who created them.
Bulls general manager Jerry Krause was reviled during the Michael Jordan era, and even though he died in 2017 he is clearly going to be reviled in this documentary.
Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who hired Krause when he bought the team in 1985, said that everyone told him he was making a gigantic mistake because Krause was so miserable.
Reinsdorf himself says of Krause, "He had a way of alienating people."
That is one of the two or three nicest things that was said about Krause in the first two episodes of the documentary.
Jordan: "Jerry, you wanna do some layups with us?"
Jordan: "They gotta lower the rim."
I am not a bully, but I was guffawing at Jordan's miserable bullying!
What is this film trying to prove?
Meanwhile Reinsdorf relays the story of how Krause didn't invite Bulls head coach Phil Jackson -- whom, again, he had won five NBA titles with -- to his daughter's wedding before the 1997-98 season.
Instead Krause invited Tim Floyd, who just so happened to be the head coach of my favorite basketball team, the Iowa State Cyclones.
Floyd would eventually replace Jackson and flame out spectacularly with a 49-190 record over four seasons with the Bulls. But at the time, Krause' non-invite of Jackson was more of a slap-in-the-face than anything else.
Reinsdorf, though, didn't see it that way, saying, "If someone doesn't invite me to a wedding, I'd like to thank them."
We get a brief look-back at Jordan's college career which brings us to the highlight of the documentary, thus far.
My wife and I could not believe how wonderful Michael Jordan's mother looks. We had to look up her age. I won't even reveal it here. Look it up yourself and be amazed.
She should start a health and wellness blog.
One of the more surprising bits of footage from the past was that when Jordan was drafted in 1985, everyone agreed that a guard simply could not carry a team to a title. You had to be 7-feet tall. That was the rule.
Rod Thorn, the Bulls GM who drafted Jordan, held a press conference where he said he wished Jordan was 7-feet tall, but he isn't. Thorn is apologizing for the height of a human!
At first I couldn't quite comprehend all of the footage they had of players and experts saying that Jordan had no chance to dominate, but then I remembered that for about 40 years the league had been controlled by Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Even Kevin Loughery, Jordan's first head coach, says, "When we drafted Michael, I did not know how good he was."
To be fair, this was pre-internet.
One last note on the first episode: These days you can't get players to play for Team USA in huge offseason tournaments. Meanwhile here is Michael Jordan, in the midst of three starlight grueling championship runs, playing exhibition games in Paris in the offseason to build the NBA.
All while Scottie Pippen is back in the states getting ready to destroy poor Jerry Krause.
"With the fifth overall pick in the 1987 draft, the Seattle Supersonics select Scott Pippen."
It's hard to top that particular sentence when it comes to proper nouns that are never, ever used when discussing the NBA anymore.
But that is the the focal point of the second episode of 'The Last Dance'.
And who, pray tell, got Scott Pippen from the Supersonics to the Bulls?
Well dear old Jerry Krause, of course.
Pippen's story is an incredible one. It never ceases to amaze me when a person grows five inches during the summer between their freshman and sophomore year of college. I imagine that if you grew five inches at that age you would quite literally feel it happening in real time like a cartoon.
That Pippen was the youngest of 12 children, and that both his father and a brother were in wheelchairs, lays the foundation for his reasoning in signing a seven-year, $18 million contract in 1991 and his eventual anger at the Bulls management for not reworking that contract when he became grossly underpaid.
Hehir shows Pippen's enormous value to the Bulls on the court while showing that off the court he was the sixth-highest paid player on the team and his contract ranked 122nd in the NBA heading into the 1997-98 season.
At the same time, even while Jerry Reinsdorf is out here saying he told Pippen not to sign the deal, the fact is Pippen did sign the deal.
And who benefited? Krause, that's who.
So to summarize, Krause traded for Pippen on draft night. Krause signed Pippen to the most team-friendly contract in NBA history. And then Reinsdorf and Krause refused to negotiate.
So what did Pippen do?
He waited to have surgery on his foot until right before the 1997-98 season so it wouldn't mess up his summer plans.
He missed the first two months of action while Jordan and the Bulls treaded water.
He told the media he would never play for the Bulls again.
He berated Jerry Krause on the team bus so virulently that even Phil Jackson said it probably went over the line.
And remember, Krause didn't invite Phil to that wedding!
Hehir is doing some smart thematic threading here, because as we are hearing about Pippen using his feet as an excuse to not play, we jump back in time to see the emerging Michael Jordan refusing to stop playing because of his feet.
Jordan's second year in the league sees him break his foot in the third game of the season.
As he rehabs, the Bulls realize they could move into the lottery if they keep losing, so Jordan misses 64 games.
In the midst of this he asks the team if he can go back to college to rehab.
This request is so impossible to imagine with the way modern NBA franchises are run that it's hard to wrap your brain around.
The Bulls grant his request!
Jordan, the face of not just the Bulls but of the entire NBA, goes to college and starts playing five-on-five like a kid at college.
Then he tells the Bulls and poor Krause has to tell the media he didn't know anything about it until Jordan told him.
So the Bulls management puts Jordan in timeout and only lets him play 14 minutes per game but Jordan will not let them stop him.
The shoe is on the other foot. Both feet are broken. But one persons will is too strong for a broken foot. That person is Jordan. The Bulls make the playoffs. He scores 63 points against the No. 1 seed Celtics in Boston Garden.
He roasts a whole roster of current NBA coaches and general managers including: Danny Ainge, Larry Bird and Rick Carlisle.
He makes Bill Walton and Kevin McHale look much, much older than they are because they are wearing very rudimentary knee pads.
It's truly heroic basketball.
And when we cut to present day you see Jordan voicing his clear displeasure with the way that Pippen, the greatest teammate of his career, was handling himself in 1997-98.
Note about the grade: If there were not eight more episodes I would give this 10/10 but I feel like somehow we are just getting started. What a great start!
- Please feel free to comment or discuss any topics you feel I may have missed or think are important to the film. I feel like as I get going I will try and comment more on the actual filmmaking, the interview techniques, the shots, the editing, the contrast between the old footage from the season and modern day, etc., but I'm a novice recapper.
- In the battle of former presidents giving anecdotes, I give Round 1 to Bill Clinton over Barack Obama because Clinton somehow went to watch Pippen at Central Arkansas and also makes a reference to the NAIA. Impressive!
- I am sort of shocked they are giving us two episodes each week. When the first episode ended I was so jacked for the second episode that I would have gladly waited a week for it. They could have dragged this out until Father's Day. (Note: Ex-Wolves guard and current Bulls guard Zach LaVine would take all of them RIGHT NOW).
- The Bulls went 30-52 in Jordan's second season and made the Eastern Conference playoffs. 30-52! Can you imagine if the Wolves were playing in the Western Conference when that happened and went like 38-44? Mayhem. Eliminate conferences.
- In the modern era of front office executives giving the media absolutely nothing to work with, I find Krause's honesty to be really refreshing. I know this puts me in the minority opinion when it comes to Mr. Krause, but I just had to say it. At a press conference someone asks him about trading Pippen and Krause gave a beautifully nuanced answer to the offers he received and why he didn't make the deal. This will never, ever happen again.
- When Jordan broke his foot, he sat on the bench for the rest of the game and then his teammates carried him off the court. Sports have come so far in terms of wealth and medical organization it's hard to fathom.
- Michael Jordan's brother Larry has long been a key figure in the MJ legacy so when he says, "If you beat me, back then, we had to fight." It really brought him to life. Great quote.
- While it's easy to see Jordan's competitiveness as blinding, he lived up to it. When he returned to the NBA after playing minor league baseball he went on to play 331 straight games, including the playoffs. Never missed one game. I can see why Pippen sitting out would rub him the wrong way.
- Steve Kerr doesn't age.
- Bill Wennington's mustache is tremendous.
- Jordan wore a beret and a backwards Kangol and both times he matched them with full length jumpsuits.
- Speaking of suits, a lot of big suits going on in the late 90's, lots of baggy things overall. Also, in Paris Jordan had on a really great black suit coat and his undershirt had a band collar. That's a sharp look.
- Meanwhile Phil Jackson hops off the bus in Paris looking like the handler for Curious George.
- Jordan on rebuilding: "The Cubs have been rebuilding for 42 years."
- Jordan asking his mom for money for stamps was very sweet. I feel like Deloris humanizes MJ in a way no one else can. "Is that not a college student?"
- I noticed that Jordan was doing his job while also having a statue of himself outside his work place, giving him something in common with Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman.