If you’re black and among the living, there were two events that demanded your attention this past weekend: the much-anticipated Teddy Riley vs. Babyface battle and the network premiere of ESPN’s The Last Dance, a 10-part documentary that explores Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls. While one of these had a striking resemblance to Ja Rule’s Fyre Festival, the other kept millions of people riveted and thoroughly entertained.
The latter would be The Last Dance.
It gave hoops junkies a treasure trove of new details and revelations to sift through that finally provided context to all the wild sports reports we’ve heard or read about through the years.
Here are some of the biggest takeaways from its premiere night:
Coming off of the Bulls’ championship ‘96-97 season, owner Jerry Reinsdorf took one look at his old ass team—Jordan was turning 35, Scottie was 32, Dennis Rodman was 37 and other key contributors on the team were north of 30 as well—and strongly considered blowing it up to prepare for the future.
“After the fifth championship, which was 96-97, we were looking at this team and we realized, other than Michael [Jordan], the rest of the guys were probably at the end of their high productive years,” Reinsdorf said. “We had to decide whether to keep the team together or not. And we realized maybe this was the time to do a rebuild and maybe not try to win a sixth championship.”
But of course with Jordan being Jordan, you already know he wasn’t going for that. He told management that he wouldn’t play for anybody but head coach Phil Jackson—more on that later—and played an integral role in the team ignoring management’s failures in order to lock in for its final championship pursuit.
“We had just finished winning our fifth title,” Jordan said. “There was a lot of uncertainty. Management started talking about the franchise is going to change or we’re going to rebuild. I thought it was unfair. I would never let someone who’s not putting on a uniform and playing each and every day dictate what we do on a basketball court.”
This brings us to the guy Reinsdorf hired to
seek and destroy the Bulls’ dynasty dictate what they did on the basketball court: general manager Jerry Krause.
If ‘What the hell is wrong with you?!’ was a living, breathing human being, it’d be the universally reviled Jerry Krause. Resentful that he never received his due for putting the team together, Krause began what can only be called a one-man crusade to dismantle a dynasty.
He beefed with Phil Jackson and told him “I don’t care if you win 82 games in a row, this is going to be your last year,” he refused to renegotiate Pippen’s embarrassingly low contract and he set Jordan off with this gem that became headline news: “Organizations win titles, not players.” (Krause would later insist he was misquoted.)
Everybody hated his ass and they made no effort whatsoever to hide it.
Pippen was one of the best players in the league, but because he signed an insanely long 7-year, $18 million contract back in 1991—with two paralyzed relatives he didn’t want to risk being unable to provide for his family—he was grossly underpaid. Despite leading the Bulls in numerous statistical categories, he was the 6th highest-paid player on the team and the 122nd highest-paid player in the entire league. Yet Reinsdorf outright refused to give him a new deal. This led to Pippen not only purposely having surgery on a ruptured tendon in his ankle (so that it torpedoed the start of the Bulls’ final season together), but he eventually demanded a trade from the team after continuously berating Krause publicly.
“I’m not gonna fuck my summer up trying to rehab for a season,” Pippen said. “They’re not looking forward to having me. So I’m gonna enjoy my summer and use the season to prepare.”
This, of course, led to the Bulls struggling to a 4-4 record out the gate, which only fueled Jordan’s ire towards Krause. This manifests throughout the film as some cold-blooded digs at Krause that always occur in front of the entire team. (“Are those diet pills?” and “You gonna shoot layups with us? We’ll have to lower the rim.” immediately come to mind)
Coming from his small-town Wilmington, N. C., upbringing, and his innocuous campus life as a Tar Heel, Jordan was shocked by the rampant drugs, alcohol and partying that he stumbled upon in the pros. As a rookie, his team became known as the Bulls’ “traveling cocaine circus.”
“So they open up the door. I walk in, and practically the whole team was in there,” Jordan said, recalling one specific encounter that took place at a hotel. “And it was like, things I’ve never seen in my life as a young kid. You got your lines [of cocaine] over here, you got your weed smokers over here, you got your women over here. So the first thing I said, ‘Look man, I’m out.’ Because all I could think about was if they come and raid this place, right about now, I’m just as guilty as everybody else that’s in this room. And from that point on, I was more or less on my own.”
He was so rattled by what he saw that he abstained from indulging in drugs or going to clubs, and instead occupied himself by playing cards, watching movies and pouring himself into becoming a basketball demigod. This, of course, led to him resuscitating a dying franchise and eventually being named the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1985.
After breaking his foot during his second season with the Bulls, Jordan bumped heads with management about his return to the court. While the Bulls saw his absence as the perfect opportunity to improve their draft position, His Airness wanted no parts of tanking. So after missing 64 games, he finally fought his way back on to the team—with a caveat.
Jordan would be placed on a strict 14-minutes per game restriction that his coach at the time, Stan Albeck, was told to adhere to or risk being fired. The severity of this mandate became apparent when Albeck refused to put Jordan back into a close 1-point game with mere seconds left on the clock.
After this debacle, Jordan felt he and management weren’t on the same page about becoming a championship franchise, so he cut a deal with Albeck to allow him to play his 14 minutes only during crucial points in the game. This decision completely killed any chance of the team tanking and propelled the Bulls into the playoffs—much to management’s chagrin.
This serves as not only one of the greatest “fuck yous” from a professional athlete to team management in the history of professional sports, but it’s a classic example of Jordan’s otherworldly drive and will power.
It also sowed the seeds of an eventual schism between Jordan and team management.