Netflix brought some welcome relief for basketball-starved fans in Israel with “The Last Dance.” While the current diet of reruns on local television may taste like warmed-up leftovers, this 10-part documentary is a rare delicacy. It chronicles the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty of six NBA championships in the 1990s, before the team’s core was disbanded after the 1998 season (the “last dance” of the title).
With the absence of live basketball due to the coronavirus, the series allows middle-aged and older fans to relive their memories of the unique genius of the ’90s Bulls, while simultaneously introducing the team’s exploits to a younger generation. Each episode follows the team’s 1998 championship campaign, shifting back in time to describe its successful run and the process involved in creating a dynasty.
The series was produced by ESPN, utilizing the no-holds-barred footage NBA Entertainment had been allowed to shoot of the Bulls during that final winning season.
The series serves as a time capsule for an era that featured structured basketball that allowed for physical play with a greater balance between offense and defense – unlike today’s high-scoring, “run-and-gun,” three-point shooting game.
The on-court archival material is familiar to anyone who followed the NBA at the time. What makes “The Last Dance” unique is the behind-the-scenes stories and in-depth profiles of iconic figures like head coach Phil Jackson, Dennis Rodman and, particularly, Michael Jordan – and the dynamics between them and the rest of the team. These profiles go way beyond the stereotype and present each person as a multidimensional human being.
Although the series chronicles the team, Jordan dominates proceedings just as he did basketball at the time – when he was perhaps the most popular person on the planet. We learn about the character traits that led to his unparalleled success, and the huge price this exacted on him. Jordan was totally driven to succeed, which for him meant only NBA championships, and he would drive his teammates to reach championship-level play.
He was instrumental in helping Scottie Pippen be more aggressive and self-confident, and to channel his immense talent into becoming the superstar M.J. badly needed by his side.
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But his tough love approach also caused many of his teammates to fear and feel intimidated by him. According to former Bulls player B.J. Armstrong, “Michael was a very difficult person to be around on a daily basis unless you were totally crazy about basketball.”
Aside from the need to be the best on court, Jordan admitted in one interview that he had a “competition problem.” He would gamble on golf matches and card games for sums in excess of $1 million; he was also unable to resist playing in some of his teammates’ $1 poker games.
Jordan’s worldwide fame and his image as the elegant, infallible athlete took a tremendous personal toll. The hoard of fans hoping to get a glimpse of him and the media looking for scoops (and sometimes dirt) wore him down, which contributed to his shock decision in 1993 to retire and try his luck at baseball.
This writer exchanged a handshake with Jordan during those years. His viselike grip delivered the message of a challenge and the necessity of paying a price if I wanted a piece of him. In one interview, he is asked about the famous “Be Like Mike” ad slogan from 1992. Jordan responds that “nobody would want to be Michael Jordan. Maybe for a day, but certainly not for a year.”
The series also depicts a softer, more emotional side of Jordan. We see him crying and hugging the Bulls’ first championship trophy after his seven-year struggle to claim the prize. But by far the most poignant moment is his response to the murder of his beloved father, James Jordan, in July 1993. We witness his sense of loss as he returns from retirement in 1995, playing for the first time without his father there to watch him; and see the heartbreaking moment when Jordan lies totally distraught on the team’s locker room floor after the Bulls have captured the 1996 championship on Father’s Day.
Be like Dennis too?
“The Last Dance” is not just about Jordan, though. It also offers a more nuanced appraisal of Dennis Rodman – beyond his image as a volatile, unpredictable, outrageous eccentric. Indeed, he is seen in his early years as an awkward, shy, unathletic youth. But through hard work and determination, he developed his athleticism and enjoyed an excellent college career at a little-known university. Those same traits characterized his seven seasons at the Detroit Pistons, where he was known for his nonstop energy and tenacity, which made him arguably the best defender and rebounder in the league.
Rodman experienced a major personal crisis in February 1993, when he almost committed suicide. In response, he developed the larger-than-life persona he is known for today, including relationships with celebrities (Madonna, Carmen Electra), outlandish hairdos, body piercings, violent blow-ups and irresponsible behavior.
But the series also emphasizes his commitment to winning and his studious approach to the game. Rodman was a basketball genius who developed his own individual approach to capturing rebounds. In a typical Rodman game, he would apply suffocating defense, grab 20 rebounds (many on offense) while scoring only 2 points, and still dominate the contest. Despite his meshuggaas – like insisting on taking a vacation in Las Vegas mid-season – the Bulls came to understand that when it mattered most, Rodman could be counted on.
Coach Jackson was the maestro who orchestrated the Bulls’ success. More recently remembered for three unsuccessful years as president of the basketball sinkhole that is the present-day New York Knicks, the series reminds us that Jackson captured more titles (11) than any other coach in NBA history, and that neither Jordan nor Kobe Bryant ever won a championship without him at the helm.
Jackson grew up in rural Montana and was a role player on the Knicks team that won two titles in the early 1970s. New York living and the counterculture of the ’60s had turned him into an acid-tripping hippie, but he played with energy and reckless abandon. In one interview, he is even referred to as the Dennis Rodman of his day.
He turned to coaching after his playing days were over, adopting the folklore of the Native American tribes he grew up around and Zen Buddhism as his philosophy to life and coaching. Family therapist Richard Simon once wrote in a professional journal about Jackson’s style of interaction, describing him as a “therapist who somehow got misplaced as a basketball coach.”
Jackson’s greatest achievement by far was to convince Jordan to accept a team-oriented approach and help everyone become better, instead of being the sole focus of the Bulls’ attack. This was the final step that transformed the Bulls from perennial runner-up to champion, and Jordan from superstar to ultimate winner.
Jackson also exhibited great wisdom and patience with Rodman, who at that point in his career was considered uncoachable. He explains in “The Last Dance” that Rodman would be called a “heyoka” in Indian tradition – a backward-walking person: “Dennis will always be a maverick, but sometimes he wants to be part of the tribe.” Jackson used this understanding to give Rodman a long leash, with the knowledge that he could be relied upon when needed.
Toward the series’ conclusion, there’s a scene we have witnessed countless times over the years, one that separates M.J. from all the other basketball immortals: With the clock ticking down in the waning seconds of the Bulls’ last dance, everyone knows what Jordan is going to do. No one can stop him, though, and Chicago wins another title.
“The Last Dance” allows us to look back at one of the greatest teams of all time from the vantage point of the present. It’s a must-see for the serious basketball fan as well as the casual one, during the coronavirus era or any other time.