When The Last Dance was announced, anyone over the age of 40 could’ve been forgiven for thinking: “Ten episodes of television about Michael Jordan and the Nineties Bulls? Do we need this?” But, as fans who came of age during that team’s reign should know: Never bet against His Airness. Chalk it up to nostalgia for some, voyeurism for others, and the pure awe that comes with watching MJ play, but this ESPN docuseries, built off of hours of found footage from Chicago’s 1997-1998 season, as they chased their sixth NBA title in eight years, is a fascinating joy ride.
Toggling chronologically between that crucial season and years past — whether Jordan’s early days with the team, a skinny, superhuman kid; the beginning stages of the Bulls dynasty, when he started to get a taste for leadership; or key players’ childhoods and college days — the episodes aim to build a psychological portrait of the team leading up to that sixth title. New interviews with Jordan, his teammates, and his rivals don’t always provide more insight than we had before — did you know that Michael Jordan is extremely competitive? — but walking down memory lane with these players, standing on the court with them as Jordan burns it down, being on the team plane as they break each other’s balls on the ride home… hell, even reveling in the incredibly Nineties fashions, all adds up to two hours of giddy escapism.
Here are some key takeaways from Episodes Three and Four.
“You Don’t Put a Saddle on a Mustang”
Much of these episodes focus on the role of Dennis Rodman, whose life story seems to be a personal Groundhog Day of being misunderstood — sometimes wilfully so, sometimes not — wherever he goes. While the series doesn’t delve too deeply into why (grew up in the projects, his mom kicked him out at 18 and he slept in friends’ backyards), we learn primarily that Rodman, shy and gentle at heart yet truculent and easily bruised, is special, and needs to be treated as such, or else all hell breaks loose. While a common platitude in team sports when you’re a kid is that nobody deserves special treatment, the opposite usually proves true — and great coaches know that better than anyone.
The first to recognize this with Rodman was Chuck Daly, who coached a pre-wild-child Rodman through seven of his eight years with the Detroit Pistons, where he went from decently talented rookie to two-time defensive player of the year. As Pistons assistant coach Brendan Malone relates, Daly pulled him away from Rodman at practice one day and delivered an essential piece of advice: “Leave him alone. You don’t put a saddle on a mustang.”
By the time he joins the Bulls in 1995, Rodman is in full revolt in terms of his appearance and his public persona — rainbow-colored hair, lip and nose piercings, tattoos on tattoos. (If former Pistons teammate John Salley is to be believed, this transformation is due, like so much in the Nineties, partly to Madonna, who dated Rodman for a couple months in 1993 and told him he didn’t have to be who people wanted him to be. Way to go, Madonna.) But he finds another guru who knows how to get the best out of him in head coach Phil Jackson. An acid-dropping iconoclast who had long bucked the NBA’s buttoned-up style, Jackson clocked Rodman’s restlessness and felt a certain kinship with him. They bonded over their mutual love of Native American culture — Rodman noting the bear claw and other reservation artifacts Jackson had on display in the team room, Jackson affectionately dubbing Rodman a “heyoka,” or “backward-walking person.” “There were people who were different,” Jackson says he told Rodman, explaining the term. “You’re the heyoka in this tribe.”
Jackson was so understanding that when the heyoka started underperforming midway through the ’97-’98 season (a passive-aggressive tantrum after Scottie Pippen returned from foot surgery and Rodman became, in his own words, “a third wheel”), and requested a “vacation,” the coach gave him 48 hours off. At which point Rodman backwards-walked his ass directly to Las Vegas and proceeded to stay for more than double that amount of time. As we find out at the start of Episode Four, Jackson and Jordan personally went to Vegas to drag the Worm out of his hotel suite (while Carmen Electra hid under a blanket behind a couch) and back to the Bulls training facility.
“Go Home, Motherfuckers, Go Home”
Like all insanely competitive and driven people, Michael Jordan’s memory is long and detailed. In Episode Three we learn that Jordan was very engaged with what local sportswriters were saying about the Bulls. As the team entered round one of the 1989 Eastern Conference Championships, facing the heavily favored Cleveland Cavaliers, he noted each Chicago paper’s prediction. And when the Bulls were poised to take the series at the start of Game Five, he approached those reporters with a message. To the two who’d predicted their hometown team would lose in three and four games, respectively, he pointed and said, “We took care of you, and we took care of you.” To the one who predicted they’d lose in five, he said, pointing again, “And we take care of you today.”
With the game on the line and just three seconds to spare, Jordan took flight from the foul line, off balance, and sank a buzzer-beater to win. It became known as “The Shot,” and, as the doc attests, served as the emotional pivot that turned the Bulls from playoff chokers to future dynasty. In iconic footage of the moment, Jordan turns around mid-air, pumping his fist, and, um, politely instructs the doubters to please exit the premises (“Go home, motherfuckers! Go home!”).
All these years later, Jordan’s lost none of his competitive fire, which is apparent as soon as the series delves into the Bulls’ heated rivalry with the Nineties Pistons. Before an off-camera producer can finish asking how he felt about the so-called “Bad Boys,” Jordan replies, “Oh, I hated them. It carries to this day.” With good reason: The Pistons, always a physical team, were especially brutal with the league’s biggest star. It was no mercy, Cobra Kai-style, and they even gave the policy a name: The Jordan Rules. Assistant coach Malone ticks off the particulars — confining Jordan to the outskirts of the court, forcing him to his weak hand, and so forth. The Piston players sum it up more succinctly. Salley: “As soon as he steps into the paint, hit him.” Rodman: “Every time he goes to the fucking basket, put him on the ground. We tried to physically hurt Michael.” The beatings were so vicious and relentless, former Lakers star James Worthy says he’s surprised Jordan came out alive.
But it may have been personal affronts that bothered Jordan more. When the Bulls finally vanquished their nemeses in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, sweeping Detroit in four games after having lost that same title to them two years in a row, the Pistons walked off the court with 7.9 seconds remaining, refusing to shake the winners’ hands. Told that Pistons star Isiah Thomas today claims postgame handshakes simply weren’t a thing back then (huh?), Jordan flashes a bitchy glare and eye-roll that would put a teenage girl to shame. Watching him watch footage of Thomas’ verbal tap-dancing (as someone hands him a phone to see the interview: “You can show me anything you want, it’s not going to convince me he wasn’t an asshole”) is maybe the highlight of the night’s viewing.
“I See a Screaming Devil”
That very rivalry, however, may have been the single biggest factor motivating Jordan to success. As Episode Four lays out, after a second Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Pistons, he became obsessed with beating them. He packed on 15 pounds of muscle in the 1990 off-season expressly for the purpose of withstanding Detroit’s blows — and landing some of his own. He fully embraced Jackson’s (and originator Tex Winter’s) triangle offense, which created enough touches on the ball to make every player on the court a scoring threat. (It was a key turnaround from his original attitude: “I didn’t want Bill Cartwright to have the ball with five seconds left. That’s not an equal opportunity offense, that’s fucking bullshit.”) And, driven to join the echelon of all-time greats like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — spectacular individual players who also carried their teams to championships — he stepped up the leadership side of his game.
While he focused especially on Pippen, MJ had something for everyone on the team. Asked to describe Jordan during those days, former Bulls forward Horace Grant — who’s easily the guy you most want to have a couple drinks with based on this documentary — says, “I see a screaming devil. You make a mistake, he’s gonna scream at you, he’s gonna belittle you. He demands, almost, perfection.” He’s talking about practice, for the record.
Jordan urged his teammates to fight, forbade them to complain. (“Don’t fuckin’ whine! Don’t let ’em see you whine. That’s when they know they got you.”) The game footage from the 1990-1991 season shows the results: They played possessed. Jordan talked more shit. His tongue hung out more. He found more horsepower. After mowing down the Pistons in the playoffs, the Bulls faced the Lakers in the NBA Finals, and won the series in Game Five on… a series of threes from John Paxson. Jordan’s transition from one-man team to leader was complete, and the screaming devil became a crying baby, clutching the Larry O’Brien trophy to his chest. One title down, five to go.