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'The Last Dance' Roundtable: First Thoughts, Favorite Moment, Biggest Surprise and Grading Jordan

The biggest takeaways from the first two episodes of ESPN's documentary on Michael Jordan's last title run with the Bulls, 'The Last Dance.'
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The Last Dance premiered last night and it more than lived up to the hype. The first two episodes showcased the birth of Michael Jordan’s competitive nature and fame, Scottie Pippen’s rift with the Bulls’ front office, and introduced a villain in Jerry Krause. So which moments stood out? What was the biggest surprise? The Crossover staff reacts and offers takeaways.

Initial Thoughts

Michael McCann: Episodes 1 and 2 lived up to the hype, and much more. There was storytelling, engaging interviews and useful context. For those of us who watched the NBA back in the 80s and 90s, we didn't have the Internet and social media to peek behind-the-scenes. We saw those scenes last night. I can't wait to watch the upcoming episodes, including when The Last Dance makes clear that Jordan wasn't only a superstar and franchise player. He was also, and remains, the greatest player of all time.

One small nitpick: ESPN didn't mention the name of the agent who represented Scottie Pippen in his infamous 1991 contract extension. Jimmy Sexton, a highly successful college football coach, was the agent. It would have been useful to hear Sexton (had he been willing to talk on camera) explain the negotiations, including if he had advised Pippen against signing the offer and whether Pippen, who told ESPN he signed it partly due to fear of injury, had explored insurance options instead of signing. We heard Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls owner, go so far as to say that even he advised Pippen against signing. This might have been a situation where the player wanted to do something that no one else said was a good idea. Especially after hearing from Reinsdorf, I would have liked to have watched a discussion with the agent to help explain what took place. It feels like a missed opportunity in an otherwise terrific broadcast.

Chris Mannix: This was good. The way that the slightest hint of drama is scrutinized nowadays, the way teams can fall apart because of a couple of bumps in the road, it’s almost impossible to believe a team that had a coach warring with the GM, players—most notably Scottie Pippen—rebelling against the GM, in a year that everyone knew was going to be the last could have the kind of success the Bulls did. But the first two episodes of The Last Dance set up the drama of that team expertly.

Jeremy Woo: As a former Chicago resident myself, these initial chapters of the Michael Jordan Cinematic Universe are uniquely nostalgic, in the sense that I was old enough, but just barely, to consciously exist in 1997. I turned five that year and figured out what basketball was (if not any of its nuances) thanks to Jordan and the Bulls. The games were frequently on our TV. My mom worked downtown and left work early to attend at least one of the championship rallies (and I don't know which). I owned a lot of Space Jam paraphernalia. A local bakery sold a multicolored specialty "Rodman Bagel." It was impossible to live in the city without a basic awareness of the Bulls. So maybe this is the quarantine talking, but for me, most of this doc has thus far been accompanied by the existential caveat that my entire life probably turns out vastly different if not for Michael Jordan.

ANYWAY. It feels like The Last Dance is going to live up to the hype. Other than the weird time-skip mechanism that seems to operate without a ton of rhyme or reason and takes us in and out of moments that sometimes leave you wanting more, the level of access is as advertised. I kind feel bad that the late Jerry Krause will never get to defend himself, which is something everyone (including the players) deserved to hear. But I love that this is pretty unfiltered (and definitely uncensored), and that it’s devoting real time and full credit to Scottie Pippen (and next week, apparently, Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson). 

Jordan himself seems legitimately willing to ruminate and let everyone in, at least to an extent. I mean, they even got Jerry Reinsdorf on the record. This is MJ’s movie, so it’s hard to expect this to get too self-critical, but at least we get some breadcrumbs via behind-the-scenes clips as to how he treated Krause and others, and can kind of make the character judgments for ourselves. Ten hours is a lifetime, but we’re getting what feels like most of the proper context. Also, what else does anyone have to do on a Sunday night?

Ben Pickman: Shortly after the second episode of The Last Dance finished, Dwyane Wade took to Twitter and summed up much what of the sports world was seemingly thinking. “If I had 3 wishes in life. I think I would have asked for The Last Dance,” Wade tweeted. Gone were streams of HORSE and NBA 2K. Instead, on ESPN in its place, were two hours of game clips, dunk montages, conflicts, interviews with a host of accomplished and outspoken characters (including one former Chicago resident) and an honest Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Already it’s clear that the story so rich in plot lines that you forget that you know how it ends. In episodes one and two, you get immediately pulled into the Jerry Krause drama and captivated by a young Air Jordan. There was a joy that seemed to accompany watching The Last Dance as it transported the sports world out of quarantine and back into the Bulls dynasty—and into an era that also included a collegiate Michael Jordan asking his mother, Deloris, for stamps.

Robin Lundberg: I was hyped. It felt good to have a "live" event to get that sports experience back. And to be honest it really had me hoping we'll have an NBA season after all this. Of course the documentary itself was a reminder of how larger than life Michael Jordan and that Chicago Bulls team were. Having the impact they do more than 20 years later is a testament to their greatness.

Elizabeth Swinton: Episodes 1 and 2 of the documentary lived up to the hype. Beyond the new footage, I enjoyed how moments of Jordan's past were woven into the history of the 1997-98 season. It set the stage well for the tension of that year between the players and front office while acknowledging what led to those moments. 

Jarrel Harris: It is pretty amazing to think that someone who hasn’t played a game since 2003 can still capture an audience like Michael Jordan. Leading up to the documentary felt like the Game of Thrones season 8 premiere. The Last Dance is all about reintroducing the greatest player to ever live to a new generation. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported in a preview article leading up to the documentary that, for two decades, footage from the Bulls’ final season sat in a vault in Secaucus, NJ. Jordan controlled the rights, and wasn't ready to make the documentary… until the day of the Cavs’ championship parade in 2016. Maybe it was coincidence or maybe MJ felt the narrative switching over to LeBron. Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young, who is only 21 and never saw MJ play tweeted:

This is what the documentary is all about. For the new generation to experience how big Michael Jordan and the Bulls were in the 90s.

The first two episodes lived up to the hype and I am excited for more. It was great to see his mother and brothers detail his life and his competitive drive. It was also great to learn more about Scottie Pippen’s upbringing and personality. The soundtrack was on point from hearing Mase and Diddy’s “Been Around the World” in the introduction, to watching Jordan highlight montages to LL Cool J’s “Bad” to “I Ain’t No Joke” by Rakim. These songs represented the perfect soundtrack to Jordan’s fame and competitiveness. I need more!

Favorite moment

McCann: Larry Bird saying, "That wasn’t Michael Jordan out there, that was God disguised as Michael Jordan.” The highest of praise, especially from someone who was more known for his thrash-talking than for his compliments.

Mannix: Jordan’s Mom reading a letter from Michael from college, in which Jordan asked for money and stamps. I think every college grad can relate.

Woo: The whole "hand Jordan the iPad and see his reaction to what someone says about him" device is pretty brilliant. In this case, it was his mother Deloris reading aloud a letter he wrote her from college at North Carolina. The visual element here is essential in order to buy into Jordan’s own level of buy-in on this project. For better or worse, as an athlete-slash-icon, he’s managed never to really represent anything beyond this abstract yet powerful embodiment of greatness. Being able to watch as he relives something as simple as asking for money and stamps helps deconstruct the barriers he’s worked to keep in place for two decades, and in a way that feels honest.

Pickman: Current North Carolina head coach Roy Williams wasn’t in the first two episodes all that much, but—to use a basketball term—while his usage rate is low, his efficiency is very high. Williams delivers arguably the best line of the entire first two hours of the documentary, a line that sums up Jordan perfectly. “Michael Jordan’s the only player that could ever turn it on or off…And he never freaking turned it off.”

Lundberg: Tie between the highlights of MJ's 63 point game against Boston set to LL Cool J's "I'm Bad" and Scottie Pippen saying he didn't want to mess his Summer up to rehab. I'll lean the latter because I thought the most interesting thing about that particular chapter was how it highlighted the value of Pippen, a player I often think isn't fully appreciated.

Swinton: The interaction between Jordan and his mother, Deloris, was a fun look into Jordan's freshman year at UNC. Jordan's reaction to his mother reading his old letter of him asking for money, apologizing for the phone bill and looking for stamps gave a fun perspective to the early stages of Jordan's career. 

Harris: There's a couple:

  • MJ’s relationship with his father and brothers. They created this competitive monster.
  • Hooping at UNC while “rehabbing” his injury and not telling the Bulls.
  • Putting MJ on load management made him explode against the Celtics (while also golfing with Danny Ainge prior to Game 2). He did everything to get a mental edge.
  • Jordan being mean:

Autograph guy getting turned down

Scott Burrell asking for a hug

This parking job

  • The whole thing was my favorite moment!!

One of the best moments wasn’t even in the documentary!! ESPN did a great job with this State Farm ad: 

Biggest Surprise

McCann: The detailed background segment on Pippen was fascinating and I wasn't expecting it. On other teams, Pippen would have been their best and highest-paid player. On the Bulls, he was a wildly underpaid Robin to Jordan's Batman. The fact that Pippen signed a below-market extension in 1991 (5-year, $18 million) became more glaring as TV revenue poured into the NBA in the 1990s and as the salary cap rose. The extension, coupled with his existing contract, meant that Pippen would be vastly undervalued through the 97-98 season, at the conclusion of which he was months away from turning 33. Jordan called Pippen "wrong" for waiting on a ruptured tendon surgery since the delay kept Pippen out at the start of the 97-98 season. Jordan objected to Pippen using the timing of his surgery to try to compel the Bulls to pay him more. Keep in mind, Jordan's salary in 97-98 was $33.1 million, despite the fact that each team's salary cap was $26.9 million. In sharp contrast, Pippen was paid only $2.8 million that season, merely the 6th highest salary on the Bulls roster and less than 1/10th what Jordan earned.

Mannix: I guess I had forgotten just how reviled Jerry Krause was. What a complex legacy Krause had. You can argue, credibly, that the Bulls wouldn’t have six championships without him. They may not have had one. It was Krause who brought Pippen and Horace Grant to Chicago (what a draft night in 1987 that was for the Bulls), who pulled the trigger on the Charles Oakley/Bill Cartwright trade, who acquired the mercurial Dennis Rodman. But you can also argue, credibly, that Krause’s meddling left a title or two on the table.

Quick Krause story: In 2001, I was working as a locker room guy with the Celtics. Oakley, then back for a brief tour of duty with the Bulls, asked me to make a McDonald’s run for him after the game. He asked me to leave the bag on his seat on the bus. When I boarded the bus, Krause was there. He spotted the McDonald’s and ordered me, curtly, to take it off the bus. On the way back to the locker room, I intercepted Oakley. I told him what Krause had said. Oakley took the bag, and proceeded to eat the food in the tunnel, within eyeline of the bus, making the bus—and Krause—wait until he was finished.

Woo: I was not fully aware that MJ played on what was presumably a still-broken foot, dragged the 30–52 Bulls to the playoffs, and then gave the Celtics problems. In the context of modern load management, from an objective standpoint, that’s the dream and somehow also the nightmare.

Pickman: The digression in episode two about Scottie Pippen’s salary is one of the more interesting parts to think about in a modern-day context. As The Ringer’s Kevin O‘Connor pointed out Sunday night, Pippen’s salary would rank 280th in the NBA this season, and be just $25,000 more than Lakers reserve guard Alex Caruso. In the context of modern sports debate, we so often link Jordan and Pippen together without any tensions or without commenting on any pain-points. But whether it be conversations about player salary or discussions about personal lives, The Last Dance will make a proper foray into seemingly all the relevant storylines. Plenty of nuggets like the note on Pippen’s salary will be revisited.

Lundberg: I guess just how much footage there was and how good it felt watching it. Seeing Michael Jordan at North Carolina or in the early stages of his career, the Air Jordan phase not the fadeaway years was a sight to behold. Also, simply seeing the tension that was there with the Bulls players, coaches and management. It showed the difference between coverage in that day and age and today.

Swinton: I did not realize how much Pippen's contract differed from his teammates. It was also a contrast to see Jordan call Pippen "selfish" for delaying his surgery after previously calling him his greatest teammate. 

Harris: I knew about Scottie Pippen almost getting traded but never knew his relationship with ownership and Jerry Krause was that bad. It seemed criminal that Pippen was the 6th highest paid player on the roster. The greatest Robin of all-time was getting paid less than Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Dennis Rodman, and Luc Longley! I understand that this was mostly Pippen’s fault for signing a contract like that and wanting the security after growing up in poverty but management could have at least honored him with a new deal after Jordan retired the first time.

But shoutout to Pippen for giving us this iconic quote for us to use for the next few decades:

Grading MJ in episode 1 and 2

McCann: In addition to his otherworldly abilities, Jordan's intense doggedness and genuine passion set him apart. His obsession with playing, even when returning from serious injury, was truly admirable. It's hard to not be impressed by someone who is never satisfied with himself or herself, even when they have no real rival to their throne. Jordan almost single-handedly defeated a Celtics roster that featured Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson in a 1986 playoff series (when Jordan averaged 44 points per game). His sheer dominance was apparent during the two hours.

But his personality quirks were also apparent. Jordan ridiculing Jerry Krause's height and weight by asking him, "Are those the pills you take to keep you short or are those diet pills?"--and doing so in front of a group of Krause's co-workers and with cameras on--seemed beneath someone of Jordan's age (he was a 34 years old) and stature. Krause had plenty of his own personality defects--not inviting Phil Jackson, but inviting everyone else including Tim Floyd, to his step-daughter's wedding was undignified--and Krause was old enough to brush aside Jordan's attempt at mocking humor. But Jordan should have displayed better judgment. He must have really disliked Krause. Chances are the feelings were mutual.

Woo: B+. If we learned anything from this year’s dunk contest, it’s that you can’t just hand out perfect scores unless you want to ruin the curve. I’m going to leave room for improvement.

Pickman: B+. Episodes 1 and 2 were excellent, but you need to leave some room for improvement; and it’s clearly only going to get better.

Lundberg: I'll give Michael a solid A. His competitiveness certainly was on display. However, it's hard not to look good when you are the protagonist of the film and your film looks like his does.

Swinton: I give Jordan an A for his input into episodes 1 and 2. He was honest and gave good stories, including about his rookie year with the Bulls and his championship moment at UNC. It was also interesting to hear his point of view of his foot injury during his second year in the NBA. 

Harris: Have to give MJ an A+. We have been waiting for him to give candid interviews like this forever. Can’t wait for the next eight episodes.