'The Last Dance' Roundtable: Biggest Takeaways From Episodes 3 and 4

The biggest takeaways and surprises from episodes three and four of ESPN's documentary on Michael Jordan's last title run with the Bulls, 'The Last Dance.'
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Episodes 3 and 4 of The Last Dance focuses on Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson’s arrival, Michael Jordan’s dominance in 1988 under coach Doug Collins and the Bulls’ hatred for Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons. So which moments stood out? What was the biggest surprise? The Crossover staff reacts and offers takeaways.

Initial Thoughts

Chris Mannix: Brilliant, again. The goal of this doc is to bring you inside the DNA of this team, and it does, expertly. The soundtrack is excellent (Prince, what?) and the standard def footage really pulls back the curtain. Would have loved to hear more from Doug Collins on the end in Chicago—feels like that remains territory worth mining more.

Michael McCann: Episodes 3 and 4 were even more compelling than the first two. There were so many highlights. One was the expert treatment of Dennis Rodman, a complicated person to feature in a documentary. He’s easy to poke fun at and there was plenty on him being unusual—a free spirit, to put it charitably. Yet we also heard him talking about living on the street for two years, which humanized him. “I could have been a drug dealer,” Rodman recalled. “I could have been dead.” We further viewed his dominance on the court and diligence off of it. Jordan called him “one of the smartest guys I played with”—high praise, especially considering with whom Jordan has played—and we see Rodman in the locker room studying film. He was a serious and skilled player, something which younger generations might not fully appreciate.

Jeremy Woo: I was interested to see how the Dennis Rodman 30 for 30 would overlap with how the filmmakers chose to cover Rodman. Predictably, they had to skimp a decent amount. I would have liked more on Rodman and Phil Jackson’s mutual understanding, beyond the fact they both had some individual investment in Native American culture. Rodman, obviously, is complicated and difficult to cover. But even though this is Jordan’s doc, I hope there’s continued effort with his individual arc. We do have six hours left.

Jarrel Harris: The Last Dance continues to get better and better. I truly admire how the documentary focuses on other notable people besides Jordan. I am happy Dennis Rodman is finally getting his flowers after paving the way for a lot of guys in the modern NBA. The soundtrack continues to thrive, and I can watch Jordan highlight montages all day and night. I think the biggest takeaway for me is the unseen footage from the team planes (MJ snitching on Scott Burrell and Jerry Krause dancing alongside Scottie Pippen humanizes these guys).

Michael Shapiro: A bulk of Sunday's episodes was dedicated to Dennis Rodman, but I found Phil Jackson to be the star of the show for significant stretches. Jackson's odyssey to the end of the Bulls' bench is fascinating, and it's evident he was perhaps the only coach in league history who could guide the 1990s Bulls.

Jackson formed a kinship with Dennis Rodman. He harnessed Michael Jordan's excellence. Jackson went from Montana to North Dakota to New York to Puerto Rico before landing in Chicago. Each stop appeared to have a profound impact. They molded the greatest coach in basketball history, who was the final piece in place before the Bulls took over the NBA. Critics of Jackson will always cite the supreme talent around him. But not every coach can take talent and create a dynasty. We would likely remember Jordan far differently without a basketball svengali by his side.

Ben Pickman: While the defining sequence of Episodes 3 & 4 might be the still-bitter exchanges between players on the "Bad Boys" Pistons and the early 90s Bulls, a large part of the exposition in the two episodes also presents the linear progression that Chicago exhibited at the start of its dynasty. We see Jordan’s memorable shot over Craig Ehlo in Game 5 of the 1989 Eastern Conference quarterfinals before witnessing Detroit overpower the Bulls in the conference finals. Minutes later, the Pistons again get the better of the Bulls, but this time in seven more contested games. It ends with Chicago’s breakthrough—a 4-0 sweep in the 1991 conference finals—and their eventual title against the Lakers. So often today, we think of dynasties following this linear track, but seldom do teams actually follow the script of the early 90s Bulls. Consider the Thunder’s postseason shortcomings in the Durant-Westbrook as just one of many examples of potential dynasties that started to follow the linear track, but fell short. The Bulls’ dynasty doesn’t follow the linear progression for the entire 1990s, but they do start with the step-by-step progression. There of course is an unusual twist in Chicago’s story, but the Bulls didn’t win from the jump.

Robin Lundberg: These installments made me really wonder how the Chicago Bulls of that era would have handled today's media climate. There were montages of the questions they were asked about their future together, Dennis Rodman, etc. and it would be fascinating to see those storylines play out in today's day and age.

Elizabeth Swinton: In episodes 3 and 4, Phil Jackson came away as the person who had the largest impact on the Bulls on the way to their first championship in 1991. Not only did he connect with Dennis Rodman in a way that allowed him to be most productive, but he convinced Michael Jordan that the team can be successful in the triangle offense. Watching Jordan understand the value in allowing his teammates to execute shots, particularly John Paxson against the Pistons, showed how Jackson had made his mark on Jordan and how he had orchestrated the team to shine.

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Favorite moment

Mannix: Can you imagine any other coach in any other era granting a midseason vacation to a player like Phil Jackson did with Dennis Rodman? Jackson got Rodman, and you can't underscore how important that relationship was the back half of the Bulls dynasty.

McCann: A tie. Jordan’s reaction to losing to the Pistons in 1990: "I wanted to administer pain. I wanted to start fighting back." And Jordan’s incredulous response to Isiah Thomas’s attempt to explain away why he and his teammates walked off the court with 7.9 seconds to go in Game 4 of the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. “You can show me anything you want,” Jordan asserted. “There's no way you can convince me he wasn't an a--hole." Nearly 30 years may have passed but Jordan doesn’t let go of a grudge.

Woo: I need to go back and re-watch it several times, but it was definitely Rodman’s description all the different types of rebounds. Runner-up goes to Jerry Krause dancing on an airplane.

Harris: It’s a tie between Dennis Rodman’s 48 hours in Vegas and Jordan’s never-ending hatred for Isiah Thomas. "I wanted to administer pain” is a hell of a quote after getting beat up for so long.

Shapiro: The bad blood between Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas is a fascinating storyline, and I'm sure we'll dive further into their relationship next week. But there's no other choice than Dennis Rodman's excursion to Vegas. The motorcycle ride and kamikaze song were delightful, and Carmen Electra's tale of hiding from Michael Jordan is perhaps the series' best anecdote to this point. Rodman was a rockstar in the truest sense of the word during his run with the Bulls. If only we could transport The Worm circa 1997 to 2020.

Pickman: Here are moments that will get overshadowed… Sam Smith’s story of Jordan walking over the Bulls beat reporters ahead of Game 5 and calling out their predictions. Craig Sager giving Dennis Rodman $20 for a reason that is still unclear. Michael Jordan’s dunk montage in the first 20 minutes of Episode 3. But the sequence where Isiah Thomas weighs in on walking off the court in the 1991 postseason before Jordan’s reaction was arguably the best sequence of film up to this point. It’s incredibly well produced, edited and directed. The tension and emotions are still palpable and director Jason Hehir’s tactic to show Jordan Thomas’ answer works to perfection.

Lundberg: The subplot with Phil Jackson and Dennis Rodman. We should probably all forget Phil's Knicks tenure at this point and remember all of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant's titles came with him on the bench. His ability to manage personalities and connect with Dennis was special as was watching his ascension within the Bulls organization.

Swinton: The abnormality of Rodman's "vacation" to Las Vegas speaks for itself. From Jordan correctly predicting Rodman would not come back within 48 hours to him going to Rodman's hotel room to get him back with the team, to Rodman then coming back to surprise everyone in the team exercise. The videos from his visit were the icing on the cake of something that would never take place in the modern day NBA.

Biggest Surprise

Mannix: Jordan and the Bulls still hate Isiah and the Pistons. Just kidding—that's the least surprising thing ever.

McCann: In the 1980s, Phil Jackson coached a couple of teams in Puerto Rico, the Piratas de Quebradillas and the Gallitos de Isabela. While interviewed, he briefly mentions a story of the mayor of Quebradillas pulling out a gun in hopes of shooting a referee. That piqued my interest. In his book, More than a Game, Jackson elaborates on what happened—and what a story:

The first time I coached a home game at Quebradillas I noticed a large wooden box situated against the wall behind the last row of seats. What was that all about? It seemed that the mayor of Quebradillas was a rabid basketball fan. During a ball game a few years back he had been so infuriated by a referee’s call that he pulled out a pistol and tried to shoot him. When someone grabbed at his arm, the mayor ended up wounding an usher. For this the mayor was fined, spent a few days in jail, and was not allowed to carry a firearm. But the punishment didn’t deter him. The following season, the mayor came out of the stands to dispute another referee’s decision, hitting the offending ref in the back of the head and knocking him to the floor. Since then, whenever the mayor attended a home game, he had to be locked inside the box.

Woo: Honestly, I had no idea Phil Jackson coached in Puerto Rico. But it makes sense!

Harris: Dennis Rodman's 48 hours in Las Vegas because he needed a break. We get mad at guys like Kawhi Leonard for load management, but imagine if a player in today's NBA left their team to go party! I will pay good money on a full doc on those 48 hours.

Shapiro: Perhaps this is an error that can be attributed to youth, but I was unaware of how big the handshake-gate controversy was after the 1991 Eastern Conference finals. Jordan was legitimately ticked off at Isiah Thomas and the Pistons for walking off the floor before the final buzzer, and while it's unclear whether that led to Thomas' omission from the 1992 Dream Team, the bad blood is present between the two Hall-of-Famers. Thomas and the Pistons didn't take the classiest route after their elimination, but the footage from 1988 shows they're not the only team who bypassed the end-of-game gestures. Perhaps Thomas was just taking a page out of Larry Bird's playbook before igniting an NBA controversy.

Pickman: Ron Harper’s reaction to Jordan’s shot over Ehlo is one of the most surprising parts of the episode, namely because Harper would go on to win three titles with the Bulls and become a key part of the their second three-peat. But when he is reflecting on the Cavaliers’ Game 5 loss in 1989, it doesn’t seem to matter that he went on to achieve arguably his greatest career highlights alongside Jordan. He is still tense and frustrated by the moment. “Yeah, okay. F*uck this bulls**t,” he says thinking back to not guarding Jordan on the final shot.

Lundberg: Jordan's humor. MJ was funny whether he was talking about his distaste for the Pistons to this day or how giving Bill Cartwright the ball was a bad idea. Because he is lionized here, he is very open and his guard is down, which gives us a better look at who Michael Jordan really is than his public image.

Swinton: It was a smaller moment in the documentary, but it was tough to hear Rodman discuss his near suicide attempt. Experiencing the commotion of the team trying to track him down and the news that he had a rifle in the car was eye-opening, and it provided further meaning to when he started to express himself further in his physical appearance.

Grading MJ

McCann: We might need a new grading curve to stop giving Jordan’s As, but yet again, he showed why he’s in a league of his own. A.

Woo: A. Between still being pissed at Isiah Thomas, not being over Pippen having a migraine in Game 7 of the East finals, roasting Scott Burrell on the plane for partying too hard and personally extracting a sleeping Rodman from Las Vegas, this is pretty much what I signed up for.

Harris: A+. This is going to be the closest we ever get to MJ fully pulling back the curtain. 

Shapiro: Jordan continued to have his fastball in Episodes 3 and 4, both in the 1997-98 footage and interview segments. He was seething one moment (thanks to Isiah Thomas) and carefree minutes later, getting a real kick out of Scotty Burrell's penchant for partying. And tonight's episodes delved beyond the typical withering, biting, manically-competitive Jordan. It was legitimately touching to see his reaction after the 1991 Finals, especially his hug with Magic Johnson. 'The Last Dance' has painted Jordan's legacy with aplomb through four episodes. Do we really have to wait a week for two more?

Pickman: A-. The final 30 minutes of Episode 4 were as compelling as any part of the the series so far. Nothing has been disappointing, but now that most of the key characters have been introduced, let’s hope it only gets better.

Lundberg: B. I would have liked to see more of the struggle honestly. It is part of what made MJ who he became. Also, the threading of different timelines was not 100% smooth. Still, The Last Dance has been immensely entertaining and I've enjoyed it quite a bit so far. 

Swinton: Jordan did not disappoint with the trash talk. The fact that he still feels so strongly about the Pistons walking off the court after being swept in 1991 without shaking hands shows his true competitive spirit. His reaction to Isiah Thomas' explanation for the walk-off alone gives him an A for episodes 3 and 4.