'The Last Dance' Roundtable: The Biggest Takeaways From Episodes 5 and 6

The biggest takeaways and surprises from episodes five and six of ESPN's documentary on Michael Jordan's last title run with the Bulls, 'The Last Dance.'
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The latest episodes of The Last Dance focused on a variety of topics from Michael Jordan’s relationship with his heir apparent Kobe Bryant, two sides of marketing fame, his gambling problems (hobby) and his “Republicans buy sneakers, too” quote. So which moments stood out? What was the biggest surprise? The Crossover staff reacts and offers takeaways.

Initial thoughts

Chris Mannix: Four episodes in and we finally get to one of the great NBA mysteries: Jordan’s gambling. Sunday night was little more than a regurgitation of what we already know—Michael liked to gamble, denied he had a gambling problem, an NBA investigation officially cleared him of any misconduct, etc.—but was chock full of familiar anecdotes, from the trip to AC during the ‘93 playoffs to his relationship with the shadowy Slim Bouler. With the ping ponging timeline headed towards Jordan’s baseball hiatus, I’m interested to see just how much deeper this Jordan co-produced doc delves into this world.

Michael McCann: Episodes 5 and 6 struck a different tone from the first four episodes. Jordan appeared more human and flawed. He was still Superman, but his cape was torn.

We see Jordan struggle to explain his passion for gambling, an activity that isn’t necessarily illegal—lotteries, scratch tickets and card games are often legal—but that some regard as a vice, especially when it involves sports figures. Back in the early 1990s, gambling was especially controversial in the United States. The country had just witnessed the Pete Rose scandal. Rose had bet on Cincinnati Reds games that he managed. Congress had also passed and President George H.W. Bush had signed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA) into law.

It was a bad time for a celebrated pro athlete to moonlight as a high-stakes gambler.

Jordan, who earned around $30 million a year in endorsements by the early 1990s, also had an image to protect. Yet he loved to gamble, so much so that he became tied to a convicted cocaine trafficker, James (Slim) Bouler, and to other dubious figures in the gambling world.

Jordan portrayed gambling as an innocent hobby, but his teammates seemed to take a more guarded view. Retired Bulls center Will Perdue recalls betting $1 in card games while on the team’s bus. As told by Perdue on The Last Dance, Jordan noticed him playing cars and challenged him to a game. When Perdue questioned why Jordan, who liked to bet thousands of dollars, wanted to play him, Perdue recalls Jordan saying, "I want to say I got your money in my pocket."

Was Jordan addicted to gambling? Or was it another manifestation of his ultra-competitive spirt, just like when he was determined to embarrass Toni Kukoč and Dan Majerle on the court because Jerry Krause revered them? We might never know.

We also see Jordan struggle with expectations that he become a civil rights figure. Jordan addressed his controversial comment, “Republicans buy sneakers, too” by acknowledging, among other things, “I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player."

Michael Shapiro: Jordan's hyper-competitiveness has been discussed ad nauseam, but it's still startling to see his sheer dismissal of some of the best players in league history. Jordan said he was insulted to be compared to Clyde Drexler. He taunted Patrick Ewing in 1998 after dispatching the Knicks five times in the postseason. MJ even seemed to have little regard for Magic Johnson before the 1992 Olympics, telling the Lakers point guard, "it's the 90s now." Each generation's best player has left a trail of rivals in his wake. But no player has ever defeated his foes with such disdain as Jordan. His Airness was untouchable after winning the Finals in 1991, and he knew it. Who stood in his way each season was largely immaterial.

Jarrel Harris: I really enjoyed episodes 5 and 6. It gave us a glimpse of the highs and lows of global fame and how MJ dealt with it. And what we figured it out is that Jordan is a normal human being that could also feel pressure. My favorite quote of the night came from Ahmad Rashad who basically summed it up perfectly:

"People build you up to tear you down… if you win too much they want you to lose.”

Jordan was perhaps the most famous person on the planet and there comes fatigue and hate from certain individuals who didn’t want to see him every day, especially as a black athlete. There is an expectation to do more. The Ringer’s Tyler Tynes nailed it on the mark in regard to MJ’s political stance:

I also want to give a shoutout to Deloris Jordan for persuading Mike to talk to Nike. She changed sneaker history forever.

Jeremy Woo: There was a lot of stuff crammed into these two episodes, to the point where I felt like a lot of interesting things got skimped on. I could have watched two hours just about the 'Dream Team'. The Kobe stuff at the start almost felt heavy-handed, but that All-Star game locker room footage was amazing. It was good that they at least tried to tackle the politics and race elements of the story, but it felt like there could have been better context there too. But all the different elements at least communicated how intense Jordan’s spotlight got. It’s at least plainer to see why he retired the first time.

Elizabeth Swinton: For as much as Michael Jordan accomplished on the court, what happened off it had as much of an impact on his career. Episodes 5 and 6 dove into how Jordan dealt with becoming a global celebrity and how he attracted fans at every turn. That constant rush grew larger as the Bulls went for their first three-peat, and the additional speculation from the media in regards to his role on the team, political views and his gambling put Jordan in a place where he reached a breaking point.

Footage from 1992-93 gave a great look into Jordan's mentality and the extent to which his larger-than-life role took a toll on him, and he made it clear that success on the court was not balanced with what he gave up personally on a daily basis. Jordan stating that he would not miss basketball after 1992-93 sets up the next episodes well for his transition to professional baseball and his future return to the court.

Robin Lundberg: The Last Dance continues to be extremely entertaining. I've seen complaints about the timeline and Ken Burns' critique (which feels like Martin Scorsese vs Marvel movies to me) but purely as a blockbuster sports documentary, it continues to provide fans with exactly what we need in these times. From the incredible footage to the music choices that go with it.

Pickman: This is no grand takeaway, nor is a comment on Jordan the figure, but Episodes 5 and 6 were particularly striking for the artistic and beautifully crafted basketball sequences in which Jordan and his teammates look and feel as if they are playing a different game from many of their piers. The basketball montages alone make these episodes worth the price of admission. The camera angles felt unique, the passes crisp, the dunks electrifying and there’s so much prime Marv Albert sprinkled in on the mic. Plus, time and time again, the music choices that accompany such playmaking are perfect. (It did also make me wonder what a potential Warriors montage set with the same cinematic score would look like twenty years from now…They would never miss a three-pointer, is my guess). Sure, the documentary overlooks Chicago’s losses and mistakes made by Jordan and his teammates. But that’s to be expected in some respect. When they do show off MJ’s playmaking, it’s like the whole context of the film comes to a blissful halt.

Favorite moment

Mannix: Jordan and Pippen going at Toni Kukoc in the ’92 Olympics … because Jerry Krause liked him? Jordan blowing up Dan Majerle in the ’93 Finals … because Krause believed Majerle was a great defender? The disdain Jordan and Pippen felt for Krause has been palpable.

McCann: The history of Nike landing Jordan, despite Jordan wanting to sign with Adidas, was compelling. In perhaps the biggest blunder in American sneaker history, Adidas (according to Jordan’s agent, David Falk) inexplicably couldn’t “make a shoe work” for an endorsement deal with Jordan. What were they thinking? While The Last Dance is fundamentally about Jordan’s 1997-98 season, the commentary on sneakers powerfully illustrated how much he impacted the American economy

Shapiro: For all the gambling stories and MJ introspection, I still find myself the most entertained when Jordan is actually on the court. Clyde Drexler and the Blazers were completely overmatched, and no amount of physicality from the Knicks could stop Jordan from plowing his way to the rim. The last 15 minutes of Sunday's episodes were the most thrilling, with Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan duking it out in perhaps the best Finals of the 90s. Barkley deserves serious props for his performance in the Finals. He averaged 27 points and 13 rebounds per game, including a 42-point eruption in Game 2. But even Barkley acknowledged Jordan's superiority in his interview with director Jason Hehir. Neither the venue nor the opponent mattered for Jordan's Bulls. As Barkley said, "Michael was not going to let them lose."

Harris: ‘The Shrug’

No, the other ‘Shrug”

Took MJ’s money and gave him the iconic shrug not once but twice. A legend.

Woo: Jerry Seinfeld’s extreme awkwardness.

Swinton: Jordan's humorous exchange with the security guards showed how he brought his competitive nature in every moment. It was great to hear stories from Magic Johnson about how Jordan would not let him leave a card game until Jordan was not only winning, but crushing Johnson. Jordan holding his competitive spirit all the way to the Olympic podium by covering the Reebok logo with an American flag was the icing on the cake.

Lundberg: Either the love shown to Charles Barkley, who I sometimes feel doesn't get the respect he deserves as a player or the clear contempt Michael Jordan still holds for Isiah Thomas. Which shows you just how competitively fueled he is.

Pickman: While there were a number of moments to choose from, give me the Jordan “Shrug Game” performance, where MJ hits six three-pointers in the first half against Portland as my favorite moment of the episodes. It’s just an iconic young Jordan moment. And in the documentary it accompanies, Jordan’s mindset on how he viewed Clyde Drexler as a player. It’s interesting that of the more than 100 different subjects interviewed for the documentary, Drexler is not among them as he played in both the 91-92 Finals as well as on the 'Dream Team'. Another notable memory from Sunday’s two-hour thriller was the opening sequence of Episode 5, which might have legs on its own. It features both a young and old Kobe Bryant, the voice of Stuart Scott and an award presentation by David Stern.

Biggest surprise

Mannix: I wish Jordan would open up about his role in blocking Isiah Thomas from the ’92 Dream Team. Jordan flatly denied blocking Thomas from a spot on Team USA. But in Dream Team, SI’s Jack McCallum’s book, McCallum reported that Jordan specifically told Rod Thorn that he wanted no part of playing with Thomas. I would have liked to have seen Jordan—and Thorn, who has a sizeable role in the doc—pressed more on that.

McCann: While my favorite part of episodes 5 and 6 was the commentary on Jordan’s endorsements, it was still flawed. The Last Dance surprisingly neglected to mention, let alone explain, the instrumental role played by Sonny Vaccaro in Nike signing Jordan. For a documentary that includes so much detail, it was disappointing to see such a key element omitted. It’s not as if it wasn’t known to ESPN: the network’s 30 for 30 Sole Man extensively covered the Vaccaro-Jordan relationship.

Shapiro: Dealing with fame isn't easy, and Jordan was arguably the most popular figure in American history by 1998. But Jordan's sheer loneliness in his final season with the Bulls remained striking. Jordan seemed to be at his happiest alone in his hotel room, and he appeared to rather spend time pregame with the United Center staff than his teammates. All eyes were on Jordan as soon as he left his hotel. Precious minutes pregame and postgame were spent in front of throngs of fans and media. Jordan's life in 1998 looked absolutely exhausting. His retirement doesn't look shocking by any stretch in hindsight.

Harris: While I knew about Jordan’s love for Adidas prior to signing with Nike, I never actually saw the clip of him acknowledging it. 

Adidas has done great without Jordan, but sneaker culture would have been totally different. Who knows what happens to Nike without Mike. The Swoosh expected to make $3M sales in four years off of Jordan's brand. The Air Jordan 1 sold $126M that first year according to Jordan's agent, David Falk. 

Woo: Karl Malone having hair.

Swinton: As the Bulls experienced extended success, it was surprising to see the difficulties from Jordan's perspective and how he went from "Be Like Mike" to a player that was not as perfect as previously advertised. Particularly, the documentary episodes highlighted how Jordan's gambling impacted his life and NBA career. After Jordan was spotted at Atlantic City the night before an Eastern Conference Finals loss against the Knicks, he was bothered by how the media focused on the trip and did not speak publicly for two weeks.

He ended up responding to the criticism by putting up a big performance in a victorious effort in Game 3, but he made it clear that the reaction provided more reason for him to leave basketball after 1992-93. It will be interesting to view his perspective in future episodes as he stepped away from the mass attention.

Lundberg: I thought delving into MJ's infamous "Republicans buy sneakers, too" moment was the most honest and revealing The Last Dance has been. Between that in the gambling, it is the first time it has really poked any holes in Jordan's superhero like mystique.

Pickman: This felt like the biggest surprise while the documentary was airing. But the notion that Michael Jordan preferred Adidas before signing with Nike was news to me. It, of course, wouldn’t be the last time Adidas missed out on a transcendent NBA star. Adidas reportedly had a chance to land LeBron James with a 10-year, $100 million deal before James entered the NBA, but lowered its eventual offer to just $70 million. Nike swooped in with a $90 million deal and the rest is history.