'The Last Dance' Roundtable: The Biggest Takeaways From Episodes 7 and 8

The biggest takeaways and surprises from episodes seven and eight 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 on Michael Jordan’s first retirement in 1993 after his father’s death, baseball pursuits, and his competitive nature. So which moments stood out? What was the biggest surprise? The Crossover reacts and offers takeaways.

Initial thoughts

Chris Mannix: Well done, per usual. Loved the deep dive into the Scottie Pippen/Toni Kukoc stuff and the recap of the tragic death of Jordan’s father. If anything, I would have liked to have seen more about Jordan’s baseball career. Clearly that experience reignited some kind of competitive fire in MJ—would have liked to have seen a deeper dive into that.

Michael McCann: Episodes 7 and 8 covered parts of Michael Jordan’s career and life that have sparked much speculation. Most significantly, the murder of Jordan’s father, James Jordan, Sr., in the summer of 1993 is explored. The reckless media speculation that the murder somehow, someway related to Michael Jordan and his gambling is also highlighted. Just like now-a-days, there was a “rush to be first” and a desire to sensationalize back in the early 90s. It led to the kind of baseless speculation that can be found in the worst corners of today’s journalism and social media.

Jordan’s unexpected retirement in 1993—the first of his three retirements—is also covered extensively. While there has long been a desire among conspiracy theorists to portray Jordan’s retirement as a secret 18-month suspension ordered by David Stern, The Last Dance discussed why that proposition doesn’t make sense.

Jarrel Harris: I believe episodes 7 and 8 was probably the best set of Last Dance episodes. We had the opportunity to see an emotional side of MJ we have never seen before: His father’s death and the audio of him laying on the floor after winning his fourth championship was tough.

When he broke down after explaining his reasoning for being competitive and a ruthless teammate was one of the best montages I have ever witnessed in a documentary. No one wanted to win more than him. Even if that meant being a horrible teammate.

Michael Shapiro: We’ve seen the softer side of Jordan throughout The Last Dance, but Sunday’s pair of episodes provided what we all came to see. Jordan unfiltered, showing off his maniacal competitiveness for the world to see. And the footage lived up to the hype. Jordan bullied Scott Burrell, trash talked Scottie Pippen and punched Steve Kerr, sporting an extreme competitiveness on a constant basis. Jordan’s leadership can be questioned. His will to win cannot. The results speak for themselves after six championships and the greatest dynasty of the modern era.

Jeremy Woo: This probably could have been longer than 10 parts, and I would still watch. I feel like some of the time skipping is a little hasty and even some of the 1998 season gets sped through at the expense of having to be an all encompassing Jordan history. It’s extremely entertaining regardless, but there are times where I could stay in a moment a bit longer, or where I want to know more about something and we move on to the next thing. But this would not have been an easy thing to edit, and I’m enjoying all of it.

Robin Lundberg: Episodes 7 and 8 simultaneously humanized and lionized Michael Jordan. The tragic loss of his father followed by what seemed like a period of understandable soul searching culminating with him winning again on Father’s Day is a truly unbelievable story. And then there was all the anecdotes about MJ using slights to motivate himself, even making them up. It gives a good gauge of just how driven he was even if The Last Dance hits you over the head with it a bit.

Elizabeth Swinton: When you think of Michael Jordan, you think of his competitive nature and accolades—but episodes 7 and 8 showed his emotional side. Jordan held great value in not only his accomplishments, but the lengths he took to reach them. It was eye-opening to see him reflect on not being recognized as a "nice guy" and exactly how hard he worked to reach heights never before achieved. It most stood out how he cared about involving his teammates in the journey and how important it was to hold them to the standards he held to himself. One can never question Jordan's dedication to the game, and this documentary is showing exactly what went into his mindset.

Also, a lesson that continues to be learned throughout the series: Do not do something that becomes the fuel to Jordan's fire.

Ben Pickman: Episodes 7 & 8 might feature the most raw and emotional Jordan that we’ve seen in The Last Dance thus far. Episode 7 gets into the death of his father, James, and Michael's close relationship with him. It includes Jordan’s baseball interlude, again tying the retirement both to the void caused by his father’s death as well as the mental fatigue and exhaustion that came along with winning the 92-93 NBA finals (and the two before it.) The closing sequence of Episode 7 features Jordan breaking down in tears after director Jason Hehir asks him if he thinks his intensity has come at the expense of being perceived as a “nice guy.” “Break,” Jordan responds, after discussing his mentality. By the end of Episode 8, we see Jordan overwhelmed again. In his interview with Ahmad Rashad following the Game 6 win over the Sonics, Jordan again mentions his dad, James, dedicating the title to him and his family. The scene then transitions into the locker room, where Jordan is moved to tears, sprawled out on the floor, soaking him his fourth title and first since the death of his father. A sentimental and expressive Jordan was on display throughout Sunday’s two hours.

Favorite moments

Mannix: I love a good sports conspiracy theory as much as anyone, but the idea that Jordan’s year-plus baseball career was a de facto suspension by David Stern was and continues to be pretty out there. That’s a big secret to keep for nearly three decades. Seeing Stern, Jordan and others laugh it off, coupled with a deeper understanding of everything MJ was going through at that time, further reinforces the goofiness of the gambling suspension theory.

Jordan laughing at Gary Payton was pretty funny, too.

McCann: Seeing the Sonics again. It’s a sports crime that Seattle, the nation’s 13 largest media market and home to countless Sonics fans, no longer has an NBA team. As part of our NBA Bold Predictions for the 2020s, I predict the NBA will expand this decade and restore a Sonics franchise, as well as add a franchise in Louisville.

Related to that favorite moment was Jordan’s incredulous reaction to Gary Payton telling ESPN, “A lot of people backed down to Mike. I didn’t.” Payton’s remark concerned the 1996 NBA Finals, where Payton’s defensive play in Game 4 prevented the Bulls from sweeping the Sonics. Jordan clearly wasn’t impressed. We see him laughing out loud as he watched Payton insist that his defensive play “took a toll” on Jordan. “The Glove,” Jordan mused. “I had no problem with the Glove. I had no problem with Gary Payton.”

Harris: MJ making up fictional beefs to light his own competitive fire. Truly incredible.

Shapiro: The end of Episode 7 serves as the fulcrum of the entire documentary. Jordan is, of course, one of the most talented players in league history, yet it was his maniacal drive that truly birthed the legendary career. To Jordan, few could match his skill. But every player could match his effort. It’s the guiding force behind his locker room taunts and practice scoldings. Either you will meet Jordan’s level or you’ll be tossed aside. Jordan’s conviction drove him to tears to close Episode 7, and frankly, it was moving. The more Jordan unfiltered the better with only two episodes remaining.

Woo: We need an entire new doc about the Space Jam pickup runs.

Lundberg: Honestly probably the raw emotion we got from MJ both in his rightfully legitimate anger about how his father’s death was portrayed by some and how the iconic footage showed him overwhelmed in victory. I’ve seen it before but seeing him on the floor grasping the ball will forever be a moment.

Swinton: I was looking forward to seeing how the documentary covered Jordan's experience in Space Jam, and it is not surprising that he used the time to scout other players. Jordan looked at the time not just to make a movie, but to get back in shape and return to peak basketball form. Outside 12-hour filming days and working out during breaks, Jordan conducted pickup games at Warner Bros. Studios with other NBA players that would go to 9 or 10 p.m. The best of all—he used the time to take notes on his competitors.

There is only one question: Who provided better competition, the players in pickup games or the Monstars?

Pickman: Jordan’s first retirement from basketball would probably be an even bigger story in 2020 than it was in 1993 and one can only imagine how Twitter would have treated MJ's career, but the sequence that director Jason Hehir creates leading up to Jordan’s announcement is magical. The behind the scene footage of the dozens and dozens of cameras and reporters there. The countless national TV soundbites and local TV soundbites. The b-roll that illustrates the spectacle. Was it as memorable a press conference as Magic Johnson announcing that he had HIV in November 1991? Maybe or maybe not. But Jordan’s initial retirement is an incredible sequence in Episode 7 of The Last Dance.

Biggest surprise

Mannix: So if the baseball strike in 1995 didn’t happen … would Michael Jordan have continued with baseball?

McCann: Nobody likes being snubbed. But Jordan took a seemingly innocuous slight by Sonics coach George Karl to a different level: Jordan says he used it as motivation to outplay the Sonics in the 1996 NBA Finals. It was the latest illustration of Jordan’s unparalleled drive to compete.

Harris: MJ laying on the ground after winning a championship on Father’s Day is an iconic moment but I never heard the audio of him sobbing.

Shapiro: Jordan was perhaps the most famous American in 1993, but it was still a jarring seeing the impact his first retirement had on the country. The tears from viewers on television evoked a national tragedy, not that of an athlete’s retirement. We haven’t seen anything similar from an athlete since. It’s doubtful we ever will.

Woo: That Terry Francona really thinks MJ would have made the major leagues.

Lundberg: Scottie Pippen doubling down on refusing to go back into the game after Phil Jackson called the final play for Toni Kukoc. Pippen was a great great player but that was lame and still is.

Swinton: The sound of Jordan sobbing on the ground after the Bulls won the 1996 championship was a stark contrast to him crying after winning his first trophy since his father was no longer there.

The impact of the death of Jordan's father, James, was seen in every aspect of episodes 7 and 8. The sudden tragedy provided a natural turning point to retire from basketball and pursue his passion in baseball. Later, Jordan won his fourth ring on Father's Day and felt the weight of his father not being there to celebrate. Within the documentary, Jordan got choked up when discussing how his father was a great friend. Jordan dedicated the 1996 championship to his father, and you could feel the emotion that accomplishment carried as he cried on the floor without a familiar figure by his side.

Pickman: In Michael Jordan’s first game back after his 18-month retirement, he took the court with his shorts on backwards. If there was ever a telling sign that he was rusty after time away from the court, that would probably be it.