Last Dance: The End of an Era in More Ways Than One

The Last Dance has reminded us all of Michael Jordan's greatness, but that's not the only reason we should appreciate the look back in NBA history.
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This Sunday night, the Last Dance will air its final two episodes.

Among the millions of viewers across the country who will tune in, many will be Knick fans, as has been the case over the fist four weeks of its airing. Has it been a painful memoir of all the times New York finished a distant second to the greatest player of his generation? Why yes, yes it has. 

But we watch anyway, because it is great television, and really, what better options do we have?

Objectively speaking, the 90's Knicks won't come out of these 10 episodes with an improved reputation. If anything, the opposite has happened. At the time, it felt like they were close to being the team that would topple Jordan at the height of his powers, perhaps coming closer than any foe Chicago had to face since the Pistons squads that actually defeated them.

But like the Lakers, Blazers, Suns and Sonics teams that were toppled in the Finals, and the assorted East fodder the Bulls made quick work of, those Knicks have been presented as little more than another speed bump on Michael Jordan's road to immortality. One has to guess that the Pacers and Jazz will fall into this same category by the time the credits roll on episode 10.

Whether there's truth to that portrayal, or whether everything about a docu-series over which MJ had the final say should be taken with a few grains of salt, well...beauty (and skepticism) is in the eye of the beholder.

What can't be denied is that despite the near decade-long pain experienced by every NBA fan that didn't live in Houston or Chicago, those were special, special times, even for denizens of the cities stomped by the tread-marks of Jordan's signature Nikes. Maybe especially so.

As the series has moved to and fro between Michael's early years and that final championship season, we've been reminded of an era when fans formed attachments to teams that went beyond laundry. Sure, Scottie Pippen's seemingly never-ending contract has gotten its fair share of negative press, but it's also emblematic of a time when the names on the back of the jerseys mattered as much as those on the front. 

There were some changes. Dominque Wilkins got traded after a decade in Atlanta. Charles Barkley toiled away for years in Philly before getting a better supporting cast in Phoenix. Drexler finally got his chip in Houston. And of course there was Shaq, who ushered in the era of the best players in the world taking ownership of their careers in a way that simply didn't happen before him.

But just like Patrick was the Knicks for a decade and a half, Jordan and Pippen were the Bulls, Magic and Worthy were the Lakers, Bird and McHale were the Celtics, Malone and Stockton were the Jazz, Isiah and Dumars were Detroit, Hakeem was Houston, the Admiral was San Antonio, Reggie was the Pacers, and Payton and Kemp were the Sonics. 

The Last Dance, it turns out, wasn't just the end of the Bulls dynasty, but the end of a time when these associations were the norm. Since June of 1998, you can almost count on one hand the number of player / team relationships that carry as much weight as all those listed above.

We had Iverson in Philly, Kobe in LA, Timmy and Dirk in Texas, Paul Pierce in Boston and Wade in Miami, and we now get Steph in Golden State, but that's about it over the last 30 years' worth of players drafted. Maybe Damian Lillard joins the club if he sticks around Portland for a few more seasons, but would you bet on that happening? Or, for that matter, would you wager on any current alpha dog-level player spending his entire prime with one franchise? The Bucks sure hope so, but even if Giannis signs an extension this offseason, here's betting it only keeps him in Milwaukee through his age-28 season. He'll have half a career left to make an imprint elsewhere.

Maybe this is my rapidly emerging gray hair talking, but I miss the way things used to be. 

So as we wind down this cultural phenomenon in a time when we all really needed the distraction, we shouldn't dwell on the pain it brings, but rather appreciate the love note that it is to a time we'll never get again.

Plus, we get to see Reggie and the Pacers lose a heartbreaking Game 7. And really, what more could you ask for?