More than 20 years after the team’s last NBA championship, the Chicago Bulls have again electrified the sporting world.
With 99.9% of sports on a Coronavirus-enforced layoff, ESPN and Netflix hit a home run with the release of The Last Dance – an unrestricted, all-access look behind the curtain as the Bulls chased their sixth NBA championship in eight seasons and their second three-peat.
Each Monday evening, we sat down and watched two hours of unfiltered Bulls entertainment. From Michael Jordan drinking gallons of scotch re-telling his stories of the dynasty to Dennis Rodman speaking in such a way few of us could even understand what he was saying – the docu-series have everything.
There are the take aways for me, having watched every minute of every episode twice over;
EVERYONE WANTS TO BE LIKE MIKE – BUT NO ONE CAN BE
Michael Jordan owned this series. Just like he owned the basketball court when he played, this series revolved around him, and rightfully so. Jordan transcended the sport and was the primary reason the NBA has become a global giant.
His aura is legendary but the series gave us an insight into what made MJ MJ.
The vision of him terrorising team mates at practice or before games made you wonder how those on the receiving end could ever perform to their best.
Jordan also committed plenty of hours recounting the championship years as well as the beginning of his career.
It’s easy in hindsight, especially with six rings on your fingers, but the dismissiveness of Jordan whenever an NBA rival challenged his greatness was incredible. All these years later, comments from Gary Payton or Bryon Russell are burned inside the mind of a basketball god who no longer plays but still laughs at or shuts down anyone who dare question his dominance.
For me, the most telling and memorable moment of the 10-hour series was when Jordan spoke about his leadership abilities and the reason he pushed people so hard.
He broke down emotionally and demanded a break in recording after telling the interviewer about how was built as a competitor.
‘I wanted to win but I wanted them (team mates) to win as well. It is who I am. That’s how I play the game. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way. Break!’
It was a rare look inside the mind of a player who knew he asked so much of the people around him but it was never more than what he asked of himself.
DENNIS THE MENACE
Dennis Keith Rodman is one of a kind. And coaches around the globe are thankful for that. Rodman’s on-court ability is unquestionable. He’s the best pound-for-pound rebounder the game has seen. I met Rodman at a function in Adelaide a few years ago and recall looking him in the eye thinking, ‘there’s simply no way you could out-rebound NBA power forwards and centres when you are barely taller than me.’
As crazy as Rodman was, it was awesome to hear him talk about how he studied angles and players so that he had a head-start on grabbing the boards. It was the only time in the series where you had evidence of Rodman being a student of the game and not just relying on sheer intensity and ferociousness on the glass.
Off the court is where Rodman’s role in the series gets fun – and wild.
He smacks a Bud Lite before riding off on his Harley Davidson and jetting to Las Vegas for a weekend of partying mid-season – with the blessing of coach Phil Jackson.
He skips practice during the 1998 NBA Finals to appear in the WCW alongside ‘Hollywood’ Hulk Hogan. Upon return, he bypassed a pack of 300 media and was fined $20,000 for doing so. He was reportedly paid $250,000 to appear at the wrestling… good business, I guess you could say.
My favourite Rodman ‘transgression’ was actually something I read after watching the series. ESPN.com had some as-told-to diaries from coach Phil Jackson.
Jackson mentions Rodman’s Finals visit to Vegas and recalls writing on the team blackboard, ‘Will Dennis be late? When will he arrive?’ 45 minutes after the scheduled 11am practice start time, the phone inside the practice facility rang and it was Rodman, ringing to explain his absence. Jackson reluctantly answered the call and said to Rodman, ‘Dennis, what am I going to tell the press?’ Jackson writes that Rodman hung up without an answer to his question. Imagine that happening in today’s age.
PIPPEN THE MYSTERIOUS
Scottie Pippen sits comfortably in the basketball Hall of Fame with his championship rings, Olympic gold medals, All Star nods and so and so on.
His character is up for debate as told by the docu-series. From launching a chair onto the court near the end of a game to the infamous refusal to enter the game after Jackson drew up a play for Toni Kukoc instead of Pippen – who was at that time the Bulls’ leader with MJ on a baseball hiatus.
Pippen was crucified for the refusal to play and the follow-up in the changerooms post-game was part of some excellent story-telling from those involved.
Pippen knew he’d done wrong and his team mates had told him so. There were many tears in those rooms as his team mates felt abandoned and Pippen felt guilt.
But, then there’s the good side to 33.
From the countless defensive and playmaking championship plays he made to the esteem in which his team mates spoke of him – Pippen was often the glue that held the Bulls together. Jordan says so, Jackson says so and so do a handful of other Bulls players.
Pippen was good for 18-22 points per game, he grabbed seven or eight boards and dished out at least half a dozen assists as well as locking down everyone from Mark Jackson to Magic Johnson. Pippen’s size, length, quickness and defensive-minded nature allowed him to dominate games from the defensive end and allow Jordan to be an offensive force as well as a ‘roamer’ or ‘gambler’ on the defensive end.
Luc Longley recently spoke to the Geelong FC and I was given the opportunity to co-host the Q&A aspect of the online chat. Longley spoke glowingly of Pippen as his favourite on-court team mate due to Pippen’s ability to share the ball and make life easier for his team mates on the hardwood.
THE ZEN MASTER
Despite his impeccable coaching record, Phil Jackson has never been someone I have tried or desired to learn more about. After watching The Last Dance I am eager to read Jackson’s book, 11 Rings – and I’m no bookworm.
The former Bulls and Lakers head coach loves spirituality and is a daily yoga and meditation devotee.
The aspect that has me more intrigued was Jackson’s ability to handle different personalities and understand and ‘coach’ each player in their own manner.
The way he coached MJ was different to the way he coached Pippen, as it was for the remainder of the role players.
What I admired the most about Jackson was his innate ability to coach each player in their own way, especially Dennis Rodman.
Rodman was a unique talent but he misunderstood for much of his career before Jackson harnessed his talents and allowed him to escape from the game to ensure he would be committed to the team when he returned.
The prime example of this is Rodman’s mid-season trip to Las Vegas for a weekend of partying with then-girlfriend Carmen Electra. As extreme a request as it was, Jackson understood Rodman would only remain focused on basketball if given the opportunity to ‘blow off some steam.’
Jackson was before his time as a coach. In an era where ranting and raving and when all players were told what to do and how to do it, the 11-time champion coach empowered his players and helped them grow thanks to his belief in meditation, breathing and remaining present – which was arguably this team’s No. 1 skill.