At long last The Last Dance is here, and not a minute too soon. ESPN’s 10-part documentary on the 1990s Chicago Bulls was originally set to premiere in June. But in order to take advantage of a viewing public that is sheltering in place because of the coronavirus, ESPN moved up the air date of its highly anticipated docuseries to Sunday, April 19, with two episodes airing each week. With never-before-seen footage and talking heads interviews with a lot of really tall dudes, the series views the ’90s Bulls dynasty through the lens of the 1997-1998 season, the last time coach Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman would all wear the red and black together in the United Center.
With most of The A.V. Club staff based in Chicago, we have more than a few Bulls fans among us, including a couple casual viewers who remember witnessing the three-peat as it happened (and happened again). First up, from Little Village in Chicago, we’ve got 5'7" TV editor Danette Chavez, and from Wilmington, Illinois, 5'4" associate editor Laura Adamczyk. Each week, we’ll play Monday-morning point guard (that’s a thing, right?) and dissect Sunday’s episodes, asking ourselves very important questions like, Which Bull are you? And how pumped do you get listening to “Sirius”?
Laura Adamczyk: Okay, so I think up top we should say which player we are. We need to let people know where we’re coming from and all the psychological baggage our choices might imply.
Danette Chavez: I’m going to go with Steve Kerr, because if this were about the first three-peat, I’d say I was the John Paxson, and Steve Kerr is Paxson 2.0.
LA: Oh, absolutely. Right down to the game-winning playoff shots when the other team would, like, triple-team Jordan. Highly dependable, just solid guards. Not the flashiest, but dependable and likable. Good choice. I like that.
I am obviously Scottie Pippen. I am a second-born and highly underrated!
DC: I have to say, I’m proud of you for picking a key player.
LA: I mean, it’s like personality type quizzes, where you’re a little bit of this, a little bit of that—like, I probably have some Steve Kerr in me, too, maybe some Dennis Rodman? But Scottie was always my favorite when I was a kid and especially when the three-peat was happening and in the time when Jordan was out.
DC: Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan were such a packaged deal for me growing up. I know Jordan’s been elevated to mythical status (and with good reason), but I couldn’t imagine the Bulls winning without Pippen—nor would I have wanted to see that, which is a feeling that the second episode of The Last Dance really taps into.
LA: Jordan himself says that Pippen is the best teammate he’s ever had. And there was that moment in episode two where they recap Pippen’s statistics, and he was second on nearly everything—points, minutes played, etc.—except for assists. He was number one on assists. Which is what made it so heartbreaking to learn all that stuff about him being short-changed on his contract and the stuff with general manager Jerry Krause and all that. Do you remember any of that from when all this was happening? I didn’t really, except for “the Jerrys.” I knew the Jerrys were villains but not why.
DC: I had a limited understanding of what made Jerry Krause (more so than owner Jerry Reinsdorf) the bad guy back then, but he was definitely viewed by fans as the opposition. The Last Dance director Jason Hehir (who also helmed the wonderful Andre The Giant doc) certainly leans into that contentious relationship—both between Krause and the Bulls, and Krause and the fans. Seeing the archival interviews with the late Bulls general manager, in which he talks about how virtually everyone is expendable, brought up that old animosity for me. Even though I now know that it wasn’t as simple as Krause wanting to stand in the way of the six-peat, positioning him as an antagonist gives the docuseries a little more oomph early on.
LA: It frames the whole thing in this way I wasn’t expecting. When the series was announced, I was just thinking back to adolescent, teenage me, and I’m just like, Show me the games. Show me Paxson and Kerr hitting those last-minute shots. Show me Jordan’s 63-point game against the Celtics. Show me Pippen’s dunk over Patrick Ewing in that Eastern Conference semifinals game. Show me Rodman being wild, Toni Kukoc saving the day with, like, 0.3 seconds left. Etc.
But because the series alternates back and forth between the ’97-98 season and how the Bulls became the Bulls, from Jordan and on, it creates this interesting dynamic, where there is one clear obstacle in each time frame. First, once Jordan gets on the team, the story is that this is one of the greatest players ever. How do they build a team around him that will win championships? And then once you get to ’97-98, the story is Pippen’s not happy because of the way he is being treated, Krause is thinking pretty ruthlessly about the future of the organization, it’s gonna be Phil Jackson’s last season, and Jordan won’t play with another coach. The front office really becomes the villain. Even if you’re playing at the top of your game, management has other plans. A shorter way of saying all that is “Fucking management, man.” (Side note: In ’97-98, there were no teams that were true adversaries to the Bulls, so it almost had to be front-office nonsense.)
What did you think of Scottie undergoing his surgery when he did?
DC: I’m going to use the dreaded term “origin story” here, because that is what Hehir and his team are giving us, at least in part. Everything from the title to the somber, operatic score places us at the end, or near the end, of the story of the Bulls’ dynasty. Last Dance could easily dwell in the gloaming, when Jordan struggled to keep the Bulls in the game (one of us was going to do it) without Pippen, who decided to undergo surgery and recovery, which he could have saved for the summer, during the season. But to ensure that the attempted dismantling of this dynasty really hits home—particularly for viewers who don’t have the same Pavlovian response to “Sirius” that we do—Hehir shows us how this dream team was built, starting with picking up Jordan in the 1984 draft. (It’s funny to think that being the No. 3 pick made him seem less impressive.) And so, if this is an origin story, then we have to have heroes and villains. As you note, Laura, the front office has to stand in as the bad guy, because by ’97-98, no other organization could touch the Bulls in terms of popularity and skill.
I’m sympathetic of Pippen’s gambit, even as I feel for his teammates.
What was the most surprising bit of archival footage for you? I remember always liking Charles Oakley, which is why I gasped when he flat-out slapped poor Scottie in the locker room.
LA: Thank god they drop the somber music after the first little bit. Hearing that dirge-like opening music, I thought, “I don’t need this right now, ESPN.” But then, once they start with more of the highlights footage and they start playing Biggie and LL Cool J, I’m like, “Okay, good.”
As an overall Pippen sympathizer, I think, “Hell yeah, you do what’s right for you, man.” But even more interesting was maybe how other people reacted. Jordan is all, “He’s selfish,” which says a lot more about Jordan and his win-at-any-cost mentality. But then you get Jackson, who says he doesn’t begrudge Pippen anything. He was so patient with all his players, which is something we’ll see more of as the series goes on, like once Rodman shows up on the scene. Oh man, I love Phil Jackson.
And that slap was surprising! Obviously they were just horsing around, but yeah. But honestly Bob Costas’ hair in 1980 was something else. That’s the most surprising footage so far. Also, this wasn’t in the footage, but when Jordan was first drafted to the Bulls, I had no idea that the Bulls were, like, a party team. Cocaine! Weed! Women! Sounds like they were having a good time. Meanwhile, Jordan’s drinking his orange juice and pop.
DC: I don’t mean to start shit, but the fact that Charles Oakley was Michael Jordan’s one-time backup/defender, only to be edged out by Scottie Pippen, makes me wonder if there wasn’t at least a little professional jealousy behind that slap. They played different positions, and Oakley was actually traded for Bill Cartwright, but still, I have to wonder.
LA: Oooh, I hadn’t even considered that.
DC: I love seeing Phil Jackson step right back into the zen master role—there’s even a shot of a little desktop zen garden.
LA: See, I didn’t start watching until later, so I don’t think I even remember Oakley at all. Perhaps it was merely prescient. A prescient slap.
DC: When I think about the Pat Rileys (who, incidentally, has trademarked the term “three-peat,” despite not having coined it) of the NBA, Phil Jackson really was such a breath of fresh air. Patient, gimlet-eyed, and very, very tall. It makes sense that the title of the docuseries, The Last Dance, would come from Jackson, who wrote that on the cover of the playbooks during the ’97-98 season.
LA: So, I’ve watched eight episodes at this point—I couldn’t help it, last Saturday was not productive for me—and a number of episodes will home in on a particular person. We’ve already seen Pippen. And Jordan, well, one could argue that every single episode focuses on him, but more on that as the series continues. But, I’m really glad that the producers give both Jackson and Rodman some focused time later on. They’re such interesting personalities.
What else do we want to talk about? We have two ex-presidents show up as talking heads. One, I was like, “Okay, fine, whatever,” and the other, well, I get the Pippen/Arkansas connection, but come on.
DC: I think the appearances from the two former heads of state are significant—they’re part of the cast of characters that makes up a story we may think we know inside out, but whose singularness becomes more apparent with each episode. No disrespect to the other dynasty teams like the Los Angeles Lakers or the Boston Celtics, but I just don’t think a docuseries about their respective rises would be treated as appointment television in the same way as the Chicago Bulls. Speaking of those appearances: Jason Hehir is from the Northeast, but there’s something so perfectly Midwestern—which is to say, passive-aggressive—about referring to former president Barack Obama as a “former Chicago resident” and Bill Clinton as “former Arkansas governor” in their chyrons. Gestures like those, describing world leaders in terms of their proximity to Chicago, reinforce the idea that the Bulls were the center of the universe.
LA: There’s nothing wrong with thinking Chicago is the center of the universe.