It’s the last The Last Dance, and we’re definitely crying. We’re writing on a piece of paper what the series has meant to us and burning it in Phil Jackson’s coffee can. Episodes IX and X bring an end to ESPN’s nostalgic look back at the 1990s Chicago Bulls’ city-defining NBA championship run and Michael Jordan’s legacy, and they go just where we knew they would (a lot of people smoking cigars in Grant Park) and some places we didn’t (Jordan playing the piano and writing a poem?). After last week’s emotionally wrenching episodes, the final two ramp up the excitement, showing the Bulls facing off against the Utah Jazz in the 1997 NBA finals, goddamn Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, and then the Jazz again for the eventual six-peat. The highlight reel includes a small section dedicated to the humble, witty Paxson 2.0, otherwise known as Steve Kerr; Rodman going AWOL again (it’s not as cute as it was the last time), Jerry Reinsdorf pulling some bullshit about actually having wanted to keep the team together; and perhaps most surprisingly, Jordan dropping the bomb that the infamous Flu Game was actually the Food Poisoning Game (the real Pizzagate). Like they’re all going to their own funerals, Jordan and company wear some especially beautiful large suits here: creamy white, mustard yellow, slate gray. Where are those suits now? Does Jason Hehir know he could make an entire second documentary by filming Jordan wearing one of those suits while watching The Last Dance? It’s The A.V. Club’s last Bulls Session. Y’all ready for this?
Nothin’ But Danette Chavez: I was about to ask if you wanted to get the ball rolling.
Laura Adamczyk: I’m dribbling it between my legs.
LA: Where to begin? I’m very sad The Last Dance has come to a close, but as we’ve been doing throughout these past few weeks, I want to start with a somewhat lighter question: What’s been your favorite piece of ’90s imagery throughout the series? We’ve got some huge suits, we’ve got some very ’90s sunglasses. What’s just been your favorite thing to see?
DC: Oh gosh, I remember bringing up the big suits and giant jeans—the latter of which Jordan still seems to sport—in a previous Crosstalk, but can’t remember which one. I scanned the crowds at Grant Park in the ’98 championship rally footage for some unofficial, airbrushed six-peat swag, though. Couldn’t find any, just as I couldn’t locate myself and my family in that crowd. But I remember airbrushing being one of the modes of choice for artistic celebration of the dynasty.
LA: Yes, airbrushing! Why wasn’t there more airbrushing in The Last Dance? There’s something so egalitarian about airbrushing. The Bulls get airbrushed onto T-shirts and then you, someone who can’t hit a jump shot beyond the free-throw line, can go to Six Flags and get airbrushed onto a T-shirt. I love it. The image that really tied it back to the ’90s for me is Scottie Pippen’s hi-top. It is just... perfect. That and the team tucking their championship T-shirts into their big jeans at the Grant Park rally. How was the rally? What do you remember about it?
DC: It was very hot, we didn’t actually hear or see much, and I think the commute home was twice as long as the rally itself. But really, how close do you have to get to history in the making? We were tired and sweaty at the end of the day, but happy to have been there—though, I have to admit, we did not have our own airbrushed merchandise. My mom thought it was too gaudy.
So, this was the first time we’re doing a proper, Monday morning point-guarding—we didn’t get screeners, so we watched the final episodes live, which meant we also got to see some additional ESPN “vault” footage. Did the format change the experience for you? Did seeing commercials remind you of what it was like to watch the games in the ’90s?
LA: If anything, it connected me a little more with people watching it live last night, and reinforced to me just how much I’ve enjoyed watching the series during quarantine. It’s been something to look forward to. The doc wasn’t supposed to be released until June, and even then ESPN was only going to air a single episode a week. Director Jason Hehir and his team may have had to scramble to finish in order to release the series earlier, but it paid off, judging by the ratings, with each episode averaging 5.6 million viewers. But also, seeing the commercials, remembering how the last bit of every game is always elongated with multiple time-outs, I’m reminded of how my dad used to say that you only ever needed to watch the last five minutes of any basketball game. What a sentimental guy! What about you? Did the energy of these episodes feel different, with or without the commercials?
DC: I watched with the kind of nervous energy you always have about something that’s ending, a feeling that’s become all too rare for me when it comes to TV. Unless I’m recapping a show, I usually watch stuff weeks or months ahead—that is not a humblebrag, because there are times when I wish I were watching something with people on a weekly basis, especially since watching Bulls games as a family was such a huge part of my adolescence. The time between Last Dance viewings has also given me a chance to think about the goals of the docuseries and my expectations of it. We’ve discussed the control Michael Jordan had over its creation and likely the final product (his production company was involved in the making of The Last Dance). As a documentary, it didn’t really offer anything new, Michael Jordan memes aside. It really only served to burnish Jordan’s reputation, not only as the all-time great, but also someone who remains enigmatic to the general public. I loved indulging in his pettiness, but while it’s well-made and moving, The Last Dance primarily succeeds as a time capsule. How did the series match up with your expectations? What do you think it delivered on?
LA: It definitely highlights how social sports are, and for me how they tap into a different part of my brain, the part of my brain that would be more into action movies were I into action movies, the part of my brain that says, Oh, my god, that’s fucking amazing, when I see something like Jordan’s incredible run in that last minute of game six against the Jazz—driving to the basket, making the steal on Karl Malone, hitting that jumper. I definitely pumped my fists multiple times last night despite knowing what was going to happen.
And I was wondering about this, too: the doc as a whole and how it portrays Jordan. It obviously has its flaws regarding objectivity, but it was never going to be an exposé, and I think if you accepted that going in, you were going to enjoy it way more. In case it hasn’t been abundantly clear, we’re not sports writers. Our expertise is, how shall I put this, limited. But coming to it as fans has been really, really fun. Do I wish they’d spent a little less time with Jordan and more with the other players and footage from the games themselves? I do. But as a whole, it’s been a great ride. And, I have to say, these last two episodes were exhilarating. I’m really glad they stretched out the 1998 playoff series, especially against the Jazz. Which, shit, I guess we need to talk about the Flu Game/Pizzagate.
DC: Before we get to the Flu Game, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the Pacers fan with the mall mom hairdo who screamed at Jordan and the Bulls, and who is being memed to high hell now. I wish I’d gotten a screenshot of her, but I’m sure Twitter will provide.
The Last Dance has been thrilling and thoroughly enjoyable because it’s arced like a sports movie—all we’ve been missing is some sabotage. Enter the Flu Game, which it turns out was more like the Food Poisoning Game. Watching Michael Jordan rally is always exciting, even when it feels inevitable (and not just because we’re watching 20-plus-year-old footage). What do you think, Laura? Was it intentional food poisoning, or should Jordan not have expected decent pizza in Salt Lake City? Also, here’s something I think you’ll get a kick out of—director Jason Hehir said Jordan was so mad at his teammates for ordering dinner without him that night, that he spat on his pizza to prevent anyone else from eating it.
LA: I think most Chicagoans know that the farther away from Chicago you get, the worse the pizza gets. Jordan probably knew it, but the man was hungry! I myself would not expect good pizza in Utah. I don’t know if it was an intentional sabotage, but the whole thing about five different dudes showing up to deliver the pizza was definitely a little weird. I don’t know how fruitful it will be to go down this particular rabbit hole—with people having said in the past that Jordan was actually hungover that game, not sick with the flu—but perhaps what’s important to note here is that he didn’t let it stop him from winning. Dude scored 38 points that game! But also, why didn’t Hehir put the thing about the spitting in the actual doc?
Elsewhere, in episode IX, we get a little more time with Steve Kerr. I don’t know what to say about this other than I love Steve Kerr. What a humble, funny guy! I knew, generally, the story about his father’s death, but seeing him talk about it was really moving. It was a tragic event that became a poignant, bittersweet motivator for Kerr to excel—Kerr, who was never a real hotshot player. I also love when players like Kerr get their time to shine. Jordan so often felt like he had to carry the team—and he so frequently did—but some of the best moments come when he dumps the ball off to someone else. Kerr hitting that last-second shot in the 1997 finals is great, as is his little speech at the celebration rally that summer.
I also love how at the end of the 1998 season, Phil Jackson had all the Bulls write down what the team has meant to them and burn it in a coffee can. Jackson is such a beautiful, spiritual man! Danette, what, here at the end of The Last Dance, will you write down on a piece of paper and set aflame in Jackson’s can of masculine emotions?
DC: There are so many great quotes in these final episodes—a defiant Jordan reminding the press and the Jazz that “they still gotta come through Chicago” (a little harder to work into conversation, but we do live here), and sniping in the locker room that though he was running on fumes, “I ain’t Shaq.” But outside of our Last Dance talks, you and I have discussed mindfulness and just being present, something that feels increasingly impossible when our sense of time is so distorted. “Get in the moment and stay there,” another Phil Jackson chestnut, is a sentiment I can get behind.
The finale has a few celebrity appearances—Leonardo DiCaprio! Penny Marshall!—but it’s also our last chance to spend a little time with Dennis Rodman, who I know has been one of your favorite figures to revisit.
LA: You know, I was a little disappointed with Rodman this time around when he went AWOL. Perhaps it was the way the doc covered it, perhaps it’s because he went to hang out with Hulk Hogan, but his antics were a little less endearing to me this time. It’s the finals!
Yes, there are quite a few great quotes in these episodes! “This is a scary fucking situation,” Jackson says in a huddle near the end of one playoff game. And in response to the press asking him if Rodman’s little jaunt was taking the team’s focus away from the finals, he said, “He’s only taking your focus away from the finals, not ours.” Snap! My actual favorite line in these episodes is a wonderful metaphor from Bob Costas, who says that Jordan “pushing off” from the Jazz’s Bryon Russell before hitting that jumper at the end of game six in 1998 “was the equivalent of a maître d’ showing someone to their table.” Bravo!
DC: They set that up nicely in the penultimate episode, when Jordan described how Russell stays on his toes, which is how he knew how to shake him. He really understood his competition, but they should have tried to get to know Jordan, because how many times did someone trash-talk him only to get humiliated in the paint?
LA: It’s wild they didn’t double-team him! Make someone else take that last-minute shot.
DC: It is time to reckon with the end of the Bulls dynasty, the end of the docuseries, and that surprisingly poignant moment when Michael Jordan talks about how “maddening” it was to “leave at your peak.”
LA: What the series has revealed, for me personally, is how exciting it all was, and how lucky I feel to have had these events tied specifically to my adolescence, to have seen them when I did, because I don’t think I would have been as interested as an adult. The A.V. Club is a nostalgic site, but occasionally we’ve taken it for granted that nostalgia is a good thing, or we allow our vision to be clouded by it without looking at the emotion of nostalgia more directly. I often indulge in nostalgia even as I try to resist it. Either way, I know that this series would not have been nearly as interesting to me if I didn’t have that emotional tie already, if I didn’t feel like I were reliving something, even as many of my memories of the time remain vague. All of that’s to say that pop culture is more meaningful to me when it feels like it becomes personal.
But I also don’t want to diminish what’s been revealed in The Last Dance itself, which is that vulnerable male emotions are absolutely beautiful and we could all use more Phil Jacksons in the world shepherding people toward their truest selves.
You wanna sign us off, Danette? (I can’t wait to cry together in person.)
DC: The Last Dance also resonates as much as it does with me because I lived through it (that is, three miles away from the action). So many memories are tied to these games, including personal sacrifice (stay with me here): I was in the city youth orchestra in high school, and my parents missed my performance with the Chicago Sinfonietta at Orchestra Hall (which is now Symphony Center) to watch one of the playoff games. They didn’t trust any of my siblings to record it—it was too important.
There are so many moments that feel tied to my past, but despite these brushes with greatness, The Last Dance reminds me that I was just one of millions, billions even, swept up in dynasty fever. Michael Jordan is as native to Chicago as most palm trees now are to California—he made history. The docuseries ultimately ends up too focused on Jordan, but it’s hard to argue with that, since he made the NBA and sports in general a more pivotal part of the cultural conversation. I know, I just sound like some unfalteringly loyal fan (I’m not), but you can dislike Michael Jordan and still acknowledge what he meant to the game and to sports and to pop culture.
And yet, what stands out the most to me about these final two episodes is the glimpses of the trust that was established between Jordan, Jackson, and the rest of the team. Jordan asking Kerr to get ready, and Kerr firing back a thumbs-up; Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman all looking out for each other on the court, ready to pass the ball to make the shot. I don’t think the docuseries glosses over Jordan’s nastier side, though; he still talks about letting personal grudges fuel his professional drive. Kerr still calls him a bully. The series doesn’t add much to Jordan’s legacy, but that’s because it’s as etched in stone or metal as the years on the six-peat trophies.
And yes, we will have to make time to sob together while pretending to shoot fadeaway jumpers to the sounds of “Sirius.”