Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled There iis/i crying in basketball—much of it in the penultimate episodes of iThe Last Dance/i
Photo: Andrew D. Berstein (ESPN)

Time keeps on slipping (slipping, slipping) into the future in episodes VII and VIII of ESPN’s The Last Dance. The timeline that here begins with the Chicago Bulls coming off their third consecutive championship and Michael Jordan announcing his retirement is slowly but surely catching up to the 1997-1998 season and the Bulls’ attempt to repeat the three-peat, or, to use the very technical term, “six-peat.” In these penultimate episodes, Jordan retires, plays AA baseball for a hot sec, then—just kidding—writes his own press release in March of 1995 to say, “I’m back.” But first, in his absence, we get to see the Bulls run the triangle offense “to perfection” and Toni Kukoc hit a bunch of ragged buzzer-beaters. Other highlights include Jordan’s 1995 Double-Nickel Game against the Knicks, and a number of dudes crying. There is, seriously, quite a bit of beautiful crying here, which will preempt the crying to come once the final two episodes of the docuseries arrives next Sunday night. In this Bulls Session, The A.V. Club considers infinity by way of endless pancakes and breadsticks, and just how important TV editor Danette Chavez was to the success of the 1996 film Space Jam. Finally, we ask ourselves if the Bulls have what it takes to pull off the six-peat in 1998. Only a quick Google search and the city of Chicago’s collective memory can say for sure.

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Laura Adamczyk: Okay, I think I’m ready. You ready? [The ref tosses the ball up between us.]

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Nothin’ But Danette Chavez: Yep! [Whistle blows.]

LA: One of the most hilarious moments in these two episodes is B.J. Armstrong talking about meeting up with Jordan for breakfast, right before Jordan comes to a Bulls practice during the baseball strike, and they go to Bakers Square. Here are a couple of millionaires, old friends, and they go to Bakers Square. Danette, which kind-of crappy chain restaurant are you going to when you’re meeting back up with an old coworker, teammate etc. to possibly “get the band back together”?

DC: I’m going to go with IHOP, because the endless pancakes offer (assuming it’s around whenever this future meetup happens) will provide the perfect cover for a long discussion about our glory days, and how great it would be to saddle up again. How about you?

LA: Okay, I legitimately did not know what my answer would be when I asked this. Truthfully. But I am going to say something similar, in that I’m going to say Olive Garden. I love love love the salad (pepperoncini! That dressing!), and it along with the breadsticks are endless. Endless. It can be a long conversation, like you said, and, metaphorically, it suggests that the good times don’t have to end. There is a similar sense of ongoingness in these episodes. Jordan doesn’t have to stop being an athlete just because he’s not playing basketball anymore. Once the baseball strike happens, he can come back to the Bulls. I want to leave room to talk about Jordan playing baseball, but I also think it’s kind of boring. He can’t hit a curveball! What do you think about Jordan’s little baseball break?

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DC: I totally watched NBC anchor Mark Suppelsa’s dispatches from the White Sox spring training camp in Sarasota, Florida, because, despite how odd the career change might have seemed, I figured someone as driven as Michael Jordan would make a decent showing. And from the sound of it, if he had stayed, he might have made it into Major League Baseball proper.

But in the context of The Last Dance, Jordan’s time in Minor League Baseball is like the more extreme—or maybe just lengthier—version of Dennis Rodman blowing off steam in Las Vegas between games. In 1993, he helped the Bulls accomplish something that, at the time, only one other team had managed to pull off. I suppose he could have viewed a four-peat as a challenge to rise to, but the press gauntlet he’d run through after the Atlantic City trip, combined with his father’s death in July of 1993, would be enough to make anyone, even someone seen as “superhuman,” want to take a breather. And, as he proved, the time off was helpful.

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Do you have any recollection of people jeering at Jordan for “slumming” in the minors after winning three world championships?

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LA: I honestly don’t have a very strong memory of him playing baseball or what people thought about it, beyond a general “what the fuck” kind of attitude. What I remember more is the remaining team members and how they played without him. In episode VII, Charley Rosen, Jackson’s biographer, says, “That was the season Phil did his best coaching… They ran the triangle to perfection.” You love to see it: Pippen stepping up to become a team leader and then new players like Steve Kerr and Toni Kukoc making names for themselves. They didn’t make it into the finals, but for a team adjusting as they were, they made a good showing. I just love to see all the passing in these archival clips! It’s like in Hoosiers, when Gene Hackman makes his team pass at least four times before they can take a shot. The ’93-94 Bulls did it naturally. In many ways, they became more of a team in Jordan’s absence. What stuck out for you about those Bulls? Either in the doc or while it was happening?

DC: Not to relegate Scottie Pippen to permanent “second man” status, but I’m not sure he ever led the team. I agree that the Bulls remained a great team in the absence of Jordan, proving once and for all that the triangle offense, not just one superstar player, wins games. But after all the contract bullshit and the overt courting of Toni Kukoc, I just don’t think the environment was ever supportive enough of Pippen for him to feel the kind of ownership of the team that Jordan did. The few seconds he sat out in game three of the 1994 playoffs against the Knicks will probably always haunt him. Again, I absolutely feel for him (and Kukoc, who just got caught in the middle); I’d probably be bitter, too. (Bitterness and pettiness abound, even among millionaires and tremendously gifted athletes). But while the Bulls found a way to keep going without Jordan, I don’t know that Pippen ever stepped into his shoes as the team leader. Can you imagine being read the riot act by Bill Cartwright?

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LA: He got dressed down by Cartwright, but it sounds like it was in that way of a parent who is so disappointed in their child that they can’t even yell at them. What I love about this scene, and these two episodes in general, is all the crying. I love these dudes crying so much! Cartwright started crying when he said that Pippen let the team down, then Pippen started crying. Later, at the end of the episode, Jordan gets verklempt when he says, “If you don’t wanna play that way, don’t play that way,” about how passionate/mean he could get with his teammates. I love all the drama, and then later how they resolve it. Like when Jordan comes back to the team, and he and Kerr get into it one practice, and Kerr shoves him, but then Jordan hits him in the face. But then they make up, and they’re stronger than before. And then, oof, with Jordan just collapsing and sobbing at the end of the ’95-96 championships. So much emotion!

Speaking of the ’95-96 championships, time is collapsing here. The past is nearly meeting up with the present. The 1998 finals are beginning. What stuck out to you during those games and teams? A lot of that reinforced, for me, the way that Jordan can find motivation from absolutely anything—real or fictional.

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DC: Sports are so emotional! I love that they put it all out there, even the less flattering footage and the more resentful comments. Will Perdue talks about Michael Jordan being a jerk; Jordan criticizes Pippen for taking himself out of a pivotal game at a crucial moment. The explosion between Jordan and Kerr (whom M.J. describes as “the smallest guy on the team”) during that practice was proof that Chicago might have missed Michael Jordan, but he still had something to prove to his new teammates.

I got chills when Bill Wennington told the story of Jordan telling him, “I want you to jump on the cape.” The boldness! But he obviously had some doubts: about getting his basketball body back (I wonder what the difference is—probably leanness?), about wearing the number 23 again. The fact that he wore his shorts backwards in his first game back was such a funny, down-to-earth moment.

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Still, while it might have taken him longer than he initially anticipated to get back into his groove, this was the rally to beat all rallies. Here again, the familiar narrative structure of The Last Dance emerges. Jason Hehir and crew take a page out of the sports movie playbook—the darkest hour, quickly followed by the dawn, a.k.a. the return of the hero.

Rewatching the moment the Bulls made NBA history with their 72-10 season (a record that was broken in 2016 by the Golden State Warriors) was everything I hoped it would be. But we haven’t gotten to the elephant—that is, the cartoon bunny—in the room. Laura, it’s finally time to talk about Space Jam.

LA: What can I say about Space Jam except that I saw it in the theater with, I believe, my entire high school basketball team. What an important outing! Though, really, I’ve never been as taken with that movie as a lot of people seem to be. I mostly just recall it as being silly, yes? Yes.

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I’m more interested in Jordan filming for something wild like 10 to 12 hours a day, taking a break somewhere in there to work out, and then doing shirts-and-skins pickup games with Patrick Ewing and fuckers like Reggie Miller until 9 or 10 at night. That part, to me, really solidified this point that was made during the 1992 Dream Team practice footage, where Jordan, and it seems a lot of other guys in the league, too, appreciated these unofficial all-league games more than actual official competition. Miller said it himself, “It was some of the best games.” Some of the best shit can happen when you’re supposedly just fucking around.

DC: The Space Jam shooting schedule and workout regimen sound absolutely bonkers to me, as do the pickup games. I wonder if Miller et al. considered these the “best games” because all the bullshit was out the window—the endorsement deals, the contracts, the reported rivalries. Keeping people employed and fans in the seats. For them, this was basketball in its purest form.

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But Space Jam is a fascinating footnote in Jordan’s career. He’d always been viewed as having the looks and charisma of a movie star—this was his chance to prove it. And you know what? The movie’s not bad; certainly not Kazaam bad (if you’re reading this, Shaquille O’Neal, please know I think you were great in Blue Chips). Jordan is personable on screen, even if he’s no Brando or Bill Murray. I wasn’t over the moon about it or anything, but I will always have a sentimental attachment to it because, as I have already told you in our warmups, that’s my high school orchestra in the accompanying video for the soundtrack’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” We were set up with sheet music of an arrangement that approximated the real composition (because copyrights), and you can see the back of my head at one point, I think.

That song’s place in pop culture history is much more complicated now—you can’t talk about that song or video without noting the revelations and federal indictments against R. Kelly (I doubt it’ll come up in the docuseries proper). I certainly don’t want him to benefit from it any further at this point by cueing it up here. But we didn’t know then what we know now—in 1996, being a part of that video shoot just made me feel like I was, in some small way, in Michael Jordan’s orbit. But, more relevant to our discussion, Space Jam is interesting because it was just another fruitful detour for Jordan. A movie that grossed over $230 million globally was effectively marketing promotion for the NBA.

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It was also essentially part of training for Jordan, who came back with a vengeance in the ’95-96 season. Let’s talk about that Bulls-Sonics matchup, which Ahmad Rashad recalls was framed as the greatest mismatch in NBA Finals history.

LA: Oh, I love Blue Chips! But I don’t have a ton to say about the Chicago-Seattle mismatch, except that for a doc that sometimes spends too much or too little time on certain subjects (too much time on Jordan in a Sox uniform, too little time on Scottie’s dunk against Ewing), it spends the exact right amount of time on that particular part of the playoff series. They kind of breeze through it. What’s to dig into there? It was way more interesting in these episodes when we see the Bulls face off against the Magic (in 1996) and the Hornets (in 1998), where ex-Bulls and former teammates of Jordan like Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong show up, and where Jordan manufactures some motivation against them for deigning to think they can beat the Bulls. I love that game that Armstrong has though. He knew how to beat his old team, because he was once in that offense. And it worked! For one game anyway.

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We’ve been ending these talks with favorite footage. Most of my favorite moments weren’t captured in video, only recalled (the crying, Bakers Square). So, I’m going to go with the Jordan-less Bulls and all the passing. And a current-day Kukoc, way too big for his chair, saying very dryly, “I did hit a lot of last-second shots during the season.” What do you have?

DC: Speaking of Armstrong, I do want to circle back briefly to something you said up top about Jordan always finding a way to stay motivated, whether he’s magnifying a slight or moving the goal posts (er, raising the hoop?). Armstrong was part of the team that thwarted his big comeback, so even though Jordan went after old B.J., it only got him so far.

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I think the footage that stood out the most to me, aside from a sobbing Michael Jordan on the floor of the Bulls locker room after clinching the ’96 title, was from the retirement press conference in 1993. Everyone’s trying to keep a poker face (except Jordan, who often smiles), but you can tell they’re all wondering what they’re going to do now. The answer was, in part, keep up the triangle offense and otherwise do the best you can, but it’s one of the few moments of uncertainty in this docuseries.

I’ll have to wait until next week and the finale for my answer, but I’m interested to learn what you remember about the Bulls vs. the Pacers. Because there’s more than corn in Indiana (sorry, been dying to say that).

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LA: But for hating Reggie Miller, I don’t remember much about the Pacers.

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