ESPN and Netflix collaborated to produce arguably the most anticipated basketball-related docuseries: The Last Dance.
Following the team’s fifth championship, Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan, owner Jerry Reinsdorf and head coach Phil Jackson granted a film crew full access to capture the 1997-98 National Basketball Association (NBA) season and their run at a sixth championship — hence their “last dance.”
Originally set to air in June 2020, The Last Dance aired its first two episodes this past weekend after being pushed forward in response to the coronavirus pandemic and sports fans and athletes’ calls to air in this time of no sports.
Before going any further, I will say that this review of episodes one and two will contain spoilers, so be warned.
The first two episodes surpassed the already high expectations I had set going into the series. Everything from its high production quality to cameos from former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama provided entertainment that brought me to chills, to laughter and, I’ll admit, close to tears.
Yet the things that stood out the most were the storylines that underlay one of the greatest basketball dynasties of all time. The first revealing storyline revealed how Scottie Pippen, Jordan’s partner in crime and one of the greatest small forwards of all time, was criminally underpaid.
During the 1997-98 season, Pippen entered his final year of his seven-year $18 million contract, which ranked him sixth on the team and 122nd in the entire league in salary.
To put these rankings in perspective, Pippen at the time had already appeared in seven All-Star games, made it onto three All-NBA first teams and eight All-Defensive first teams.
Pippen may have been earning millions to play a sport, but in the context of the league’s wealth and his superhuman production, he deserved to be paid much more.
On a slightly lighter note, another aspect of the docuseries that shocked me was how playful Jordan could be. I never expected the man with six Finals MVPs, five regular season MVPs, 14 All-Star appearances and a Defensive Player of the Year award to exhibit such a countenance.
Whether rude of Jordan or not, his refusal to give teammate Scott Burrell a hug on the bench during a preseason game came off as funny to me.
“[The championship] don’t [sic] count,” Jordan repeated while Burrell just wanted to celebrate his first championship ring.
Between the head bobs and trash talk, Jordan’s funniest and definitely coldest moment came in the first episode when he teased then-General Manager of the Bulls Jerry Krause.
“So those are the pills that keep you short? Or are those diet pills?” Jordan asked as Krause appeared to be taking his medication.
Harsh by any standards, Jordan’s jab at Krause, along with Pippen’s egregious underpayment, reflects an overarching tension between the players and ownership.
Any organization is bound to have some conflict, but this docuseries shines a new light on the extent to which these conflicts went.
Briefly mentioned in the series, Pippen grew up with both his father and older brother living in a wheelchair, placing a financial and emotional onus on him. Ownership took advantage of Pippen’s desire to provide for his family and then refused to renegotiate the terms of his contract when he clearly deserved it.
Krause openly groomed Tim Floyd, the Iowa State Cyclones basketball coach, to replace Coach Jackson, which served as another point of tension and another hurdle for the team to overcome. Krause even went as far as to not invite Jackson to his daughter’s wedding.
From my understanding, the beef boiled down to this: Krause wanted the same praise Jordan, Pippen and Jackson received. Apparent from the boos he received during the 1997 Championship ring ceremony, Krause never seemed to get that praise and grew resentful as his team continued to win.
Learning new things about the players and teams I grew up being told to revere, I now have an even greater sense of appreciation for the legends who played before I was born. Eager to follow the off- and on-the-court drama and to see more unseen footage, I will be sure to tune in again this Sunday to watch this tour de force of basketball content.