Written by: Jordan Vitkauskas (@Lower_Merion33)
ESPN’s The Last Dance concluded on Sunday, after ten thrilling episodes about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, centering on their final season together in 1998. Director Jason Hehir and his crew were absolutely phenomenal storytellers, covering every storyline imaginable – from Michael Jordan’s obsessive gambling to lesser-known good guys in Steve Kerr and MJ’s security team. Almost no stone was left unturned, showing fans the good, bad, and the ugly of playing with the best player in league history while he chased for a sixth ring. Without further ado, let’s get into the winners and losers of The Last Dance…
Winner: Scottie Pippen
Everyone who’s anyone knows about Michael Jordan and can rattle off a few dozen feats, stats or moments without much though. But this documentary shines a light on the Robin to MJ’s Batman in Scottie Pippen. The lanky, quiet defensive menace from Hamburg, Arkansas was one of the five-best defenders ever and was crucial to Jordan capturing six championships.
Pippen played through almost any injury, including a blinding migraine against the Pistons in 1990 (a few days after his father passed) and a rapidly weakening back in game six of the1998 NBA Finals (25 minutes while barely being able to move on the court), and was the perfect complement to MJ personality-wise. He rarely spoke out, was the good cop when Jordan pushed teammates too far and led by example with his hustle and IQ.
He wasn’t always perfect. Pippen refused to go on the court for a game-winning shot in the ‘94 playoffs and delayed surgery until the beginning of the ‘98 season, but those errors were the result of years of being screwed over by general manager Jerry Krause in contract negotiations. Everyone gets a pass, especially one who averaged 20/7/6 with over two steals a game in the ‘90s. Pippen is no less than one of the 25 best players to ever play the game (as the documentary should have made it clear). Not bad for a kid from Hamburg, Arkansas.
Loser: Jerry Krause
The biggest loser of this documentary, Krause was a pivotal part of the Bulls championship teams. He scouted and drafted guys such as Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoč while making key free agents in John Paxson and Steve Kerr, all of whom played important roles within the Bulls dynasty. But for all of his positive player moves, Krause ruined his relationships with the players and coaching staff by publicly stating (in so many words) that front offices won championships and not the players. This soured Jordan, Pippen, and the others to the point that they despised their boss. They openly mocked him (well okay it was mostly MJ but you get it), rarely complimented him and cite him as the reason why the Bulls split up after the ‘98 title run.
It’s crazy to think one person was solely responsible for one of the greatest dynasties in sports history not to come back and defend their third consecutive title, but the majority of the blame goes to Krause. Front offices don’t really win championships, but they sure can make sure a franchise goes over 20 years without one really easily.
Winner: Steve Kerr
Today’s generation knows Steve Kerr as the head coach of the famed Golden State Warriors; an incredibly intelligent manager of egos and a guiding force for Steph Curry and Klay Thompson as shooters. Long before he got into coaching, Kerr was one of the league’s best long-ball shooters, including one that MJ trusted in game six of the 1997 NBA Finals in the Bulls first matchup with the Utah Jazz.
Viewers were also introduced to the heartbreak surrounding the death of his father, who was assassinated while in Beirut in 1984. We saw the emotion Kerr still feels while discussing his father, something that we can all sympathize with.
Overall, Kerr was an extremely high-IQ player, a tough competitor who didn’t take crap from anyone including Michael Jordan, and a player who truly “got it”. He’s gone on from a solid role player to an even better broadcaster, to a decent GM, and now is one of the best coaches in the league. Not bad for the guy who MJ punched in the face at practice in 1995.
Loser: Any team that lost to the Bulls in the Finals… And also the Knicks
This seems like a weird choice but trust me on this one. The Bulls defeated five different franchises in the course of their six championships runs. In order, they took down the Lakers, Blazers, Suns, Sonics, and the Jazz (2x). Other than the Lakers, none of the above-mentioned franchises were ever the same after bending the knee to His Airness. Let’s break it down team by team:
Lakers: Didn’t get back to the Finals for nine years. Proceeded to win five titles from 2000-2010.
Blazers: Lost in the first round in nine of the next 11 seasons and have not made the Finals since.
Suns: Bounced in the first round in five of the next eight years, and have not come close to making the Finals since.
Sonics: Made the playoff in just five of the next 12 years and relocated to Oklahoma City after the 2008 season.
Jazz: Lost in the first or second round in the following five seasons (after 1998) before a three-year playoff drought. They have not come close to making the Finals since.
That’s the Michael Jordan effect.
Chicago meanwhile, defeated New York in the playoffs in each of the first three title runs. The only time the Knicks got over the hump against the Bulls was in the ‘94 playoffs, during which MJ was playing baseball. They lost in the Finals to the Rockets that season (anyone else remember the OJ chase?) and then bowed out to Chicago in the ‘96 postseason, and were never the same. New York made the Finals in a weird, lockout-shortened ‘99 season but never had a chance against the up and coming San Antonio Spurs.
They have just six playoff appearances since then and have a pitifully combined 147 total wins in the last six seasons. At least
they signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have this pandemic to make everyone forget just how incompetent they have been.
Winner: Michael Jordan, the player
Ahh, we have finally arrived at the man of the hour. I saved the best for last because, well… Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player we have ever had. Viewers were treated to highlight after highlight package showcasing Jordan’s astonishing athleticism (one of the five most athletic players ever), skill (ditto), and pure determination to win at almost any cost.
He was the league’s best player on offense for almost his entire career and one of the best 5-7 defensive players for his entire Bulls run. There was nothing he couldn’t do. He played point guard for a 19-game stretch in 1989 and averaged 32/12/10 on 50% shooting. MJ won Defensive Player of the Year in 1988, led the league in steals three times, won ten scoring titles and of course, five MVPs.
Jordan was as technically sound as any player we have ever seen, or ever will. He worked day and night to perfect his craft and was so feared on the court that teams warned young players from talking any kind of trash to him for fear of pissing off a guy who could drop 50 on a moment’s notice. MJ used every slight (real or made-up) against him as motivation to destroy his opponents and he generally succeeded every time. There will be another player like him in any of our lifetimes.
Winner: Michael Jordan, the meme
Jordan has had some legendary memes over the years (the crying meme at his Hall of Fame induction is never going to be topped), but this series blessed us with more than enough new ones to last this pandemic. I won’t overload the post with pics, so here’s a link to a few of the good ones – https://www.insider.com/best-memes-to-espn-the-last-dance-2020-5.
Winner/Loser: Michael Jordan, the person
I know it’s cheating to put both for this. Sue me. I think it fits this category with Jordan. In terms of his obsessive gambling, nonstop trash-talking (on and off the court), and overall bully mantra with teammates, this documentary didn’t do MJ any favors. He was extremely pushy and a jerk at many times during his time in the NBA as a player (and still is in his retirement, including punching and verbally abusing teammates a time or two (sorry Steve Kerr).
However, we also got to witness the emotional soft side of Jordan, as he discussed the death of his father, and we were subsequently shown the famous footage (with audio for the first time) or MJ sobbing on the ground in the locker room after winning the 1996 NBA Finals on Fathers Day. Additionally, we saw Jordan become emotional discussing why he was so hard on his teammates, indicating he never asked them to do anything he would not do himself. It was a startling openness from him that showed just how much he cared about winning and what he would do to achieve greatness, even if it meant the cost of having a lot of close friends.
MJ’s obsession with winning topped anything else, but in this moment during the documentary, we see almost a hint of regret and hopelessness as it seems that even he couldn’t control his passion. If anything, it only increases his legacy. So many players, past and present, almost openly have not cared as much about winning as they should. This guy cared more than anyone in history (besides possibly Bill Russell, Kobe Bryant, and Magic) and that counts for something.
In the end, this was one of the best sports documentaries ever made and a much-needed break from the current state of the country. We’re all winners for getting a chance to see such up close and personal footage of one of the most iconic teams and perhaps the most iconic athlete ever. Let’s get sports back soon so we can watch a few more.
Feature image courtesy of Variety.
All stats courtesy of ESPN.com or Basketball-Reference.