Michael Jordan and the ‘98 Bulls documentary is all that and more
When ESPN decided to release “The Last Dance” early due to the current circumstances of COVID-19, it offered the sports world something to look forward to. ESPN proceeded to hype up the series with previews and teases over the following weeks that made the release seem that much more exhilarating.
ESPN has done an amazing job in the past with the docuseries “30 for 30” and the five-part series about the O.J. Simpson trial. However, there has never been anything quite like this one. This 10-episode documentary provides a behind-the-scenes look on one of the best dynasties and largest sports figures in history, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
To put it lightly, episodes one and two were all that and more. More than 6.1 million people tuned in, which set the record for the most viewers of an ESPN documentary in it’s 41-year history. It’s crazy to think this is the first true documentary on Jordan and the Bulls considering the enormity of their impact in the 1990s and beyond. If you didn’t watch it live, here’s what you missed.
The first episode begins with Jordan speaking out about the possibility of his team getting split up during or after the ‘98 season. Jordan had won back-to-back titles in ‘96 and ‘97, but there was still uncertainty that the team would be broken up.
After the intro, general manager Jerry Krause is introduced. I think Krause is the most misunderstood guy so far in the documentary. The way he is shown makes him out to be the bad guy — during the ‘98 season he was — but the documentary fails to highlight Krause’s successes.
First of all, Krause must’ve been pretty good at his job in order for the Bulls to win six championships. He didn’t draft Jordan, but he traded up to draft Scottie Pippen and even got Horace Grant in the same draft. He traded for Dennis Rodman in 1995, which turned out to be a steal in value considering the Bulls only gave up an insignificant center. Krause gave Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson his first head coaching job with the Bulls in 1989.
Krause built the team and deserves some credit. The only problem Krause had came after the success. He didn’t believe he received the credit he deserved. Because of that, Krause will be more remembered for the way the Bulls’ run ended than the way it started. In some ways, that’s justified.
One of the biggest takeaways from the first episode however, was how different things were back in the late ‘80s and throughout the ‘90s. There were some wild moments in episode one including Jordan walking in on his teammates doing cocaine and smoking marijuana during his rookie season. One newspaper back in the ‘80s described the Bulls as “the Traveling Cocaine Circus,” which drew possibly the best reaction of the episode from Jordan himself. He laughed about it and didn’t deny the report.
Another big part of episode one was the Jordan story. Most fans know about how Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and how he hit the game-winning shot in his freshman year at North Carolina in the National Championship game. However, not many people, including myself, knew about the rest of his UNC career or the beginning of his professional career with the Bulls for that matter. I had no idea Jordan dropped 63 points in the playoffs against the Boston Celtics in just his second season in the NBA.
On top of that, Jordan was hurt almost the entire year and wasn’t allowed to play more than 14 minutes per half before the playoffs. The injury dilemma in his second season was a big story in the episode. It set up some of the cracks that Jordan had with management from early on in his career.
The biggest takeaway from episode one is the greatness of Michael Jordan. The guy was doing things nobody had ever done before in the NBA. Nobody had ever come into the league and already been one of the best players, and yet Jordan was. The highlights shown throughout are remarkable and it allows you to see the impact Jordan had in just his first season in the NBA.
There are two in particular moments and quotes that I won’t forget. The first came from legendary coach Bob Knight when he coached Jordan on the 1984 Olympic team.
“That to me, makes him the best basketball player that I’ve ever seen play,” Knight said.
Those words should not be taken lightly. They carry huge weight considering Knight was probably the most highly respected and touted coach at the time in the 1980s and he saw it in Jordan before anyone else did.
Another powerful quote came from Larry Bird in regards to the playoff series in 1986.
“That wasn’t Michael Jordan. It’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan,” Bird said.
That quote sent a shiver down my spine because it came from one of the best basketball players of all time. Jordan was on a different level from the start.
The second episode was even better than the first. It largely talked about Pippen and his story. This was great to see because I didn’t know much about Pippen. The impact he had on the team was far greater than I ever realized.
Pippen started as the equipment manager in college. He wasn’t even on the team. Then he had a crazy growth spurt in college and became a top five draft pick. It felt like one of those stories you see in the movies with the happily ever after endings.
Not so fast. That’s when things got interesting. When Pippen entered the league in 1987, Jordan was already larger than life. I assumed that Pippen and Jordan were always best friends because they were one of the best one-two punches in the history of the NBA. It was really interesting to hear that their relationship didn’t extend off the court. It certainly wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows between the two of them.
The next big part had to do with Pippen’s second contract that he signed for seven years and 18 million dollars. That was absurdly small, even in the ‘90s and caused an uproar on social media during and after the episode aired. That preposterous contract paired with Pippen’s injury going into the ‘98 season took up the majority of the episode.
I felt bad for Pippen. He didn’t get enough respect for what he meant to the Bulls dynasty and he was getting paid zilch. And Jordan basically called Pippen out for being selfish in the middle of it all. Pippen was unselfishly getting paid as the sixth best player on the Bulls and the 122nd in the entire NBA when he was easily a top 10 player at the time.
Pippen played second fiddle to Jordan, who was making 30 million per year, and was a vital asset in winning five championships; yet, Pippen was the one being called “selfish.” He deserved to be treated better.
The episode ends with Pippen chirping Krause on the team bus before demanding a trade while still injured. There are so many things to look forward to from this episode, including Pippen and Jordan’s relationship and how Pippen ended up coming back to the Bulls in 1998. There are a ton of storylines to look forward to. I can’t for next Sunday.