Even the greatest among men carry an innate desire to be part of something greater than themselves. Episodes 3 and 4 of the ESPN and Netflix docuseries The Last Dance explores how even the titans of basketball—the 90s era Chicago Bulls—fill their need to belong.
Where the previous two episodes focused on a young Michael Jordan and antagonist General Manager Jerry Krause, episodes 3 and 4 largely key on Jordan’s athletic limitations without a functioning community to support him. Both episodes also spotlight Dennis Rodman’s path to the Bulls and how he both benefited from and contributed to the Bulls.
Both stories teach and offer an unorthodox blueprint for teams and communities looking for a way to function in spite of the many dissimilarities that often cloud our groups. No one person, no matter how charismatic, wise, or powerful they may seem, can accomplish anything on their own merits. Some people have to experience this through failure. Others know of the need through their experiences.God gives us a community, a providential group of like-minded, and oftentimes very different, individuals to help us understand who we are in Christ. In that community, we find commitment and accountability and we are changed by it for the better.
In episode three, we learn early of how Dennis Rodman became Dennis “The Worm” Rodman, the basketball player. As a troubled teenager, Rodman’s mother kicked him out of the house because of his troubled behavior. He moved to Dallas, Texas, where he lived around others heavily into drugs, but never picked up the habit. Instead, Rodman picked up a basketball, and as a result, his talents were refined, and noticed. He eventually received a scholarship to play for Southeastern Oklahoma State University. The team was attracted to Rodman’s talent and hustle, and they quickly adopted him into their fold. His tenacious and constant activity on the court was admirable and contagious.
While playing for the Detroit Pistons, Rodman became emotionally troubled despite being part of the team’s championship runs. “I was in a lost place,” he said, describing the time he was found asleep in his car with his gun. The young star considered taking his life. The Pistons let him go, and the San Antonio Spurs picked him up. While playing with the Spurs, Rodman began to spiral behaviorally. He started dating music mogul Madonna who encouraged him to be who he wanted to be. “I just wanted to do something that makes me feel like I’m free—that I could go and do anything I want to do,” which is what he did. But the Spurs didn’t know how to handle what Dennis wanted to do.
Rodman’s erratic behavior led to the Spurs agreeing to a trade with the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls organization felt like the stable structure of their team could easily integrate the impulsive Rodman with the rest of the team. And it worked: Rodman’s hustle and focus on the court was admired despite his on and off the floor antics. Jordan, Pippen, and the rest of the Bulls allowed Rodman to be who he was without trying to assimilate him into becoming an entirely different person. Rodman brought an electrifying dynamic that the Bulls were missing. And by this time, Jordan understood the importance of fitting pieces together—no matter how perceptibly awkward or damaged they were—if he wanted to fulfill his ultimate goal of leading a dynasty.
MJ led the Bulls to become a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference of the NBA at the top of the decade in the 90s. It started in 1989, after losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers all six times they played during the regular 1988–89 season. The Bulls faced the Cavs again in the playoffs; this time, the play was more evenly matched. In what is now known as “The Shot,” Jordan closed out the fifth game of the best of five playoff series on a buzzer beater jumpshot that led his team to victory and eliminated the heavily favored Cavs.
The Bulls went on to contend for the Eastern Conference championship against the rough and tough Detroit “Bad Boys” Pistons, which included the fervent Dennis Rodman at the time. This Pistons team was known for their abrasive and dirty “meet me in the paint” type of play. They intentionally shoved players mid-air, threw elbows to opposing players’ mid-sections, and instigated fights on the floor.
So when Michael Jordan and the Bulls showed up to play Detroit, the Pistons were ready. They created “Jordan rules” which keyed in on trapping MJ when he had the ball and roughing him up whenever he didn’t. The beleaguered Bulls would lose to the Pistons two years in a row before team manager Jerry Krause (and last episode’s antagonist) realized a change was needed to break through the Finals blockade imposed by the physically dominant Pistons.
Bulls head coach Doug Collins configured his offensive scheme around the best player, Jordan. Any competent coach would do the same; however, this made the team one-dimensional. That wouldn’t be an issue if the one dimension of your team was a one-man army. But when teams around the league would pick up on the Pistons cue to key on Jordan, it debilitated the Bulls. So when the legendary Tex Winter brought his basketball acumen to the Bulls as an assistant coach, with the now infamous Triangle Offense, and coach Collins wouldn’t implement it, Krause decided to fire Collins and promote Phil Jackson as head coach instead.
“Phil’s [Jackson] approach was more catered to the team,” says Scottie Pippen. Jordan confessed he wasn’t a Phil Jackson, because this new Triangle Offense took the ball out of his hands. MJ would come to realize, however, the importance of a communal effort on the court. Jackson told MJ that if he was going to be the guy with the ball all the time, then teams could generate a defense against that—like the Pistons. “We’ve got to find a way to make everyone else better,” Jackson told Jordan.
Jordan would eventually buy into coach Jackson’s Triangle Offense philosophy, following the team’s devastating loss to the Pistons the previous year. His drive to succeed was noticeable to his team, and he began to make everyone else around him improve. “When you see your leader working extremely hard in practice, you’re thinking, ‘Man, if I don’t give it my all, I shouldn’t be here,’” teammate Horace Grant says about Jordan’s work ethic at the time.
Coach Jackson’s team-first philosophy would pay off. The Bulls won the 1990–1991 NBA Championship. And Jordan learned the invaluable lesson of community and the importance of accountability on and off the court. This lesson learned would also help Dennis Rodman fulfill his longing to be himself while being part of something bigger than himself.
Episodes one and two left the 1997–1998 season with Scottie Pippen still sidelined by his own volition in a battle for power, primarily between him and Krause. While Pippen was out, Rodman loved the fact that MJ needed him. So when Pippen returned, Dennis once again felt misplaced and unwanted.
Feeling despondent and rejected, Rodman asked coach Jackson for a vacation in the middle of the season. Michael Jordan was completely against the idea. But coach Jackson, understanding the troublesome nature of Rodman, agreed to let him go to Las Vegas for 48 hours. “He’s not gonna be back in 48 hours,” Jordan said. And he was correct.
Rodman stayed in Vegas for a few days, partying with model and girlfriend Carmen Electra. When Rodman failed to report back to his regular duties, Jordan took it upon himself to march across the street to Rodman’s apartment and drag him out of bed (apparently Rodman and Electra came back to Chicago for a staycation). According to the way the story is narrated, Jordan didn’t scold Rodman when he went to get him (Rodman and Electra were hungover and naked when Jordan arrived). He mildly told Rodman to get some clothes on and get ready for practice, and he escorted Dennis to the court.
This imperfect picture of community is a reminder for our call to live with one another for a fuller scope and reality of our purpose and existence. Sure, Jordan possessed the attributes and intangibles to make him the league MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, league scoring leader, dunk contest winner, and All-Star game MVP all in a single season (he did all of this in his 1987–88 season). But to obtain the top prize, an NBA Championship, he lacked an adequate system of community—a structure that would cultivate an atmosphere for him to flourish. And according to Andy Crouch, “Flourishing comes from being both strong and weak.” MJ had to allow some of his stats to weaken and ingratiate himself into a system where his teammates’ strengths could blossom so he and the team could flourish.
Likewise, Rodman was able to flourish and become his fuller self while playing with the Bulls. Without a coach like Phil Jackson, who recognized and admired Rodman’s peculiarity, and Michael Jordan, who valued Rodman’s intelligence and was willing to hold him accountable, God only knows what might have become of the hustling, out-rebounding, lockdown defensive genius. But while playing with the Bulls, he was given the space to try exploring his true self, which enabled the weaker, self-centered parts of himself to die on the court for the sake of the team’s strength.
Intrinsically, we’re all trying to find and know our true selves. But when our self-definition is devoid of our Creator’s input, our true identity will inevitably be caught in a web of chaos. I think this is what we see in Dennis Rodman’s escapades—an endless search for true self. For that reason, God gives us a community, a providential group of like-minded, and oftentimes very different, individuals to help us understand who we are in Christ. In that community, we find commitment and accountability and we are changed by it for the better.
C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.” In this way, Dennis Rodman was able to pull out of Michael Jordan something Scottie Pippen could not; and Pippen out of Rodman something Jordan could not; and Jordan out of Pippen something Rodman could not. And it all functioned under coach Phil Jackson’s system, where Bulls players were given a form of structure and purpose. Only in such a conducive environment, made possible by Jackson’s vision, were the Bulls able to create a dynasty.
In the end, Dennis Rodman was brought back into the Bulls’ fold, refocused in his role for the team’s pursuit of its second three-peat of the decade. With Scottie Pippen’s return to the lineup also, two of the missing pieces in this enigmatic Chicago Bulls dynastic puzzle were in place. For this story to end as a success, it required each one to fulfill a role in the context of the community. But as with any good story, we can be sure more setbacks, controversies, and unforeseen challenges will arise. But at least for now, the team is more poised to weather whatever may come, together.