Born in 1989, I grew up in the decade of the Chicago Bulls dynasty. Michael Jordan was about to begin his fifth season, at the cusp of establishing himself and his team as the standard of basketball. All I knew was Chicago Bulls success. I don’t ever remember there seeming to be a team other than the Bulls that had a legitimate chance at becoming world champions. But as with most glorious stories like these, our memory banks usually selectively recall the details associated with the story.
So along with about 6.1 million other viewers, I dedicated two hours of my Sunday evening to watch the ESPN & Netflix docuseries The Last Dance. The series highlights the 1997–1998 Chicago Bulls season, and I hoped it would challenge us all to assess our assumptions about Michael Jordan and the team and to gain some perspective some 20 years later.
The Last Dance isn’t a story about Michael Jordan, per se. It’s a story about the 1997–1998 Chicago Bulls team. But to be clear, there is no 97–98 Bulls team without the hero, number 23, Michael Jordan.
In the first episode, we learn of Jordan’s rise to greatness. First being cut from his high school basketball team before working his way back to the team the following year, Jordan then quickly sprouted as a freshman team leader for the University of North Carolina where he hit a game-winning shot for the national championship. He was drafted third overall in the 1984 NBA draft. What follows is a cult-like response of his presence in and dedication to the game. NBA greats like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson confess they knew he was the best basketball player they’d ever seen in only his second year in the league.I anticipated Michael Jordan being both protagonist and antagonist from start to finish in this series (perhaps later in the series he will be). But instead, Krause—the short, non-athletic, white, strictly business-minded man—was quickly tabbed the bad guy, not Michael.
MJ quickly electrified Chicagoans into a basketball buzz. But he soon learned his teammates were not as dedicated to the craft of basketball off the court as he was. Someone in the documentary points out the team was known by some as the “Bulls traveling cocaine circus.” MJ laughs it off, but then recalls a time in Peoria where he walked in on his teammates in a hotel room and saw “things I’ve never seen in my life as a young kid… lines over here, weed smokers over here, women over here. And at that point I said, ‘look man, I’m out,’ because at this point if there’s a raid in here I’m just as guilty as everybody in here.” So he socially isolated himself from the team. His teammates didn’t believe in him, but he was determined to earn his stripes by going after the team leader, not with his voice, but with his play.
But where he really earned the team’s respect came in his third game of the season against the Milwaukee Bucks, a team the Bulls historically had trouble beating. When his team was down going into the fourth quarter, MJ challenged them to not give up and took it upon himself to will his team to victory. From then on, Michael earned himself league-wide respect, winning Rookie of the Year honors and leading the Bulls to the playoffs.
Every good story, fictional or not, always has an antagonist. In this story, however, I wasn’t anticipating it to be a man named Jerry Krause, the general manager for the Chicago Bulls. To be honest, based on some of the stories I’ve heard, I anticipated Michael Jordan being both protagonist and antagonist from start to finish in this series (perhaps later in the series he will be). But instead, Krause—the short, non-athletic, white, strictly business-minded man—was quickly tabbed the bad guy, not Michael.
Alternatively, the images of MJ that light up this first installment of the series are those of grinning innocence, a young MJ playing ball and riding a bicycle on his college campus. The humble images of Michael Jordan doing his own laundry and making his own bed in his first year as a professional basketball player starkly contrast visuals of the Bulls general manager. The only images of Krause are intense; specifically the one in which he very seriously states that it would be head coach Phil Jackson’s last year with the Bulls. Such framing of the successful general manager made his motives questionable at best and sinister at worst.
When the Bulls returned from their international basketball trip to France to kick off the 1997–98 season, Phil Jackson held a team meeting outlining the goals for the year. He themed the season “The Last Dance,” as it had been made abundantly clear Krause’s intentions were to rebuild the team by dismissing Jackson. From here, the stage is set for the drama. The only difference between this Bulls team and modern-day dynastic teams (like the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers, or Golden State Warriors) is the year and the championship runs—oh yeah, and Michael Jordan. But even Jordan couldn’t win alone.
Part two features the second-best player of the Bulls, Scottie Pippen. The narrative spotlights Pippen’s unfair contract with the Bulls organization and more specifically the tensions between him and Jerry Krause. “I understand what my value is to this game,” Pippen told reporters in a press conference. When asked by a reporter what that value is, Pippen replied confidently, “My day’ll come. My day will come.” But in order to truly set up the protagonist/antagonist dichotomy—and the ensuing outflow of sympathy for Pippen following episode two—you have to understand and sympathize with Pippen’s backstory.
Pippen was the son of poor parents, one of eleven children, from Hamburg, Arkansas. His dad had suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair, and his brother got in a wrestling accident at school and was also confined to a wheelchair. Money was scarce. But Pippen found a way out through basketball. He started as an equipment manager for the team at the University of Central Arkansas. Then he grew five inches in one summer, and grew into his athleticism, drawing the eye of NBA scouts.
During the Bulls championship run, Pippen put up impressive stats for the team. He ranked second on the team in scoring, rebounds, and minutes played, and first on the team in assists and steals. Despite these impressive feats, he ranked 6th in team salary and 122nd in the NBA salary. If that doesn’t sound fair, it’s because it isn’t.
But why would Pippen even take such a long-term deal in the first place, especially against the advice of the team owner? There are characters one could point to as reasons why this may be the case. But it’s also obvious that Pippen didn’t yet understand his value. All he knew was that he had a family back home that needed to be taken care of financially and the way he could do that was by playing basketball. Krause and his general management team pounced on Pippen’s perceived misfortune and took advantage of his unwillingness to gamble on himself.
Unhappy with his deal in the long-run—once he realized his value—Scottie decided to have surgery on his foot late in the off-season and rehab it during the 97–98 season. He felt as though the organization wouldn’t miss him if they weren’t willing to pay him. His absence was highly noticeable, however, particularly in the loss column. Jordan thought Pippen’s actions selfish, and still thinks so, as he openly states in the documentary. But in the eyes of a competitor and on the stage of pure competition, that is to be expected—money doesn’t matter. It’s about the wins and losses at the end of the day. And in his playing days, that’s what set Jordan apart from most other players (then and now). But for Pippen, it was the realization of being taken advantage of that broke down his identity and integrity.
Therein lies the lesson of the second episode of The Last Dance. A misplaced or wrongly perceived identity, no matter the level of business or competition one performs on, will cause damage to self, others, and eventually both. Even when we realize our worth, no dollar amount will fulfill our true value as beings made in the image of God. We’ll either undervalue ourselves, or we’ll attack anyone attempting to undervalue us.
As a result, we learn that even the second greatest basketball player of this era could succumb to the ills of bitterness. According to the documentary, we learn Pippen would verbally attack and abuse Krause. He especially didn’t like that Krause spoke openly to the media about trading him, even after all that Pippen sacrificed (money, contracts, injuries) for the team. Pippen’s anger was justified, but his actions certainly were not a shining moment for him.
If a tape were replayed of our best and worst moments, some of us would revel in our feats and hide in shame of our faults. But in order to get the full scope and appreciation of any journey, we need to tell the whole story. Fortunately, that’s what we begin to see in episode two.
Where I’m from, people poke fun at the “old heads” who retell of their glory days. The days of admiration come and go and the stories become less appreciated as time fades. But when it’s history that has a widespread effect around the globe like the Chicago Bulls dynasty, the story is not merely revisited as much as it is re-lived. It’s the reason why many hold so dearly to Michael Jordan being the best basketball player ever. It’s the reason why debates are so impassioned about who is the greatest (MJ, Kobe, or Lebron?). Those who watched the magic of any of these players recall not just the memories but also the feelings of watching such “poetry in motion,” as one fan put it in the documentary.
Experiencing glory as it happens and seeing how it affects not only our emotions, but also our culture is what draws us back to these stories over and again. It’s at the core of why Christians go back to the Scriptures daily. We don’t merely revisit glory moments for historical knowledge (though it is often a byproduct), in the same way we don’t dedicate two hours of our lives on a Sunday night to just “know” who won the 1998 NBA Finals. No, we revisit the glory and all it’s glorious effects, embedded within the story. We look back to experience again the glory of those old stories. These magical moments became part of how we see the world; they’ve shaped us. And they remind us to watch for more goodness to come. With this hope in mind, stories like the 97–98 Bulls run are that much more enjoyable.
Over the next few weeks, God willing, I plan to watch and experience more of that Bulls magic. With childlike wonder and giddy boyishness, I look forward to recapturing those feelings of witnessing greatness and magic—and glory.