Part XVI: The Last Dance for Jordan and the Bulls
The 1997-98 season would be Michael Jordan's last with the Bulls. Following six NBA titles, Jordan is immortalized in the minds and hearts of everyone who ever saw him play. He goes into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, and it finally makes the Hall
Because of the circumstances—the 1998 NBA Finals, the shot for the championship, likely his final season—many believe Game 6 was Jordan's greatest game. (Jonathan Daniel/NBAE/Getty Images)
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.
It would be called the Last Dance. But hardly anyone was in a party mood to begin the 1997-98 season and the run for a second three-peat.
The growing feud between Phil Jackson and General Manager Jerry Krause had drained Jackson along with the demands of almost a decade of leading the greatest sporting spectacle ever. Jackson had met with Managing Partner Jerry Reinsdorf in Park City during the 1997 Finals and said it would be his final season after the playoffs. Reinsdorf counseled patience. Jackson had long held the belief that seven years was the maximum a coach could work with a team. Jackson even felt walking away after 72-10 in the 1995-96 season, his seventh with the Bulls as head coach, would be ideal. But several players, led by Ron Harper, had come to Jackson's home after the season to ask him to return. Jackson felt he could not leave that group after the effort they'd put in. But Jackson was going year-to-year now in his own mind. Reinsdorf would go to Jackson's lake home in Montana later that summer, and Jackson would say definitively the 1997-98 would be his final season with the Bulls.
Jordan could sense all that, and soon after the Bulls won that fifth championship, Jordan asked that he, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman be allowed to return to defend their title.
Not only could he do all, but he seemed to now know all.
Phil Jackson always had a different summer than most NBA coaches. As we knew, much was different about Jackson. And the Bulls were willing to accommodate him. While most NBA coaches are around at times in the summer for summer league or mini-camps, Jackson spends the summer in Montana recharging. Jackson generally would leave shortly after the NBA draft.
With Jackson heading into what appeared to be his final season, Krause decided he didn't need Jackson the day of the draft. The snub hit the media and exposed the cracks in the relationship months before the season would start.
Krause was pushing to trade Scottie Pippen in a package deal for draft picks to Boston. Krause was anxious to begin a rebuilding, knowing Pippen was going into his last season on his contract and was determined not to return to the Bulls. Boston had lost out on the lottery pick for Tim Duncan, and coach Rick Pitino was looking for a star level player. Krause wanted one of the No. 1 draft picks for Tracy McGrady, whom he would pursue without success in free agency in 2000.
Krause believed the Bulls could win anyway in 1997-98 without Pippen, and be in position to rebuild without bottoming out. And Pippen would miss the first half of the season, anyway. Krause may actually have been right. Though Krause often was at odds with many of the players and suffered in the public view, his moves clearly were instrumental in giving Jordan the opportunity to sustain winning. His theories generally made sense, like trading Pippen to get value and later dealing Elton Brand for a pair of seven-footers. His scouting wasn't great in the Chandler/Curry draft, but the thinking was right. Again, it probably was time to trade Pippen. Krause wasn't the sentimentalist, which also didn't serve him well in the public view. It was too big a risk then and would be too unpopular to break up a 72-win and 69-win team at that time. Maybe the Bulls could then have avoided the collapses of the early 2000s. For everyone but Krause, it wasn't the right time.
Eventually, Reinsdorf would reject Krause's plans, saying he agreed with Jordan that the players should have a chance to defend their title. Despite Krause's feelings, Reinsdorf also had previously offered Jackson a five-year contract that would extend to well after Jordan had retired, whether it would be in 1998, 1999 or 2000. Jackson declined, saying he didn't want to be part of a rebuilding. Reinsdorf never backed off his belief that Jackson was the game's best coach.
It also didn't help that Krause's daughter was married that summer and Krause invited several of the Bulls' top staff to the wedding, as well as coach-to-be Tim Floyd and his wife. The Jacksons weren't invited, and only found out about the affair when one of their friends on the Bulls staff had called and asked June Jackson what she was wearing to the wedding. "What wedding?" This was not going to have a happy ending.
Meanwhile, with $30 million now Jordan's base salary, it was easier this time and Jordan signed for a 10 percent raise to about $33 million.
I always wondered if I missed an opportunity for a valuable keepsake. I had seen Reinsdorf around that time and he handed me a thin piece of paper, a strip about an inch wide ripped off an eight-by-11 piece of paper. Rodman had scrawled across the strip that he wanted to be paid $9 million for that season. Yes, that was his official contract proposal.
Reinsdorf handed it to me to look at, laughing. It wasn't exactly a classic contract negotiation. Yes, it's what they dealt with having Rodman. I laughed and gave it back to Reinsdorf and he threw the scrap into the garbage.
There was no passing of the torch from Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant in 1998.
(Jonathan Daniel/NBAE/Getty Images)
What do you think that would have brought on eBay?
I think Rodman did get the $9 million, though I believe a lot of it was deferred, as he signed after camp started and the team had returned from an exhibition game in Paris.
In any case, everyone would be back.
It started badly at the traditional media day when the players meet reporters for the first time of the season and then start training camp.
Krause talked, it seemed to many too happily, about Jackson's final season, and then made his famous, if often misquoted, comments about organizations winning championships. Krause really was trying to give some credit to the many around the organization who don't get credit. But Krause had bumbled through saying something about players "alone" don't win in trying to spread some credit and make a point about previous dynasties like the Lakers and Celtics coming back after transcendent stars departed. It came out badly, as usual with Krause, and reporters gleefully rushed to Jackson with the misquote. It was passed on as "organizations" win championships, not players. Jackson said only someone like Krause would say that.
Krause just had trouble saying the right thing. He would try, but it didn't come out the way it was supposed to. For example, Jordan, like many players, is a creature of ritual, if not superstition. He always was the last guy to get taped, he stood in the same place for the national anthem, was the last guy to get resin and clap it in front of broadcaster Johnny Kerr's face. Jordan also made a habit of getting the game notes after being taped and then going to the bathroom last, before Jackson did his pregame remarks. Invariably, Krause would use the bathroom at the same time.
Jordan, as was his custom by then, skipped media day, and when he showed up the following day he made clear that under no circumstances would he play for the Bulls again unless Jackson were coach. It would turn out that way, though the lockout of 1999 may have changed things anyway as Jordan suffered a severe gash with a cigar cutter and was unable to grip a basketball for months afterward. Plus, Jordan again seemed burned out and was particularly angry with Pippen, who blew off the first part of the season by waiting to have foot surgery just before the start of the season and finished it not playing much to close the Finals with a bad back. Plus, Pippen had spent the early part of the season saying he was quitting the team right then, and as a free agent after 1997-98 he certainly would not return. Pippen would years later admit he never was the same player after that 1998 surgery. Rodman tried to play with Dallas and the Lakers afterward and only made a mess of both teams and was mostly ineffective.
I don't believe, even had Jordan returned, the Bulls would have been able to win again in the 1999 lockout shortened season, especially with Pippen gone, which he would have been.
The Bulls went to Paris without Rodman and Pippen unable to play, and it was a lovefest for Jordan. The French still reveled in excess and exception, and no one was more special than Jordan. He would have to be for 1997-98.
If the Bulls were going to get there for No. 6, it was going to have to be a relentless push from Jordan, almost all alone like years before....