Kick up your heels and put your dancing shoes on for "The Last Dance"
Despite the struggle within players, coaches, and management, the 1997-98 Bulls managed to put together the perfect final bow as a group
Remind Me Later •
Sam Smith explains how conflict between management, players, and coaches helped motivate that final championship season
Was it Jerry Krause who saved Michael Jordan's legacy as a winner? Stay with me here. That's probably not the narrative we're going to see in ESPN's much anticipated 10-part Last Dance documentary that begins Sunday night. Certainly a major arc of the story is going to be Phil Jackson's famous "Last Dance" designation for what became the inevitable end of the Bulls championship dynasty. "If you go 82-0 you're not coming back," Krause had told Jackson. "I'm not playing if Phil Jackson is not coach," Michael Jordan declared. And away everyone went through a season of constrained delight in their quest and despair about their future.
It seems like it's going to be a story well told, hagiography in which Jordan despite some apparent trepidation about his image finally will get to tell his story his way to his adoring public. It should make for a rollicking tale and perhaps the perfect final bow for a legend who appeared like he was taking that finale that season in Salt Lake City.
Kick back, kick up your heels and put your dancing shoes on.
It's time to save the Last Dance for Michael. And the rest of us.
But there's so much more to be over into this intricate patchwork.
Because Jordan and Phil Jackson probably understood better than any that to extend that dynasty another season beyond No. 6 probably meant Jordan going out a loser.
Would Michael have come back with the Wizards in 2001 if he left the Bulls being knocked out of the playoffs early? OK, maybe Michael.
Phil, the son of Pentecostal ministers, understood the attention span of a congregation. One of his greatest strengths was how he dealt with his players as an underrated strategist and spiritual guide, as well. Seven years was an exclamation point in his view for a group and its leader. The message would begin to blur. It was now going into year nine. Phil's internal alarm clock had rung. Scottie Pippen's commitment had reached its limit over perceived insecurities and the lack of financial security. He would even go AWOL for about three months. And Dennis Rodman's self medicating regimen finally seemed to become irreversible.
Perhaps the real phenomenon of all this — and maybe Jordan's greatest magic act — was turning this dysfunctional spectacle into a coherent convoy that requires the greatest of commitment, patience and perseverance.
That's how you truly earn the greatest designation. Not only by doing what is special, but by doing what should have been impossible.
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The story of the 1997-98 Bulls began at the party for the 1996-97 champion Bulls, the conclusion of that singular two-year run of 72 and 69-win seasons, the latter in which Jackson pulled on the reins and lost three of the last four regular season games. Neither team got to a seventh game in any playoff series, a stunning 30-7 in the playoffs without ever trailing in any series.
But rumors were becoming murmurs, that with Jordan, Pippen and Rodman free agents among several others, management might short circuit their electric impact on the basketball world.
When the Bulls celebrated their now annual NBA title at lakeside Grant Park, team executives weren't introduced. Jackson spoke for about 20 seconds before players were introduced amid chants of "One more year!" and "Bring him back!"
"Hopefully in 1998 you guys can go out and celebrate and say we won No. 6," Jordan offered in brief remarks.
So Krause was planning, or at least considering when asked. The Celtics with coach M.L. Carr comfortably lost the most games for the Tim Duncan sweepstakes. The lottery balls came up tilt and the Celtics got the No. 3 pick in a one-player draft. So incoming coach Rick Pitino panicked. He needed to hit the ground running, so he reached out to the Bulls about Pippen. Boston had two of the top six picks and veterans to spare. Krause saw the future. He believed with Pippen needing yet another surgery, it was a rare opportunity to cash in a big name without that same big game anymore for the foundation for the future, Tracy McGrady as the lead figure. Plus, Krause believed the Bulls still could strain out another title with a veteran thrown into the deal. After all, the Bulls still had Jordan, Rodman, Toni Kukoc and a deep, hardened bench. Actually pretty smart. But managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf interceded. They should have the chance to defend. No deal.
Then comes the part where Krause, invariably, gets in his own way. Krause waned to be the guy to kick butt, which was difficult with his foot in his mouth.
Krause's daughter was married that summer. Jackson and his wife, June, heard about the wedding the Bulls staff was invited to when a friend asked what she was wearing to the wedding. "What wedding?" June responded. Iowa State coach Tim Floyd, whom Jackson came to call "Pinky," was a guest with his wife.
Jackson by now was, to paraphrase the rock band, comfortably numb. He'd hit his wall.
Krause and Jackson had become estranged as seasons wore on. But Krause also knew Jackson had enough. Reinsdorf made the rare trip to Montana to Phil's summer home to negotiate the new deal between just them. Reinsdorf talked about a multi-year extension. Phil said he wanted no part of a rebuilding program, which the Bulls obviously were close to given the ages. It was time for his sabbatical much as it was for Jordan after nine years in 1993. It was nine years for Phil after 1997-98.
Krause, as was his bumbling way, much too eagerly carried this information to the extreme in declaring Jackson done as they met before the opening media day session. Even 82-0 for emphasis! There was an unnecessary press release for further emphasis. And then Krause's infamous interview in which he, as usual, channeled our famous mayor Richard Daley who was known to never come out of the same sentence he entered. So organizations win championships. Krause was trying to give some credit to the others in the love affair with the players, and likely also to soothe his bruised ego with the credit he so demanded that was so much denied because it was so often demanded.
Jackson smiled wryly and said that sounded like Jerry.
Michael preferred big entrances. So he typically skipped media day and delivered his solo performance the next day.
Typical of Krause, the team deserved a chance to finish, he wasn't playing without Phil.
Phil's wry smile signaled much more. He had his theme for the season. What a gift! Though Phil's success was often excused and unappreciated because of the team's talent, no one other than Red Auerbach with talent like that ever saw it succeed for so long. Pat Riley wrote books and called it the Disease of Me. His only threepeat was from his copyright residuals.
Jackson knew this one would be the most difficult, just as it was in 1992-93 with the Bulls stretched that third time and Jordan talking openly to teammates during the playoffs of retiring from the strain. No one believed him.
But the fabric of this fine Bulls garment was not only showing internal wear, its threads were being stretched to breaking. Forever dissatisfied with his contract and then with the aborted trade, Pippen went on strike. He postponed his ankle surgery scheduled for June to September so he could enjoy the summer and then sit out the first half of the season following the surgery. So tit for tat, Krause denied Pippen permission to play in his own charity game that September. No one but Jordan had the Love of the Game play anytime clause. Two months later in an early season road trip even though he wasn't playing, Pippen announced he was never again playing for the Bulls because of the organization's mistreatment.
Rodman was a holdout asking the Bulls for a then huge $9 million deal. He'd missed 27 games the previous season with sundry suspensions and injuries and got a technical in every playoff game. His three-minute egg of a reprieve was cracking open.
Jordan's allegiance to Jackson was sincere even if they weren't exactly late night phone call confidantes. Phil understood early the daily demands on Jordan. So he made it a point never to ask Jordan for anything. No autographs for his kids or the neighbor. No pictures. No introductions. He was there to coach Michael. Michael, similarly, often felt he was being used, that so many were trying to get something from him. He realized Phil wasn't among them. Whereas early in their relationship Michael doubted the so called equal opportunity offense, he became a champion as much because of Phil's sincerity. Players more than anything want a way for you to help them improve and get what they want, be it money or fame. Michael saw Phil could do that with his sacrifice and sincerity.
Phil also understood better than most coaches the value of the group. It often was a theme and symbol of his coaching that was mocked by some because of the Native American and Eastern religion references. There weren't many Kipling readers on the team, but they knew, The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.
But at its core was the congregational aspects learned from his parents.
Phil's team was his congregation, his flock. Those collections of individuals had varying personalities, strengths and weaknesses. And so they had to be treated special, similar and different. Horace Grant, whose goal it was as a kid to join the Marines, could handle drill sergeants. Pippen thought AWOL. So when Jackson sough to make a point to Pippen he chastised Grant. Later Kukoc. Which is why Pippen's infamous 1.8 seconds holdout in the 1994 playoffs was a distraction for about three hours. Jackson turned the matter over to the platoon knowing Pippen would only retreat from corporal punishment. Similarly, Jackson understood he had to allow Pippen to ease back on his own. Which Pippen would do in January, though his impact then unsettled Rodman.
Rodman, who never was close with Jordan or pretty much anyone on the team. From his broken childhood, he long sought that acceptance and father figure like he had in Detroit with Chuck Daly. With Scottie gone, it could be Michael. Dennis became as committed as he ever was with the Bulls. But when Scottie returned in January, Dennis felt abandoned once again, drifting in and out of his obligations. All those adolescent fears of betrayal seemed realized again. This was not a group of people with a long term promise of amity.
You sensed both Michael and Phil understood that the best.
So Phil had a theme he could use to bond the team and Michael had his motivation to drive him. It always had to be something for Michael, real or imagined. Cut from the high school team, Dean Smith keeping him off the cover of Sports Illustrated as a freshman, the All-Star freezeout, Jeff Van Gundy saying he was a conman, trash talked by Bryon Russell, unable to defend LaBradford Smith.
They're trying to break us up! We'll show them!
Sure, Michael was dedicated to Phil. But here was a guy who could change his mind like someone does their Air Jordans. I'm not playing in the 1992 Olympics. I'm never playing basketball again with the 1993 championship. I'm 99.9 percent sure with the Last Dance.
Jordan was close with Bulls assistant Frank Hamblein, a longtime Jackson aide and triangle acolyte. Tex Winter remained on the staff. Michael could pick his next coach and he knew that. If he wanted to he'd get another 10 percent raise on his $33 million contract and similar offers would be made to everyone else. After all, you're not giving multiyear deals if Jordan won't take one. But Pippen wanted his big deal at a time back issues kept him out of the end of the 1998 Finals and forced surgery after that season. The explosive athletic brilliance was gone after that. Pippen became a free agent burden with the Rockets. Rodman immediately became a destructive liability with the Lakers.
Michael went on to seriously injure a finger on his right hand with a cigar cutter during that 1998 lockout. It was questionable whether he'd even been able to play if he returned that season. Though no one knew all of that in the fall of 1997. But what Phil and Michael did likely sense was perhaps this was an unusual gift from Jerry Krause that might help lift them from the drudgery and ennui of a third championship slog once again. They knew how difficult it had been before.
The NBA locked its doors at the end of June after that 1998 Finals. It would be the longest labor action in league history that would last until January 1999. There was to be no team/player meetings. But David Stern was not about to push away Michael Jordan. So Jordan and Reinsdorf surreptitiously met in early July in downtown Chicago. Jordan said he was done. Reinsdorf counseled patience. It was a lockout after all. He didn't have to make a decision until it was over. No, Jordan said, that was it.
No more song and dance or fancy footwork. That was the Last Dance. It was a wonderful show and worth repeating. At least during the next several weeks.