Here are five takeaways from Episodes 3 & 4 of “The Last Dance”, the documentary series on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 championship season:
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1. Adding Rodman: A giant risk pays off even bigger
Dennis Rodman’s reputation was a mess by 1995. He had flamed out in Detroit, a ball of emotions for whom Pistons teammates and coach genuinely were worried. Traded to San Antonio, Rodman entered a new phase: “Demolition Man”-inspired blond mohawk, enough tattoos for a carnival midway and a habit of checking into games before lacing up his sneakers.
He spent one season, 1993-94, indulged by coach John Lucas and misbehaving his way to fines and suspensions. Rodman spent the next seriously chafing with coach Bob Hill — at whom Rodman allegedly threw a bag of ice one night — and then-Spurs general manager Gregg Popovich.
So when the Chicago Bulls decided to add Rodman for 1995-96 in the role played by Horace Grant in the franchise’s first three-peat, it smacked of desperation. Expecting the great Michael Jordan, coaching mastermind Phil Jackson and sensitive sidekick Scottie Pippen to nurse-maid the unpredictable and attention-starved Rodman seemed a tall task, one that could backfire during their quest to resume winning NBA titles.
Then there was Rodman’s record with the Pistons, a rival that had tormented and physically ambushed the Bulls postseason after postseason.
This is a lesson for coaches as well. Get to KNOW your players so you can truly understand them. If they know you care, they will do anything for you..#PhilRodman
— 🏁 Jamal Crawford (@JCrossover) April 27, 2020
But as we learned — or were reminded — in Episode 3 of “The Last Dance,” Chicago knew what it was getting and accepted the combination of TLC, tough love and a leash of ever-changing length required to keep Rodman around and involved. Jackson had a pet project upon whom to work his Zen Buddhism and Native American psychological coaching ways. Jordan and Pippen seemed almost to welcome Rodman’s energy as a change in the dynamic.
Rodman? He probably could not have focused and behaved long enough to play for any of the league’s other 28 teams at the time. But joining the Bulls’ rock-star tour and kicking it to a new level, that suited him.
And they won. And won. And won.
As Pippen put it, Rodman fit “like a hand in a glove.”
… Even when that glove would lose itself on a 48-hour bender in Las Vegas and need to be retrieved out of a hotel room with actress/model Carmen Electra by Jordan himself.
2. The Pistons would be banned in 2020
You can find plenty of videos online that capture the physical play in the NBA in the 1980s, some little more than a tightly edited montage of “Bang!” “Oof!” and “Pow!” moments. All the highlights are there, from Kevin McHale’s clothesline takedown of Kurt Rambis, to Julius Erving and Larry Bird grabbing each other by the throat, to Robert Parish’s beatdown of Bill Laimbeer that wasn’t even called a foul.
No one did the rough stuff better than Detroit’s “Bad Boys,” of course, and they saved their nastiest for Jordan. About the only thing the Pistons did not do was undercut Jordan when he was three or four feet off the court. Otherwise, everything went. Elbows after whistles, shoves in the small of his back, whacks across the head or neck, Detroit put the wood to Jordan like Walmart shoppers as the doors open on Black Friday.
— Detroit Pistons (@DetroitPistons) April 27, 2020
“Every time he goes to the basket, put him on the ground,” Rodman reflected. “We tried to physically hurt Michael.”
That Jordan avoided a career-crippling injury through the abuse was astounding. But he did way more than that, committing to strength workouts to add muscle so he could “administer pain” rather than merely absorbing it.
Now imagine, under today’s rules, the Pistons or any other team in the NBA dishing out to LeBron James or Steph Curry what the “Bad Boys” got away with against Jordan. It might end careers, all right — of the perpetrators.
3. Doug Collins enters … and exits
Collins coached the Bulls for three seasons, replacing Stan Albeck in 1986 and yielding to Phil Jackson in 1989. He played a pivotal role in Jordan’s saga as a coach he so appreciated that Jordan made sure Collins was on the bench for those final two seasons in Washington.
Collins’ passionate style and grasp of the game were assets — until they weren’t. In “The Last Dance,” it seems as simple as the Bulls maxing out under Collins, but failing to get past Detroit. It’s a scenario not unlike Toronto butting heads with LeBron James every spring, to the point Raptors management fired Dwane Casey after his Coach of the Year season to promote Nick Nurse.
There was a little more to it, though, with Collins’ departure from the Bulls. Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf was the boss behind the heave-ho, and former Chicago Tribune beat man Sam Smith wrote an analysis days later that spelled out some of the reasons:
Reinsdorf saw a developing disintegration of his team, with virtually every player angered and frustrated by playing for Collins and several even plotting to cause the coach an embarrassment that might get him fired.
Reinsdorf saw a driven, insecure Collins, grasping desperately to succeed while fighting madly not to fail. He saw his coach missing sleep and meals and breaking down in his office over the pressures of the job.
Reinsdorf saw Collins’ staff being splintered apart by his egoism. The top assistant, Phil Jackson, who most likely will be the Bulls’ next coach, was given the silent treatment by Collins, and his venerable ace assistant, Tex Winter, was barred from practices for a time because he dared speak his opinion about Collins’ coaching mistakes.
Reinsdorf saw his superstar, Michael Jordan, being burned up by Collins, whose insecurity-driven style wouldn’t allow him to adequately rest Jordan.
The Bulls majority owner nearly hired Collins again in 2008, and has employed him as a consultant in recent seasons. But Reinsdorf pre-empted what he felt was his coach spinning out of control and avoided yet another possible setback to the Jordan express.
4. The first one was better than the sixth
Heck, Jordan said in Sunday night’s episodes that sweeping Detroit to reach the 1991 Finals might have felt better than winning the championship a couple weeks later. The joy so evident after Chicago beat Magic Johnson’s Lakers for the franchise’s first title clearly is missing in what we’ve seen so far of that 1997-98 swan slog.
We go from watching Jerry Krause dancing in the aisle of the team plane home from Detroit to seeing Krause drop another turd in the punch bowl when he reminds the sports world who’s in charge come February 1998.
“If Michael chooses to leave because there is another coach here, then it is his choice, not ours,” Krause was quoted in the Chicago Tribune while the team was prepping for a Finals preview in Salt Lake City.
Leave it to good ol’ Hubie Brown, who counters while working the TNT telecast that night: “Unfortunately, it’s very cold. It’s sad. And if you really think about this, performance and loyalty by the coaches and players are being just thrown out the window.”
5. The ‘Michael’s mom’ hoax
Don’t panic, you didn’t nod off and miss this Sunday night. It must have wound up on the cutting room floor, but it’s remembered by fans of the Timberwolves as the first time their team beat Jordan’s Bulls after an 0-16 start to the series (Jordan scorched the Wolves for 45 points at the Metrodome in Minnesota’s first-ever home game in November 1989).
But Minnesota’s 99-95 victory on Dec. 30, 1997 deserves an asterisk of epic proportions, because of the crank phone call made to the Target Center switchboard claiming Jordan’s mother Deloris had been hospitalized.
The caller, saying he was Jordan’s brother Larry, left the message in the first half. Jordan was informed at halftime and missed the first 3:14 of the third quarter before he was able to verify that his mother was fine and his brother had not called.
The hoax rattled Jordan, and he missed all five of his shots in the third. Minnesota outscored the Bulls 52-39 in the second half as Kevin Garnett, Stephon Marbury and Tom Gugliotta combined for 66 points.
“It was one of those things that you don’t want to just let it fall by the wayside. Anything can happen,” said Jordan, whose father James had been slain in 1993.
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