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‘The Last Dance’: A look back at the good, the bad and the unexpected

10 episodes later, now we know Michael Jordan was both the GOAT and a poet (with some issues), Carmen Electra is hilarious and John Michael Wozniak was adorable.

Michael Jordan tapes an interview for “The Last Dance,” a series that reinforced his reputations for both spectacular skills and a prickly personality.
Jon Roche

Well. That was the greatest ‘‘Dancing With the Stars’’ season ever.

When ESPN dropped teaser trailers for its 10-part docuseries ‘‘The Last Dance’’ on Christmas Eve of last year, complete with tantalizing glimpses of everyone from Michael Jordan to Scottie Pippen to Charles Barkley to Phil Jackson to Barack Obama to Carmen Electra (!) sitting down for interviews, we were all abuzz with anticipation — but we’d have to wait until June 2020 to see the show.

At least that was the original plan, before the world turned upside down and virtually all sports as we know them were placed on indefinite hiatus because of COVID-19. The powers at ESPN wisely moved up the release dates to the spring, and, for five consecutive Sunday nights, ‘‘The Last Dance’’ became appointment viewing for millions of fans — from the old-schoolers who were there when Jordan and the Bulls went on their amazing run in the 1990s to the millennials and casual fans who were just discovering what so many Chicagoans and basketball junkies worldwide have known for some 30 years: Jordan was the GOAT then, he’s the GOAT now and he’ll be the GOAT for as long as we’re talking about GOATs.

He was also an even bigger, um, shall we say, jerk than most of us knew, although it was hardly breaking news to learn MJ had and still has a ‘‘competition problem,’’ as he slyly puts it, whether he was egging on and bullying newbie teammates to get stronger, get tougher and play harder or wagering wads of cash on golf, blackjack, poker and God knows what else. We even caught a glimpse of Jordan pitching quarters with a certain Chicago Stadium security guard who became an overnight viral sensation. (More on that fellow later.)

The final two episodes of ‘‘The Last Dance’’ concentrated largely on the Bulls’ last two championship runs, including the 1998 Eastern Conference finals against the Pacers, who took them to the brink of elimination in Game 7. Jordan gets fired up as he watches footage of himself tussling with Reggie Miller in Game 1, saying, ‘‘Don’t hold him back, let him go.’’

We also revisit the infamous ‘‘Food Poison Game’’ in Utah in 1997, when MJ ordered from the lone pizza joint still open in Park City at 10:30 p.m. and subsequently got so sick he barely could keep his eyes open during timeouts in Game 5 — yet still managed to play 44 minutes and score 38 points.

In one of the most sobering segments in the series, Steve Kerr talks about the murder of his father, Malcolm, in Beirut in 1984 and says that although MJ and he had that awful bond in common, they never talked about it because it would have been too painful. (In an infinitely sunnier moment, Kerr makes the game-winning shot against the Jazz to clinch the 1997 NBA Finals. Such a great moment for such a class act.) And we got some rare interviews with Jordan’s three oldest children: Marcus, Jeffrey and Jasmine.

Here’s my take on the heroes, the villains and a couple of unlikely cameo stars who emerged during the 10-episode run.

SLAM-DUNK ALL-STARS

Michael Jordan: He dominated the series the way he did the NBA in the 1990s.

Phil Jackson: As candid and insightful as ever.

Former Bulls head coach Phil Jackson lent much insight to “The Last Dance.”
ESPN Films/Netflix/Mandalay Sports Media/NBA Entertainment

The reporters: We benefitted from the experiences and recollections of seasoned journalists who were there, including David Aldridge, Sam Smith, Mark Vancil and our own Rick Telander.

Dennis Rodman, Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc, Scottie Pippen, B.J. Armstrong, Steve Kerr, John Paxson, et al.: Jordan’s front-line teammates from the two three-peats shared some invaluable memories.

Director Jason Hehir and the production team: Just as Jackson sometimes didn’t get enough credit for coaching the Bulls — some uninformed wags would say he just had to roll the ball on the court and let MJ do the rest — I don’t think Hehir and his team have received enough praise. They not only scored extensive interviews with Jordan and the others, but they pieced together all that footage into 10 riveting, well-paced episodes.

Spotify: The streaming platform put together a playlist of the more than 50 songs used in the doc, including ‘‘Sirius’’ by the Alan Parsons Project, ‘‘Down With the King’’ by Run-DMC, ‘‘Hip Hop Hooray’’ by Naughty by Nature, ‘‘Rosa Parks’’ by Outkast, ‘‘Partyman’’ by Prince, ‘‘The Maestro: Remastered 2009’’ by the Beastie Boys, ‘‘Hungry’’ by Common and ‘‘We Are the Champions’’ by Queen. The use of music in this series was pitch-perfect throughout.

THE VILLAINS AND THE VANQUISHED

Jerry Krause: Whenever one would start to feel bad for the late GM of the Bulls, we’d get another clip of him saying the wrong thing at the wrong time or making Machiavellian moves to remind Jordan and Co. it’s not just players who win championships, it’s organizations.

Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause meets the press in 1999.
Frank Polich/AP

Isiah Thomas: Nothing ‘‘Zeke’’ could have said would have changed Jordan’s mind about the Pistons’ ‘‘Bad Boys’’ walking off the court without shaking hands at the end of the 1991 Eastern Conference finals, giving rise to one of the great quotes from MJ: ‘‘Well, I know it’s all bull----. Whatever he says now, you know it [doesn’t reflect] his true actions then. . . . There’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an ass----.’’

Gary Payton: The Sonics defensive superstar’s assertion that the 1996 NBA Finals might have had a different outcome elicited a hearty laugh from Jordan that was turned into a thousand memes.

Charles Barkley: Sir Charles put it best: “Losing to Michael Jordan, there’s no shame in that.”

SURPRISE CONTRIBUTORS OFF THE BENCH

Scott Burrell, Jud Buechler, Bill Wennington, et al.: Some of the lesser-remembered Bulls alums provided the grist for one of Jordan’s most emotional moments. After teammate talks about how Michael wasn’t nice, Jordan has a visceral reaction and says: ‘‘If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.’’ He then calls for a break in filming before walking off camera. Powerful stuff.

Carmen Electra joins husband Dennis Rodman at a 1999 press conference.
FREDERICK BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Carmen Electra: Seriously! Dennis Rodman’s wife of five months told a hilarious story about being in bed with Rodman when Jordan came knocking to tell the Worm it was time to get back to basketball.

Gus Lett and John Michael Wozniak: It was a great to see a tribute to Lett, a former Chicago police narcotics officer-turned-security agent who became a father figure to MJ after Jordan lost his father. When the Bulls won the 1997 title, Jordan gave the game ball to Lett, who recently had returned to work after a bout with cancer. (Lett died in 2000.)

And we became instant fans of Wozniak, the security guard with the amazing perm and All-Star mustache who bested MJ in a game of quarters and celebrated with a fantastic Jordan-esque ‘‘shrug’’ move. ‘‘Woz’’ was a U.S. Army veteran and a former Chicago police officer who worked security at Chicago Stadium and eventually joined Jordan’s traveling protective entourage.

Mr. Wozniak died Jan. 18, 2020. Here’s hoping his family and friends are enjoying all the mainstream- and social-media love we’ve been sending his way. That little celebration of his was one of the great dance moves of ‘‘The Last Dance.’’

In the great and final reveal of ‘‘The Last Dance,’’ we learn Jordan — the bully, the unforgiving, the relentless, the fierce, the macho, the alpha male, the closed-off control freak — actually wrote a poem expressing his feelings about the amazing journey of the 1990s Bulls.

Of course, MJ already had written thousands of beautiful poems on the court through the years.