The first two episodes of “The Last Dance,” which aired Sunday night on ESPN, put the competitiveness of Michael Jordan on full display while giving lots of background on the drama early in the Bulls’ 1997-98 campaign.
We got glimpses at how Jordan’s childhood helped turn him into one of the fiercest competitors in sports history, and how that helped propel his rise at North Carolina under Dean Smith. We saw how a feeble Bulls franchise quickly began to transform after drafting Jordan in 1984.
The episodes, which jump around timelines while weaving in footage and interviews, also provide context for the discord that surrounded the Bulls during the summer and fall of 1997. It’s fair to say the next eight episodes should be riveting.
Here were the key moments from the first night of ESPN’s 1997-98 Bulls doc:
Krause and Jackson’s terse conversation
The first two episodes establish how Jerry Krause, then the Bulls’ general manager, laid the groundwork for the team’s breakup. Phil Jackson says in the documentary that after agreeing to come back for the 1997-98 season, Krause told him it was his last year regardless of how many games he won.
“[Krause] called me into his office and said, ‘This is gonna be your last year, I don’t care if you win 82 games in a row, this is going to be your last year here.’ So I said, ‘fine,’ and walked out of the room,” Jackson said.
MJ, your normal and not-so-normal college freshman
One of the more endearing moments of the episode comes when Deloris Jordan, MJ’s mom, reads aloud a letter that he wrote to her as a freshman at UNC. The older Michael couldn’t help but laugh at his younger self’s pleas for money and stamps:
“I am sending you my account number so that you can deposit some money in my account, I have only $20 left,” Deloris reads aloud. “Tell everyone I said hello and smiled. God and I love you, Love Michael.
“P.S. Sorry about the phone bill. Please also send me some stamps.”
The documentary also showed how Jordan, having arrived at Chapel Hill as a slender guard for one of the nation’s top programs, felt determined to show he more than belonged. Roy Williams, an assistant at UNC at the time, relayed a conversation in which Jordan told him he wanted to be the best to ever play at the school.
Williams: “Well you gotta work harder than you did in high school.”
Jordan: “I worked just as hard as everybody else.”
Williams: “Oh, excuse me, I thought you just told me you wanted to be the best player that ever played here.”
Jordan: “I will show you. Nobody will ever work as hard as I work.”
James Worthy, then the Tar Heels’ star player, said he was better than Jordan ... for about two weeks.
Pippen intentionally waited to get foot surgery in 1997 as a dig at management
Scottie Pippen missed the first two months of the 1997-98 season after undergoing foot surgery. In “The Last Dance,” Pippen says that growing frustration over his contract caused him to intentionally delay surgery until the fall, when rehab would occur during the season instead of interrupting his summer.
“I decided to have surgery late because I was like, ‘Y’know what, I’m not gonna f--k my summer up,’” Pippen says.
Phil Jackson says in the documentary that he was okay with Pippen’s actions, but Jordan criticizes his former teammate: “Scottie was wrong in that scenario. He could’ve got his surgery done as soon as the season was over and be ready for the season. What Scottie was trying to do was trying to force management to change his contract. And Jerry [Reinsdorf] was never gonna do that.”
Jordan could’ve ended his career in 1986
That spring will mostly be remembered for Jordan scoring 63 against the Celtics in the playoffs, but if it was up to the Bulls’ front office, he may never have played. Part of Episode 2 looks at the handling of Jordan’s foot injury during the 1985-86 season, which he returned from despite doctors saying there was a 10% chance he’d suffer a career-ending injury by playing on it.
“I said to Michael, ‘You’re not understanding the risk-reward ratio. If you had a terrible headache and I gave you a bottle of pills, and nine of the pills would cure you and one of them would kill you, would you take a pill?’” Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf says in the documentary.
Jordan’s response? “Depends on how f--king bad the headache is.”
The situation would prove to be a turning point between Jordan and the franchise.
Pippen vs. Krause
With Pippen growing increasingly discontent with being severely underpaid and named in trade rumors, the forward began taking out his anger. In addition to delaying surgery to the fall and demanding a trade in November, his relationship with Krause became openly acrimonious. “Couldn’t tolerate him anymore, couldn’t respect him,” Pippen says in Episode 2.
Backup center Bill Wennington added that while barbs had long been thrown back and forth, Pippen “crossed a line” and made it personal.
The Last “Dance”?
There’s a reason why the documentary makers chose their name. On the first day the 1997-98 Bulls met, spurred by that last conversation with Krause, Jackson handed out laminated notebooks that read on the cover: I II III IV V VI THE LAST “DANCE”?
Jackson’s message to his players at that meeting was clear, as described by Wennington: “Enjoy what’s happening, because this is it.”