Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson were never coming back for one more year
Phil was burned out, and if he wasn’t coming back, neither was MJ — no matter what Jordan said in “The Last Dance.’’
Do you want to do this to yourself all over again? Do you really want to subject your heart, mind, soul and sensitive body parts to another debate about whether the leading men in the Bulls’ six NBA titles were willing to come back for one more season and whether they could have won one more title?
The years of counseling many of you underwent to work through the pain of losing Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson might make you think you’re strong enough now to discuss what might have been.
Let me answer that with whatever experience, insight and sensitivity I might possess: You certainly are not strong enough.
Oh, and another thing: One more year was never going to happen. As in never, ever.
‘‘The Last Dance,’’ ESPN’s excellent documentary about Jordan’s Bulls, ended Sunday with MJ’s assertion that he would have been willing to come back for the 1998-99 season to try to win a seventh championship. He further asserted the other key ingredients — Pippen, Jackson, Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr — would have been willing to come back, too.
‘‘It’s maddening,’’ Jordan said. ‘‘Because I felt like we could’ve won seven. I really believe that. We may not have, but, man, just to not be able to try, that’s something that I just can’t accept for whatever reason. I just can’t accept it.’’
When he uttered those words, I thought I heard the shriek of a neighbor whose heart had just been tied to the back bumper of a moving SUV. I’m sure it was that way all over Chicago.
We know the sorry facts of the breakup. Jordan retired. Jackson went to his Montana ranch for a year. Pippen and Kerr were traded. Rodman was released. And the Bulls as we knew them were lowered into the ground.
General manager Jerry Krause, who had declared almost gleefully before the 1997-98 season that it would be Jackson’s last with the team, hired Iowa State’s Tim Floyd to coach the team. The rebuild Krause wanted turned into a fever dream of losing that never seemed to end. The Bulls didn’t make the playoffs for six consecutive seasons and, of course, haven’t won an NBA title since that ‘‘Last Dance’’ season.
If chairman Jerry Reinsdorf thought he was going to come away from the documentary unscathed, he was crazy. The way it ended, with a ‘‘he said/he said’’ difference of opinion about how the dynasty unraveled, ensured he would be wearing black again in the public-perception fashion show.
Reinsdorf explained in the final moments of ‘‘The Last Dance’’ that too many of the Bulls’ aging veterans were going to make big money from other teams after the sixth title. He might have been correct about that. And it might have been a financial sin to pay all that money to players who might not win another title. Doing that might have set the Bulls back for years.
What we know for certain, however, is that the rebuild after the sixth title absolutely set the Bulls back for years. So listening to Reinsdorf explain his reasoning was like watching someone fight the losing-est battle of all time. He had missed the point.
Reinsdorf reiterated he had given Jackson the chance to come back after the sixth title, despite Krause’s pronouncement before the season. But Jackson said in the final moments of ‘‘The Last Dance’’ that he had declined the offer. He had had it, physically and emotionally. He was done. Let’s be clear about that: Phil would not have returned for one more season even if Jordan and everyone else had.
That means the scenario Jordan proposed in Episode 10, the one in which the gang stays together for one more shot at a title, was a fairy tale. Because Jordan wasn’t coming back without Jackson.
We have a hard time letting go in Chicago, mostly because championships haven’t grown on trees around here. The 1985 Bears won a Super Bowl, and all the other Bears teams after did not. The Jordan Bulls won all those titles, and the non-Jordan Bulls haven’t won a thing.
I would have loved watching MJ lead a charge for a seventh title, but the facts told me after the sixth one that it wasn’t going to happen. Scottie was going to get his money somewhere else, and Phil was going to find his peace.
All it took was a 10-part documentary to relight the fuse of public discontent about how the dynasty ended. There was very little new in the details of its dismantling, but try telling that to your scars, which are insisting your wounds are only days old.