The seventh and eighth episodes of “The Last Dance,” which just aired Sunday night on ESPN, cover some of the most difficult chapters in the story of the Bulls and Michael Jordan. Switching between the mid-90s and the spring of 1998, we see glimpses of why MJ left the game the first time, as well as what compelled him to come back less than two years later.
Episode 7 of “The Last Dance” may be the most personal one yet. Jordan opens up on his close relationship with his father, James, who had been his best friend and ally before James’ murder in 1993. He also defends his style of “tough love” as a teammate, which causes him to tear up after being asked whether it hurt that some people didn’t see him as a good guy.
Here were six of the best moments from the fourth night of “The Last Dance.”
MJ plays baseball
Still emotionally reeling from the death of his father, who always wanted him to play baseball, Jordan decided to take up the sport. In Episode 7, he recalls his final conversation with his father:
“We were debating about me playing baseball,” Jordan says. “‘Dad, I want to go play baseball, I’m thinking about retiring and I want to go play baseball.’ All the things that he was saying, “Do it, do it.’ Because he got me started in baseball.”
The time in the minor leagues, largely around his teammates, helped Jordan get his mind away from everything else. “Sure, I mean, I was this big icon, but they treated me just as I wanted to be treated – just one of the guys,” Jordan says.
Jordan’s “tough love”
Many of Jordan’s former NBA teammates, such as Steve Kerr, Scott Burrell, Bill Wennington and Toni Kukoc, discuss how vicious No. 23 could be in trying to elevate those around him. In old footage, we see glimpses of Jordan cursing at and criticizing teammates constantly during practices.
“My mentality was to go out and win at any cost,” Jordan says. “If you don’t want to live that regimented mentality, then you don’t need to be alongside me because I’m gonna ridicule you until you get on the same level with me. And if you don’t get on the same level, it’s gonna be hell for you.”
Many of them say in retrospect that Jordan was right to push them so hard, but it was still a lot to handle.
“People were afraid of him,” former Bulls guard Jud Buechler says. “His own teammates were afraid of him. There was just fear. The fear factor of MJ was so thick.”
“If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.”
But did all of Jordan’s intensity come at the cost of being considered a nice guy?
In one of the most striking moments yet, Jordan defends how he approached the game before – on the verge of tears – calling for a break in the interview:
“You ask all my teammates: The one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn’t f--king do. When people see this, they’re gonna say, “Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.’ Nah, that’s you – because you never wanted anything.
“I wanted to win. But I wanted them to be a part of that as well.
“Look, I don’t have to do this. But it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way. Break.”
Pippen quits on the team
Everyone knows the main story: In the 1994 Bulls-Knicks series, Scottie Pippen sat out the game-winning play because Phil Jackson called for Toni Kukoc to take the shot. Kukoc hit it, and Pippen became the target of significant scorn for bailing.
In the documentary, Pippen’s former teammates don’t mince words about the moment.
Horace Grant: “When Pip refused to go in that game, it was like a ‘Twilight Zone’ moment, like what the hell is going on?”
Kerr: “We don’t know how to act because Scottie is one of our favorite teammates, one of favorite people in the world. And he quit on us. We couldn’t believe that happened. It was devastating.”
Bill Cartwright, one of the team’s key veterans, got up to make a tear-filled speech in front of the team after the game. “Scottie, I cannot believe you quit on us like that,” Kerr relayed of Cartwright’s speech.
MJ punches Kerr
In a heated moment during 1995 training camp, Jordan went over the edge and punched Kerr in the face. “I’m in the shower and I’m saying, ‘Look, I just beat up the littlest guy on the f--king court.’ And I felt about this small,” Jordan says in Episode 8.
After Jordan apologized, the moment proved to be productive for both parties as Kerr proved he wouldn’t back down to the superstar. “We talked it about, and it was probably – in a weird way – the best thing that I ever did was stand up for myself,” Kerr says, “because he tested everybody he played with.”
Jordan says Kerr “earned his respect” by refusing to “be a pawn in this process.”
Father’s Day championship
After a humorous sequence in which Jordan outright laughs at Gary Payton describing how he “took a toll” on the Bulls guard in the 1996 NBA Finals, things transition to what was really taking a toll on MJ: The weight of missing his father on Father’s Day, when the Bulls and Sonics played Game 6.
“He was so strong for the rest of us,” Deloris, Jordan’s mother, says in Episode 8. “He won’t allow you to see the emptiness. He said, ‘Mom, I know he’s there. He’s watching. He sees.’”