Unless you're living under a rock, you're probably aware that ESPN aired the first two episodes of The Last Dance last night. A 10-part documentary detailing the last season (1997-98) of the Chicago Bulls dynasty.
There's no way around it: Jordan's Bulls are one of the three or four greatest dynasties in the history of sports along with the New England Patriots from 1999-2020, the John Wooden coached UCLA Bruins, and the 1960's Boston Celtics led by Bill Russell.
To read about my thought process heading into the premiere, feel free to read The Prologue which is linked in the table of contents section below. Aside from that, let's discuss the first two episodes of the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan's much-deserved glorification vehicle, The Last Dance.
Table of Contents
Part I (Episode I): Chapel Hill and Beyond
"The only apt comparisons (in sports) for Michael Jordan were Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali." - ESPN's Michael Wilbon.
Before we dive into the gaudy list of accomplishments that Michael snatched from his professional contemporaries, it's important to note that Mike isn't just one of the two greatest pro basketball players ever but he's also one of the five greatest players in the history of the NCAA (Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabaar is far and away #1, the man literally won more national championships than he lost actual games).
It's no secret that Jordan benefitted from playing under two of the great basketball minds of the 20th century: Dean Smith (University of North Carolina, 1981-1984) and Phil Jackson (Chicago Bulls, 1989-1998). Together, the two genius coaches instilled in Michael a great knowledge of the game that only strengthened his otherworldly athleticism and polished fundamentals.
MJ also had the privilege of playing alongside two consummate professionals during his time in Chapel Hill. James Worthy became one of the great small forwards of all-time with the Los Angeles Lakers and Sam Perkins was an OG stretch big for the Lakers, Seattle Supersonics and Indiana Pacers.
Following his time at UNC, Michael was selected 3rd overall in the 1984 NBA Draft. Michael's not being selected 1st overall in the draft wouldn't be considered such a sacrilegious event if he'd been the 2nd overall pick. But he wasn't. He was third. Selected behind one of the greatest centers of all-time, Hakeem Olajuwon, and the infamously slow-footed center from Kentucky named Sam Bowie.
Why, you ask, was MJ the 3rd overall pick after three brilliantly successful years in Chapel Hill? The only logical answer is that there was an innate height bias instilled in the NBA at that time. Walt Frazier of the New York Knicks said that Michael Jordan couldn't turn the fate of the Chicago Bulls around because he was only 6'6" and not 7'1". A laughable claim in today's guard-driven age, which was largely inspired by Michael's dominance in the 90's.
For the sake of making this series strictly about the players and coaches who comprised the Chicago Bulls dynasty, I will be avoiding all Jerry Krause related information. In spite of that claim, here was my takeaway from the former general manager...
Jerry Krause's narcissistic demeanor nearly single-handedly dismantled the Chicago Bulls' ability to win a 6th NBA championship. He thirsted for the equivalent recognition and validity of one of the greatest athletes of all-time; an impossible task for any front office executive to succeed. The modern-day parallel would be if the Golden State Warriors General Manager Bob Myers opted to trade an underpaid Klay Thompson because 1.) Myers was envious of the amount of attention that Stephen Curry was receiving, and 2.) he thought that trading the most perfect sidekick would have some sort of future benefit.
I'll leave both this chapter and Jerry Krause in the rearview mirror with some of the funniest material I saw on Twitter regarding Jerry Krause:
Part II (Episode II): God disguised as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen Central
"I would never have called him the greatest player I'd ever seen if I didn't mean it... it's just God disguised as Michael Jordan." - Larry Bird, April 20th, 1986
After a stunningly impressive 49 point performance in Game 1 of the first round of the 1986 playoffs, MJ did what only MJ could: he one-upped himself. In what remains one of the ten greatest playoff performances in NBA history, Michael Jordan demolished the 1986 Boston Celtics' defense for 63 points on 22-of-41 from the field and 19-of-21 from the charity stripe. He also tacked on 5 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals to solidify the all-around brilliant performance. MJ's 63 point performance remains the highest outpouring of buckets in playoff history. Unfortunately, he couldn't do it all himself, and the Bulls lost to the Celtics 135-131 in the famous Game 2 matchup.
Although this moment, and the infamous minute restrictions debacle, were the highlights of Game 2, it was the spotlight on Scottie Pippen that shined the brightest. Here's an excerpt from the "One thing to look out for in this episode" section from yesterday's piece titled The Prologue:
"Scottie Pippen is the most underrated superstar and the most overqualified second option in the history of the NBA. He was a Top 5 player in the NBA from 1990-1998. During Michael’s two year sabbatical with minor league baseball, Pippen carried the Bulls to the playoffs and nearly reached the Eastern Conference Finals as their primary option.
Pippen had nearly the exact same toolbox that Jordan did: primal defensive instincts, long arms, huge hands, godly athleticism, a tight handle, and a knack for getting buckets. One of Scottie’s most overlooked attributes was his innate passing ability. LeBron James is far more similar to Pippen than he is MJ in this regard (a pretty good passer in his own right) because Pippen was a forward who often initiated the offense for Chicago.
He was far ahead of his time and the Chicago Bulls dynasty wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for Scottie Pippen’s role as Jordan’s overqualified sidekick."
I am by no means a prophet, but I was inherently suspicious that one of the first two episodes would be Pippen-centric. And it was. But for all of the wrong reasons. The main point of Episode 2 was that Scottie Pippen, widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball players to ever come in contact with Spalding, was paid a measly $18 million for the 7-year peak of his career.
For comparison's sake, let's compare Pippen's 7-year contract to James Harden's current contract. Both are, or were, top five NBA players at their peaks, so I figure it's appropriate to perform a little mathematical comparison to put Pip's embarrassing and insulting contract into perspective.
This year alone, James Harden will have made $37.8 million.
From 1991-1998, Scottie Pippen made $18 million.
That's right. In half of a calendar year, James Harden made $900,000 more than Scottie Pippen did in over half of a decade.
Harden has won an MVP and been in contention for the MVP award for the last half-decade. However, James Harden has never won an NBA Finals. He hasn't even made an NBA Finals. So all of the step-backs, free-throw swishes, posters, and floaters have essentially been rendered meaningless.
Despite all of these impressive accomplishments and contributions to modern basketball, James Harden is a ring-less man. And I'm more than confident that he'd volunteer that $18 million to have a championship ring on one of his fingers.
Harden gets buckets and is handsomely paid, but Pippen was a winner. He was a defensive Stallworth that was clearly the best defender in the NBA, and that's saying something considering he played alongside Michael Jordan. My personal favorite NBA historian and connoisseur, Bill Simmons, said this about Pippen in his book, The Book of Basketball:
"Of anyone I’ve ever seen in person, Pippen was the best defender. We always hear how Bird and Magic played “free safety,” a nice way of saying that they always guarded the other team’s weakest offensive player, then used that advantage to roam around, sneak behind low-post guys and jump passing lanes. Extending that analogy, Scottie was a strong safety out of the Ronnie Lott mold, a consistently destructive presence who became nearly as enjoyable to watch defensively as Jordan was offensively. Nobody covered more ground or moved faster from point A to point B. It was like watching a cheetah in a wildlife special—one second Scottie would be minding his own business, the next second he would be pouncing."
Imagine a more explosive, louder, cockier version of Kawhi Leonard defensively with 75% of LeBron's passing and scoring abilities; and you have Scottie Pippen. The man was an All-NBA staple who should go down in history as a Top 15 player of all-time by any metric system.
If there was one person who was aware of Pippen's importance to the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the '90s, it was Michael Jordan. The Pippen-less Bulls could barely beat the lowly Los Angeles Clippers without Jordan going for 45+ points. He was, according to Detroit Pistons Head Coach Chuck Daly, a "fill-in-the-blanks" guy. An all-around wizard with supreme athletic abilities. The essential do-it-all small forward who played a praiseless, underpaid role on one of the greatest basketball teams of all-time.
One thing to look for in the next two episodes: Dennis Rodman
It's amazing that ESPN managed filling two hours of content without a minimum of five minutes on the weirdest, most enticing player in NBA history. Sure, there were glimpses of what made Rodman such an enigmatic figure like a shot of him in his wedding gown that he wore during his marriage to Carmen Electra.
The sneak peek that was provided at the end of episode 2 detailed that the next two episodes would surround both Dennis Rodman and the Bad Boys era Pistons of the late '80s and early '90s. If you're itching for some Rodman content in the meantime, then don't fret, there's a whole 30 for 30 dedicated to him out right now.
Stay tuned later this week to see how The Last Dance relates to LeBron James's legacy and the ever-disruptive and inconclusive G.O.A.T. argument.