By: Ryan Blumenfeld
ESPN aired the fifth and sixth parts of its ten-part series on the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls, titled The Last Dance. The fifth and sixth episodes continued the story of the Bulls 1998 season. Episode Five began with behind the scenes access into the 1998 All-Star game, featuring among others, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. During the episode, Bryant talks about the influence Jordan had on him saying “what you get from me, is from him. I don’t get five championships here without him.” The episode also detailed the rise of the Air Jordan brand and Jordan’s path to superstardom. It describes how Jordan was reluctant to sign with Nike, and even refused to go tour the Nike campus. Fortunately, Jordan’s mother and father encouraged him to visit and the rest was history. In the first year, Nike expected to generate three million dollars in sales from the shoe. Instead, they generated over 100 million dollars. The shoe’s popularity, however, was not only because it could be used for basketball, but it was fashionable. The Jordan 1s became a part of urban and hip hop culture, advertised by hip hop and urban actors like Spike Lee. Not only was Lee the director of Jordan’s commercials, but he also appeared in them.
Flashing forward to the 1991-1992 season, the episode describes Jordan’s greatness throughout their second championship run. Despite his unique talent, some compared Jordan to Clyde Drexler during the 1992 championship series against the Portland Trailblazers. Jordan used this comparison as motivation to prove to himself and the world that he was the best and one compared to him. During game one of the NBA Finals, Jordan hit six three-pointers and scored 35 points in the first half alone. Jordan’s reaction: a simple shrug. Just one week after winning his second NBA title, Jordan and the 1992 Dream Team began preparing for HIS first Olympic Games. The Dream Team consisted of the then eleven best NBA players and one college player. The athletes chosen were Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Chris Mullen, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, John Stockton, and Christian Laettner. Despite the excitement surrounding the team, it was not without controversy. Isiah Thomas, an undisputed superstar point guard, was not selected for the team. Many suspected that Thomas was not selected because of concern that if he was selected Jordan would not play. The Dream Team destroyed all of their opponents, including the other international basketball powerhouse: the Croatians. The Croatians were led by upcoming superstar, Toni Kukoc, who the Bulls drafted two years earlier with the 29th overall pick. Despite being drafted, Kukoc decided to stay in Europe for a couple of years before moving to the NBA. This created resentment towards Kukoc by fellow Bulls members. The Bulls players were also angry with Jerry Krause who appeared to be more concerned with taking care of Kukoc, rather than Scottie Pippen. The United States faced the Croatians in their first game. Jordan and Pippen quickly communicated their frustrations toward Kukoc and held him to four points and a rebound. Pippen was overloaded with questions about whether Kukoc was good enough to play in the NBA. Kukoc bounced back in the Gold Medal game, scoring 16 points. The episode ends with Jordan discussing his controversial decision not to advocate for Harvey Grant, an African-American Democrat running for Senate against a controversial caucasian Republican Jesse Helms. When asked why he decided not to advocate for Grant, Jordan said “ I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player. I wasn’t a politician when I was playing my sport, I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably, but that was where my energy was.”
Episode Six focuses on the challenges Jordan faced as a superstar. He was constantly in the spotlight, had little privacy, and was under non-stop pressure to perform at the highest level, not just by his teammates but by fans and media worldwide. Jordan describes the difficulty he had trying to live a normal life. The minute he left his hotel room, Jordan was bombarded by fans, hoping to get an autograph or even just touch him. During the 1992-1993 season, controversy arose when Sam Smith authored The Jordan Rules, detailing Jordan’s competitive nature and inability to work well with his teammates. The book claims Jordan told his teammates not to pass the ball to certain players and how he allegedly punched teammate Will Purdue during a practice. The controversy during the season heightened when the Bulls were down 2-0 during the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Knicks. During the series, Jordan appeared tired and distraught. Many attributed this to Jordan’s gambling. The night before game two, Jordan was spotted at an Atlantic City casino until 1 A.M. Many believed that Jordan had given up and had been overcome by his addiction. When asked during an interview with Connie Chung during the series about his alleged gambling issue, Jordan simply said “I have a competition problem,” not a gambling problem. After the dust settled and game three neared, Jordan proved his doubters wrong and led the Bulls to a 4-2 victory over the Knicks, sending the Bulls to their third straight NBA Finals. After the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls looked towards their next opponent: Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns. Barkley, the reigning 1993 NBA MVP, provided Jordan with the motivation he needed. Jordan was heard explaining. “I was a little bit upset that I didn’t get the MVP that year and they gave it to Charles, but with that, I said, ‘Okay fine, you can have that. I’mma get this.” Jordan and the Bulls would go on to defeat the Suns in six games, completing their three-peat.
The fifth and sixth episodes of the “Last Dance”, continued to be extremely entertaining. The open-access into the 1992 dream team and Jordan’s personal conflicts, were intriguing. Both episodes were a major success and left us wishing the next two episodes aired sooner. Episodes Seven and Eight will air this Sunday at 9 PM ET and 10 PM ET. They are expected to discuss Jordan’s retirements, his baseball career, and the 1998 playoffs.