By: Ryan Blumenfeld
ESPN aired the seventh and eighth parts of its ten-part series on the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls, titled The Last Dance. The seventh and eighth episodes continued the story of the Bulls 1998 season and discussed Michael Jordan’s first retirement, the death of his dad, and his “win at all cost” mentality. After the 1993 season, Michael Jordan’s father was tragically murdered on the side of a highway after pulling over late at night to take a nap. When Jordan heard the news, his world was rocked, as he was not just his father, but his best friend. After the death of his father, Jordan surprised the world and retired from the game of basketball to pursue a career as a major league baseball player, as it was something his father and him discussed. Jordan was signed by the White Sox organization and assigned to the Birmingham Barons, a Double-A team. Typically, someone as little experienced as Jordan would be assigned to a Single-A or rookie league team. Jordan, however, was assigned to the Double-A because unlike the other teams, the Barons could handle the expected media presence. Jordan began his career with a thirteen game hit streak. Jordan’s success was not long-lived as pitchers soon figured out that he could not hit a breaking-ball. He finished the year hitting 202, which while it sounds paltry, is impressive given that he had not played baseball in fifteen years.
Meanwhile, as the 1994 NBA season began, the Bulls looked for a new leader. Fortunately, the Bulls had the answer on their team already, Scottie Pippen. He decided he would lead the team differently than Jordan. Jordan was hard on his teammates, often pushing them to their limits during practices. Jordan explained he would intentionally anger his teammates to toughen and prepare them for their opponents. He knew that if his teammates played softly during practices, they would also play softly during games. As hard as Jordan was on his teammates, he emotionally explained that he did not ask of them anything different from that which he asked of himself. Pippen, however, decided to lead with compassion. During Pippen’s rule, the Bulls’ morale was high and so was their play. With the new additions of Steve Kerr and Bill Wennington, the Bulls won their way to the playoffs, landing a third seed in the Eastern Conference with a record of 55-27. Despite their regular-season success, the Bulls were unable to beat the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
After the 1993-1994 season, the Bulls lost key players, Horace Grant and BJ Scott, leaving them will major holes in their roster. As the 1994-1995 season rolled around, the Bulls were looking for redemption without Jordan, again. Unfortunately, the team could not return to championship form, especially without Jordan and Grant. As the Bulls regular season came to an end, hope began to form in the Bulls organization in the form of Michael Jordan. Jordan decided he would return to basketball during the playoffs of the 1995 season after a strike occurred in the MLB before their 1995 season. Jordan voiced his return with two simple words: “I’m back.” The team would finish the regular season 47-35, landing them the third seed in the Eastern Conference again. When Jordan took the court in his first game back, he was different. He struggled to score and did not look like the untouchable-star he once was. During the playoffs, the Bulls won their way to the Eastern Conference Semifinals after defeating the Charlotte Hornets in four games. Unfortunately, a young Orlando Magic team led by Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway was too much to handle for the Bulls, as they were defeated in six games.
After the 1994-1995 season, Jordan knew he had to get back in basketball shape if he wanted to win another championship. In the episode, Jordan describes his daily routine during the off-season, while filming for Space Jam. He would film on set from 7 AM to 7 PM. When his day on set was over, his day on the court began. His trainer worked Jordan back into basketball shape through a pick-up basketball league he had arranged with the stars of the NBA. Players like Patrick Ewing, Dennis Rodman, Reggie Miller, Grant Hill, and many more would arrive at Jordan’s custom basketball facility on the set of Space Jam to play hours of games. These games appeared to be exactly what Jordan needed as the 1995-1996 season began. With Jordan back as leader of the Bulls, they returned to their prior glory, despite the team’s relationship issues. Jordan was back to ruling with an iron fist, literally. During a practice before the 1995-1996 season, Jordan and teammate Steve Kerr got into a brawl, resulting in Jordan bashing Kerr in the face. Jordan later apologized to Kerr and they became great teammates. When teammates were asked about Jordan as a teammate, they described him similarly to a drill sergeant in the army. Jordan required his teammates to be mentally and physically at their best every day. The episodes show clips of Jordan harping on teammates to ensure that they would play as hard as they could. When asked about his opinion of Jordan as a teammate, Jud Buechler stated that he and other teammates were afraid of him. Despite the Bulls’ struggles in the locker room, they excelled on the court, finishing the 1995-1996 season with the best record in NBA history (72-10). The Bulls would go on to win the NBA Championship on father’s day. After the win, Jordan was spotted in the locker room hysterical on the floor, after dedicating the season and the win to his late father.
The seventh and eight episodes of the “Last Dance,” continued to be extremely entertaining. The insight into Jordan’s competitive mentality and attitude towards his teammates was intriguing. Both episodes were a major success and left us wishing the next two episodes aired sooner. The final episodes will air this Sunday at 9 PM ET and 10 PM ET. They will discuss the Bulls’ journey through the 1998 playoffs, and the departure of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Phil Jackson from the Bulls organization.