‘The Last Dance’ Roundtable: Episodes 1-4

There has been a noticeable lack in must-watch television for sports enthusiasts with the NBA season still suspended (along with all professional sports).

Like the rest of the world, TBW media has been locked in on ESPN’s The Last Dance—a 10-part documentary airing two episodes a week starting at 9 PM EST—as we strive to continually celebrate and honor the sport we love.

Following the first four episodes, we gathered a group of four TBW staffers—writers Adam Spinella, Myles Ehrlich and myself, along with EIC Joel C. Cordes—to discuss our takeaways, impressions, etc. of the behind-the-scenes look at the last year of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty:

What are your thoughts on ESPN’s The Last Dance through four episodes?

Brandon Jefferson: My biggest takeaway has been the sacrifices of the Big 3. Michael Jordan had to give up control of the offense when they transitioned to the triangle. Scottie Pippen made the financial sacrifice that allowed the proper supporting pieces to be added in.

Dennis Rodman had reeled in his eccentricities to give the team his best when it mattered most.

Myles Ehrlich: For sure. I think — especially in episodes 3 and 4 — that’s a testament to Phil Jackson. He was a real player’s coach, knowing how to manage each man’s eccentricities. MJ needed to adjust to his system, but there wasn’t a big stand-off. 

He saw Scottie’s late surgery for what it was, a “screw you” to management that he could relate to (especially in that final season). A mid-season vacation (!!!) for Rodman that allowed him to go AWOL.

In all these circumstances, Phil granted those players the space to be humans off the court, which built the camaraderie on it.

Adam Spinella: It’s funny watching this as a college coach and talking to our players, all of whom weren’t born yet for this season. What they have picked up on about team-building comes straight from the complete mesh of personalities, many of which wouldn’t exist off-court for any purpose other than the common chase of a championship. 

I’m not sure there are many other walks of life where an enigma like Dennis, a Buddhist philosopher like Phil, an overly-competitive perfectionist like Michael and a quiet assassin like Scottie could all fit together and form this bond.

Joel Cordes: I’ve been impressed by how much MJ, Scottie, Rodman and Phil all seemed to just “get it”, even if there were some bumps along the way. Maybe that is the benefit of their hindsight now in re-telling the story, or maybe that’s because we’re seeing more about the end of the ride when these kinks were mostly worked out. 

Or maybe The Last Dance has been sanitized a bit for narrative/reputation purposes? Either way, I’m still waiting for more insight on the amount of negotiating, cajoling and sussing out these relationships must have taken. The way the story is being told, it’s like each guy has 1-2 conversations with the other, then a revelation, and then it’s all cool.

Is that really how it happened? Probably not.

My guess is Episodes 5-7 are going to dig more into the details of how difficult interpersonal stuff like this can be to make work. But the proof that it did work has already been nicely established by the first four episodes. 

This was certainly not a team of best friends. But it was some lethal competitors who had all taken their professional and personal lumps to get to that moment together and were reveling in being winners.

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Ehrlich: Rodman’s transition over to Chicago, after all the bad blood with Detroit… I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall for that first team practice.

Cordes: It was interesting to see just how much Jordan still loathes Isiah Thomas. Yet, he was willing to accept Rodman on the Bulls. Again, likely because he saw the value Rodman could bring to their current cause but also because young Dennis was not a leader of the Pistons’ shenanigans. 

He was a catalyst on the court but not usually an instigator to the extent of Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, etc.

Spinella: Overcoming Detroit was the seminal moment for those Bulls teams, and those rivalries the league could sustain for years at a time due to the lack of player movement increased the long-term narratives. 

The reason Jordan felt like a superhero for so many was that he finally climbed the mountain in 1991 and conquered the villainous Pistons.

Seeing the bad blood that has festered for decades makes me wish we had a little more of those natural, long-standing rivalries today.

Jefferson: Not to go too Detroit crazy, but I feel like one of the reasons the Isiah/Jordan beef has continued is that in Thomas’ eyes, Jordan isn’t the otherworldly basketball God that the rest of us see him as. He beat them in their prime as well as Bird and Magic. 

Also, Isiah is a Chicago native and, to this day, is their greatest basketball player to be born and raised in the city. Suddenly, Jordan shows up and he’s an afterthought in his own home despite being a two-time NBA champion.

We’ve heard a lot about the headliners (MJ, Pippen, Phil, and Rodman) what are you looking for from the other members of these great Chicago Bulls teams?

Spinella: Brandon, you mentioned earlier the sacrifices the team made to coexist around Jordan. Two names that haven’t been brought up a ton in the first four episodes who fit that same mold are Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper. 

Before Harper got to Chicago, he averaged 19.3 ppg and was on those strong Cavaliers teams of the early 1990s. He averaged less than 10 a night in 1998. Kukoc was wildly dynamic and a hell of a pro with his versatile skill set. He’d be such a perfect player in today’s NBA. 

Hopefully, we get enough of a spotlight on those guys to show just how good they really were.

Cordes: I’m hoping that, with the level of context they’ve given the Big 3 and the backstory, that they also give proportional sections on each of the key supporting guys (i.e. Longley, Harper, Kukoc, Kerr, etc.). 

I want to know what they thought about each other, what the Big 3 thought about their contributions and flaws, etc. Because, for as incredible as the Big 3 were, I’ve always felt the Bulls’ true advantage was their fantastic-fitting depth to keep the momentum rolling alongside 1-2 Bulls stars at a time down the stretch.

Lots of the elite teams had core 3’s that could rival the Bulls in talent (yes, I know that no one had Jordan), and they weren’t THAT far off. But league rapid expansion had diluted the depth of most teams, and you look at the benches of even the good teams from that era… they only go like 7-8 deep overall. 

The Bulls always seemed to have 9-10 legit options. And the supporting players knew their roles and executed so effectively so that they were always in games when it was time for MJ to take over. It would be a huge disservice to overlook that in the name of the star narrative, but we still have 6 hours to go, haha.

Jefferson: I think the previews hint at some Dream Team discussion in Episodes 5-6, and I think that might be the avenue through which they bring Kukoc to the forefront. I hope they give him a respectable amount of time because he was a big piece of their success, particularly against the Indiana Pacers in a 7-game ECF that season.

But with all the Jerry Krause hate that has been pumped out so far, having Kukoc as “Krause’s guy” should be part of this soon.

Harper looks to be the odd man out as they already went by the Cavs narrative and he didn’t get much face time except to say he should’ve been guarding Mike instead of Craig Ehlo.

Ehrlich: Even Paxson’s inclusion felt like it was purely narrative, and he wouldn’t have made the cut if not for the “Jordan trusts his teammates” arc when Paxson caught fire at the right time. 

In filming this, the directors went for personalities and drama, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if we don’t get much on those guys (though we absolutely should in a ten-hour documentary that takes us through that year).

Cordes: Luc Longley hasn’t said a WORD yet either!

Outside of the Bulls, who else are you on the edge of your seat anticipating to show up as the episodes continue?

Jefferson: Given the amount of time they dedicated to the 1991 title, I feel like we might get a similar look at all six championships. If they go that route, I feel that Charles Barkley is likely the next “obstacle” or “villain” that we’ll see. 

He was the most productive player on the Dream Team and would win MVP in the 1992-93 season. Barkley himself thought he was a better player than Jordan that season.

Word is that we get some clips from the interview with Kobe Bryant in Episodes 5-6, and I think those are going to be particularly impactful for all viewers.

Spinella: We’re nearly halfway through, but some influential people haven’t popped up. The Knicks (sorry Myles) have to make some sort of an appearance. The 1998 Eastern Conference Finals went to 7 games with Indiana… Larry Bird coaching Reggie Miller… There’s tons of juicy storylines there. 

I hope we get to see more on the Utah Jazz at some point, too. Malone was an MVP, and that team was rock solid. It’s easy to underestimate the legitimacy of their threat to the dynasty, but the end of Episode 4 foreshadowed more to come.

Ehrlich: I’m wondering just how much they go into Jordan’s gambling. I’ve heard this week will. But how far will we go? This is already a deeper look into backstories that I could’ve hoped for, but it still gives off the vibe that Jordan’s got some control of the narrative. Do we get more clarity about all that, do you expect?

(Also, I’m ready for an episode totally devoted to Space Jam.)

Cordes: Haha, I highly doubt we get a “Space Jam episode” or too much detail into the Jordan gambling side. (Though I would take a Bill Murray cameo any day!) The gambling is one of those urban legends (like “The Frozen Envelope”) that, even if it has any level of truth, is one of those bodies the League buried a long time ago and wants to keep it that way.

As far as Bulls opponents, I’m interested in some insight by the Bulls into what they thought about the Sonics and Jazz, who were both (theoretically) VERY credible competitors at the time. 

We forget it now due to the results, but Chicago’s matchup with Seattle was extremely uncertain due to Jordan having recently returned, Rodman being new, etc. and the fact that Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp both played positions the Bulls were seen as weaker at (until Rodman had fully proven himself).

Portland and Phoenix were worthy opponents as well (especially the Suns), so perhaps the coverage of their matchups will give us a clue as to how the Sonics and Jazz will be handled.

Very little was said by the Bulls about that first matchup with the Lakers (as far as their thoughts going into the series, fear, respect, etc.), so that doesn’t leave me all that hopeful. Then again, the Lakers were seen as quite a faded power by that point already, so perhaps Chicago knew it was their time after having gotten past the “real problem” in Detroit.

Even though this documentary is based on the 1997-98 Bulls team, we’ve seen a lot of timeline jumping so far, how do we feel about the storytelling format?

Jefferson: Yes, it was billed as a look at the last year of the Bulls’ dynasty, but so far they’ve gone to the past as much as they’ve shown just that year (if not more).

Ehrlich: I love it. Getting rich backgrounds on Michael, Scottie, Dennis and Phil absolutely increases the payoff.

We appreciate Scottie’s trade demand/holdout/surgery more because we’re reacquainted with his upbringing. We see the evolution of Rodman throughout his career, rather than having him come off as this loose cannon without context. Phil’s (frankly problematic) philosophical talks are slightly less random.

It’s inspired. And a much more enjoyable way to fill ten hours.

Cordes: As someone who lived the era, I’ve found the jumping back and forth through the 1980s to 1998 to be easy enough to navigate. 

However, my 11-year-old son (who is a huge basketball fan and knows a lot about this team already) has still found it difficult to follow at times. I’m sure a strictly chronological approach would have felt stale, but that has been my only beef with the pacing (and it’s minor).

All the anecdotes about the players (especially Rodman) have been phenomenal.

Ehrlich: As Adam alluded to above, I grew up a Knicks fan, so I naturally hated the Bulls. This is allowing me to see them in a whole new light because, as a kid, it was a binary thing: They were not us. They were the enemy. 

I really struggled with ESPN’s Reggie Miller 30-for-30, but I’m engrossed in this.

Jefferson: I do think that’s a good point about the depth being the Bulls’ strength. We saw the Warriors build their first title run off the Strength in Numbers mantra, and it’s hard to believe Steve Kerr didn’t take that from his days in Chicago.

As fans and media members, we often don’t give the role players their credit, and this would be a great time to find out what went into creating one of the greatest teams of all time. Outside of Andre Iguodala winning—or stealing, if you’re team #StephBetter—Finals MVP the spoils of victory usually go to the superstar players.

We’re just a few short days from the premiere of Episodes 5-6, and it looks like we’re going to get a championship-by-championship look, as this preview has Magic Johnson talking about the 6-threes Game 1 in 1992. 

I know we’ll all be tuned in to ESPN at 9 PM EST on May 3. 

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