‘The Last Dance’ Roundtable: Is the Documentary Losing Steam?

We have now completed eight episodes of the ESPN / NETFLIX documentary The Last Dance. The final two episodes are set to air on Sunday (9 PM EST), but before we reach the series’ conclusion, TBW writers Huw Hopkins, Sid Mohapatra and Editor in Chief Joel C. Cordes joined me to catch up on our takeaways from the previous four episodes.

We saw Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls finally overcome the “Bad Boys” era Detroit Pistons and claim their first three-peat. We also heard about the Dream Team and Jordan’s rise to becoming a worldwide phenomenon.

However, as this is a documentary framed through the lens of the 1997-98 Bulls team, we have been left wanting more from the story at times. But as we reach the end, it seems like the time-hopping is starting to slow down and we’re on our way to the juicy stuff we were promised. 

What stood out most to you about this recent run of episodes? 

Sid Mohapatra: I think what stood out to me—Like Brandon, I was pretty young for Jordan’s early run—was just how much pressure the man was under! Every little action was scrutinized, and he was hounded from the moment he left his room.

I always knew that the pre-2000s League wasn’t the nicest place but, man, those early 90s Bulls runs just showed how much animosity there was between players. None of that camaraderie that the banana boat crew shares nowadays. It was just pure hatred on many levels and competitive drive.

Joel Cordes: See, I disagree on the degree of opponents’ “back in the day hatred”. You’re telling me that MJ and Reggie Miller “hated” each other so much that they were playing pickup ball on the set of Space Jam?

I understand if the film’s “extras” like Shawn Bradley and Muggsy Bogues got some games in against Jordan offset, but Reggie Miller? Divisional opponent, Bulls’ foil, and mostly unliked player??? Come on.

I get that retired Isiah Thomas isn’t getting invited to that party, and I’m sure there were plenty of others that Jordan didn’t send a nice RSVP card to, but there was plenty of offseason fraternizing going on and it wasn’t all just offseason gamesmanship to “keep your enemies closer.”

Mohapatra: I glad to finally see some focus on Kukoc, as it was well deserved. He was a player in the prototypical mold of Kevin Durant, and you could see how much value he added to the team back then by helping them space the floor and take some of the focus away from MJ and Scottie.

The bit about Scottie holding out on the team and Kukoc hitting the game-winner was intense. I never knew about it, so I was quite surprised to see that. You can kind of empathize with Scottie in the spur of the moment, but that was definitely a rare misstep from him back then.

Cordes: It’s nice we got something about Kukoc and Kerr, but I’m still waiting for any type of mea culpa from Jordan / Pippen toward Kukoc’s abilities once he was on the Bulls. They admitted their Olympic machinations went too far, but did they recognize him as a core piece once the Second Threepeat era was rolling?

It’s just beginning to seem like Jordan / Pippen believes that any other guy besides Rodman was just riding their coattails and was largely immaterial to victory. While that may be true to a certain extent, that’s not how it actually went during the Bulls’ run: They constantly had their role players stepping up in addition to having the best-ever being dominant against all comers.

June 16, 1998; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls with their six championship trophies. Left to right in the front row are Luc Longley, Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Dennis Rodman (leaning back), Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley at a championship rally at Grant Park in Chicago. Mandatory Credit: Anne Ryan-USA TODAY

I mentioned this during our previous Roundtable, I was becoming concerned by the lack of dialogue from the Big 3 about how they felt about these teammates. We did get a nice aside about Scott Burrell, and the Kerr Punch story finally got told, but we still haven’t heard Luc Longley utter a word (though it turns out there’s a reason for that), and Ron Harper has only been seen in a few old clips beyond his commentary on The Shot—from his Cleveland Cavaliers perspective.

Something is starting to feel “off” about all that, and the fact that a guy like Craig Hodges was completely frozen out of the First Three-Peat episodes does not bode well for this being rectified… Is Jordan still wielding a narrative cudgel against perceived teammate enemies—though he almost always seems friendly with Harper in the clips we’ve seen—or is this simply the director’s choice in having to narrow down the material?

I promise I’m not some secret Luc Longley stan, but the fact the team’s starting center (and point guard, Harper) for three championships plus Jordan’s return year are being completely frozen out just seems odd. Maybe it’s because I’ve heard the Big 3 side of the story told so many times before and just wanted to go a little deeper?

Brandon Jefferson: I think Kukoc won’t get his flowers from MJ and Scottie because, from a narrative perspective, it does seem like Mike coming back is what saved them.

They mention in the doc how great Chicago’s run was in 1993-94 after MJ retired, but that ended with Pippen’s refusal to play and a loss in the postseason to the hated New York Knicks. Then the next season, the team’s record suffers dramatically and any goodwill Toni built up from his rookie year is gone.

When the playoffs roll back around, Kukoc doesn’t get a chance to show he belongs in the Mike and Scottie conversation because Mike overshadows him by coming back. Then in 1995-96, it’s Mike’s determination that leads them to 72-10 and ring number four.

I feel like Joel is hitting it on the head, though: This has increasingly become more of a documentary about Michael Jordan than the Chicago Bulls.

While it’s something we should’ve expected once the news came out that the NBA could only use this footage with MJ’s consent, we are missing details and background information that could really sway how the legend of His Airness is being perceived by those that weren’t around to witness it live.

Even Gary Payton feeds into it. George Karl tried to “save” him because he was nursing an injury—I put save in quotes because Payton still averaged a ridiculous 47-plus minutes per game in the series—but Payton says nothing about it (or it was edited out) and we come away thinking Karl was just a coach who managed his talent poorly (though his time in Denver doesn’t do much do dispel that notion).

Huw Hopkins: This documentary is definitely feeling like it is being told with Jordan’s sign-off. Perhaps it’s because the last two weeks have featured information I am more knowledgeable about, or maybe it’s simply that the story needs to focus on Jordan and the Bulls to sell, but there has been no mention about how good the Houston Rockets were (during Jordan’s absence).

And it simply glossed over the fact that the Seattle SuperSonics had a dominant record (184-62 from 1993-96) compared to the rest of the league, or that Gary Payton was an MVP candidate for several seasons starting in 1993-94.

Jordan said during an interview that his body wasn’t ready during the 1994-95 playoffs, and that might be the case, but that Orlando Magic team was simply better as well. They had generational talents, and people thought of them in the same way we think of the Oklahoma City Thunder before they let James Harden go.

Penny, Shaq, Anderson, and Grant were all top-tier talents, and I know Joel has alluded to this on previous podcasts, but even if Jordan had been there the whole season, I’m not sure the Bulls roster would have been strong enough to contend for a title that year against that Magic team, much less the Rockets in the Finals.

I guess what I’m getting at is that there was a lot of talent in the NBA during the mid-1990s, and the fact that the Chicago Bulls destroyed the majority of them for two three-peats goes to show how Jordan was on another level, but also how good the franchise was at building around its talent. They were simply better for the majority of it, but let’s not completely dismiss the high level of competition they faced to become legendary.

Mohapatra: Nice article on Scottie, by the way, Huw. I think you summed up my take on that well. Given space and time to further develop their style and with the addition of a reliable big, I think that team led by Scottie could have shown the world that they could win it without MJ. Probably not multiple rings but one for sure!

Cordes: To Huw’s point about dismissing opponents, it’s expected that Jordan would say, “I had no trouble with The Glove” and downplay Seattle completely, but what did his other teammates think about them? Did anyone on the Bulls say, “these guys could be a problem? Here’s why…”?

My guess is someone had an opinion on them but only Jordan’s was delivered. Are they going to disrespect the Jazz like that too, or did Chicago just truly believe they were invincible? Like, not even hearing Phil Jackson comment about the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses feels whitewashed by what Huw is sensing too.

This definitely is becoming “The Jordan Doc” in the latter episodes, and while that’s still awesome, it’s not leaving the same comprehensively satisfying feeling that the earlier episodes did.

Mohapatra: I agree that the narrative is certainly being controlled by MJ. There’s clearly an over-emphasis on MJ and Scottie and very little in terms of the others. It doesn’t seem like that theme is going to change in Episodes 9-10, unfortunately. That’s too bad, as I would have loved to see more of the day-to-day stuff from the 1998 run as we were promised. 

What do we think about Jordan being so emotional at the end of Episode 7?

Hopkins: I think it was striking. I’m interested in hearing everyone else’s views because, to me, the end of Episode 7 was very well done.

Jordan genuinely looked emotional. I felt it was because he cared so much, but also perhaps there was a touch of regret in there somewhere: not making enough friends during his playing days, upsetting teammates, etc. I loved seeing a glimpse into MJ as a human, though I would have loved to have seen the interviewer probe more.

Mohapatra: Seeing the human side of Michael was special. At the end of that episode, my take would be that it had to do with a sense of guilt looking back at how many relationships he probably came damn near breaking in those years of tough love.

On the one hand, I am still  to this day left wondering what MJ’s teammates really think of him. It’s one thing to talk about him as the GOAT and how he led the team, but do any of them really share any form of a close relationship with him now, or are they all just acquaintances?

Jefferson: Jordan’s emotions seem to come from a place of not being able to find that same high and rush that came with being the best basketball player in the world in anything he’s done since retirement. To be as singularly driven as he was for so long, that lust and thirst for competition doesn’t just disappear with age. We heard his HOF speech: He has an itch but has yet to find a way to scratch it.

Cordes: It was clear that Jordan was emotional on the subject and had likely pondered it quite a few times. I don’t know if it can be termed “regret”—since so many of his statements as well as his teammates’ recognize the immovable necessity he placed on absolute adherence to his competitiveness—but it may simply be a recognition of the huge interpersonal and emotional costs that continue to accompany his approach.

His statement to the effect of, “if you don’t agree with it, don’t play as I did” is probably as close as he’ll get to admitting there is more than one way to be a champ.

The Spurs and Warriors, for example, have built dynasties that didn’t leave so much rubble between teammates (as far as we can tell) and were certainly driven toward greatness with a collective approach. Jordan’s sheer talent and willpower backed up his ability to rule as a dictator, even as he was occasionally benevolent.

I’ll never question the effectiveness of the end result, but the means are certainly up for disagreement and debate since we’ve seen such a heavy-handed approach fail just as many times as it has succeeded when it comes to building teams (in sports and real-life).

But I don’t ask Jordan to apologize for it either.

Mohapatra: There’s certainly no one way to lead, but often enough when you have a group of so many pig-headed individuals, an authoritarian style is what’s needed. So maybe MJ was a great fit on that team: The one who stepped up to keep the shit together. It’s debatable if his style would be as effective today!

Hopkins: Yeah, I think we are at an interesting moment in basketball right now. Since Kobe retired (and perhaps two or three years before that) we haven’t had any of these cutthroat leaders in the NBA leading a team.

They might exist—the likes of Devin Booker, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler come to mind—but few people are prepared to share that side of themselves so much. I don’t think MJ did in his early years, but that killer side of him is what Kobe tries to emulate. 

LeBron is simply a different person and leader. He’s had his cutthroat moments—such as calling out Kevin Love—but he’s mostly been considered very inclusive and a good teammate, more of a mercenary Tim Duncan. 

It will be interesting if this documentary, and the relevance of Kobe due to his passing, makes some of the more aggressive leaders take ownership of that side of their personality. You don’t need to win that way, but with that type of leadership style being so on display, maybe we could see a resurgence in the next few years of the ‘tough-love leader’.

Jefferson: There’s no one way to lead and, as Huw points out, several superstars and teams have taken paths different than Jordan’s. One interesting thing is how the team seemed more “together” in 93-94 with Pippen as the unquestioned leader.

However, given the animosity between Krause and Pippen, as well as Kukoc making such an immediate impact, I wonder if the team was heading towards a breakup in 1995 if Jordan doesn’t come back. Krause had his guy in Kukoc, and the trade offers for Pippen would be astronomical in the summer of 1995.

Hopkins: It would have been interesting to see what the return for him would have been. The team seemed to have been keen to let Horace Grant go, but Pippen was clearly a top-level talent and someone to build around.

Would Pippen and Kukoc have worked as a one-two? It did for one season at least.

With a better power forward situation and a stronger center in 1994-95, perhaps the team would have had a better record. They just weren’t built to support their best talent at the time, but that’s unsurprising considering the way Jordan left the team at such short notice.

Mohapatra: I have to confess, having lost my own father not long ago, the scenes at the end of episode eight really had me getting all emotional.

It’s such a classic conundrum: You want to allow superstars the space to be emotional without intruding but, at the same time, those cameramen hovering over him like that was so cheap!

Hopkins: The final scene of Episode 8 was difficult to listen to. Like many, I’ve seen the clip before, but I haven’t heard the audio that goes along with it. I can’t imagine what that must have been like, and I was torn.

Jordan probably would have wanted that moment to be personal and by himself, and if I were there, I think I possibly would have lowered my camera.

But the journalist in me also realizes that this is sports. The personal connection fans have with players is a big part of what makes us engage. Sometimes the best stories, images and clips are when players are at their lowest, and you need to see those moments to appreciate them at their highest. How are we to tell the story if we don’t know what’s happening?

One person that often gets overlooked in the retelling of the Bulls dynasty is Horace Grant. did you feel he got his proper due in the last few episodes of the documentary?

Mohapatra: Not enough. They certainly said all the right things about Horace and put the spotlight on his return as part of the Magic but, as with the others, I would have liked for the creators to go into a bit more detail: show us the plays, the mechanics, what made each of them unique, and what brought it all together. 

The documentary also cheekily placed the blame of ‘the leak’ (The Jordan Rules) on Horace before showing him denying the fact. I wasn’t quite sure where they were going with that narrative, to be honest.

Cordes: Horace Grant’s role and importance with the Orlando Magic was well-documented in ESPN’s This Magic Moment documentary. He even got more Magic-related publicity in The Last Dance than he did with his Bulls time, sadly.

Outside of saying, “he was really important for us”, the Jordan-heavy doc never really dug into WHY he was that important or what he brought to the table that Charles Oakley didn’t a few years earlier. Both were fantastic rebounders and defenders, but Grant’s reliability in the mid-range likely was the clincher for Chicago, especially as Jordan and Pippen routinely collapsed defenses.

Grant never got his full due in Chicago, but his absence was certainly felt during the season after he left (and before Dennis Rodman arrived). Rodman brought a whole different rebounding and defensive level, but the Bulls still needed that stretchiness from the position and found it by having Toni Kukoc around as well.

Still, Grant’s greatness was probably the fact he provided all of those skills in one player at a near-elite level.

Hopkins: Grant was a good player and perfect for the Bulls in that first three-peat, but he was never going to be more than a third or second fiddle at best. He also went to a good situation in Orlando as the championship veteran who supported an all-time great Shaq and a rising-star Penny.

I felt he possibly deserved more showing in an earlier episode, but it’s more understandable to me that he didn’t his due when this doc was billed as being about the 98 seasons. In that lens, he got a fair bit of air time in this one considering he wasn’t on the team during the seasons they were discussing.

That team with Scottie needed a re-thinking, however.

Without Horace and Jordan, the team had little direction. They could have brought in a few players who were not as talented as Pippen and let him be the lead man. But the team needed something. Even with Jordan back, they still weren’t good enough. His stat line of 31, 6.5 and 3 was incredible, but they didn’t have the horses to support him and Scottie.

Jefferson: Horace was the perfect role player to go alongside Michael and Scottie at the time of their first three-peat. He was comfortable with doing the little things but could also punch above his weight when called upon.

We remember how physical and tough the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks were in the late 80s and early 90s, and Horace went toe-to-toe with the likes of Rick Mahorn, Bill Laimbeer, Charles Oakley, Xavier McDaniel, Anthony Mason, etc. who were some of the biggest bruisers in NBA history.

Once he saw Krause and the front office didn’t value his sacrifice, he went to Orlando with a chip on his shoulder. Biding his time until he could prove that the Bulls needed him. He got that opportunity in the 1995 playoffs, and you could tell the Magic knew how much it meant for him to get to take down his former team—especially with Michael coming back that season too.

I mean, you don’t just lift any player upon your shoulders in celebration.