By Favian Pua
There is a touch of poignancy as the end credits rolled in the final episode of The Last Dance. For five weeks, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls stormed back into our lives, evoking memories of simpler times that the 1990s had to offer. This version of #MJMondays became a form of relief and escape for viewers worldwide, an opportunity to appreciate the craft of the greatest basketball player of all time.
What immediately stands out in the finale is the stark contrast in storytelling. Unlike the first nine episodes, there are no flashbacks or origin stories to draw upon. The timelines have finally converged. Mark Vancil, the acclaimed author of Rare Air, vividly described the beauty of Jordan being in the moment:
“Most people struggle to be present. Most people live in fear because we project the past into the future. Michael’s a mystic. He was never anywhere else. His gift was not that he could jump high, run fast, or shoot a basketball. His gift was that he was completely present. And that was the separator.”
Director Jason Hehir reinforced the gladiatorial depiction with the Bulls entering enemy territory. It is June 3, 1998, and Game 1 looms ahead in Salt Lake City. Four wins stand between Jordan and basketball immortality. The Utah Jazz, now armed with home-court advantage and battle scars from the previous year, were out for payback. Karl Malone and John Stockton, entering the twilight years of their prime, felt an air of desperation weighing down heavily on them.
At its core, Episode 10 is a standalone viewing experience. It is a distilled culmination of the drama, bickering, and glaring standoffs that threatened to derail the Bulls’ second three-peat long before opening night. Running on fumes, the Bulls teetered on the brink of unraveling. Here was a unit that was on the precipice with the jeers of doubters and naysayers growing louder and louder.
Utah survived Game 1, 88-85, after Scottie Pippen bricked a desperation three at the buzzer. However, the Jazz had to settle for a split when the Bulls throttled them for 19 turnovers that led to a 93-88 finish. Then, all hell broke loose at the United Center in Game 3. The Bulls held the Jazz to 23 points in the entire second half, mercifully ending in a 96-54 dismantling.
While the Jazz wrestled with their offensive identity, Dennis Rodman… wrestled. Oblivious to the gravitas of the Finals, Rodman missed practice and took center stage at WCW Monday Nitro, tag-teaming with Hulk Hogan and slamming steel chairs at unsuspecting victims. The Bulls were left completely in the dark about Rodman’s whereabouts and whether he would even return to the team. His reemergence challenged the fortitude of his Bulls teammates, who felt that Rodman abandoned them when they needed him most.
This critical situation became a testament to Coach Phil Jackson’s Zen philosophy. Instead of chastising Rodman and throwing him under the bus, Jackson deflected Rodman’s antics. “He’s only taking your (the media) focus away from the Finals. Not ours.” A lesser coach would have caved in and suspended Rodman for the rest of the series. Any other qualms about Rodman’s wrestling cameo was quickly put to rest. He grabbed 14 rebounds and sank key free throws down the stretch, as the Bulls came out of Game 4 with an 86-82 win and a 3-1 lead.
Chicago’s faithful were ready for another trophy presentation on their home floor in Game 5, but Utah had other plans. Malone led all scorers with 39 points, but the Jazz needed Jordan to airball a three from the right-wing at the buzzer before escaping with an 83-81 victory.
The Last Dance is a unique viewing experience in the sense that unlike a movie, everyone already knows how the story ends. And yet, as the documentary races towards its climactic finish, viewers still hold their collective breaths. A virtually immobile Pippen, hobbled by a bad back and fueled by adrenaline and cortisone shots, laid it all out on the line. Jordan’s final shot for the Chicago Bulls, an 18-foot jumper over a stumbling Bryon Russell, will always be a lasting image frozen in time. Chicago 87, Utah 86. On June 14, 1998, in poetic fashion, 23 left Chicago with 45.
After the champagne drenched the visitor’s locker room in the Delta Center, the hotel’s piano keys amateurly banged, and the sixth parade at Grant Park in eight years wrapped up, the Bulls gradually returned from their euphoric state back to the reality that the end was nigh.
Arguably the most gratifying aspect of The Last Dance was when Jordan was handed an iPad to watch and critique the opinions of his contemporaries. Hehir’s decision to include the footage of Jordan viewing the hot takes of Isiah Thomas, Gary Payton, among others, was a stroke of genius, allowing us to see Jordan’s raw and unfiltered response, whether it was of bemusement or sheer hilarity. A new wave of memes were born.
This approach led to Jordan finally discovering from Bulls Governor Jerry Reinsdorf why this iteration of the Bulls had to be broken up prior to the 1998-1999 season. Reinsdorf claims that the breakup was inevitable, as Jackson was fully determined not to return to the Bulls due to irreconcilable differences with Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause. Pippen wanted to be paid at market value and retaining the services of their role players became too expensive.
The allure of winning was tantalizing, but even hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy no longer carried enough appeal to bring the band back together. Eventually, dreams of a four-peat remained just that: dreams. Would the Bulls have prevailed over the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 Finals, during a lockout-shortened season where back-to-back-to-back games were played? Would they have even made the Finals? It’s a wonderful hypothetical to debate on.
Now that the Chicago Bulls have told their side of the story, what do we as viewers take away from The Last Dance? Winning was Jordan’s only mode of currency, and this could not be converted into any other form. He was forged in the crucible of the Bad Boy Pistons and learned that pain begets pain. Competition is a vacuum, and he sucked the air out of the opposition, suffocating them with his indomitable will.
But winning was not a panacea. It did not immunize Jordan from the fickle whims of the media circus or confronting the spectre of death when he lost his father. His drive was all-consuming, and he will never be thought of as someone who found fulfillment in life post-retirement.
There is a ghost who played in Chicago. He is the greatest basketball player ever known to lace up his eponymous sneakers. But as The Last Dance comes to a close, we see Michael Jordan, 22 years removed from his sixth and final championship, the architect of his own success but a prisoner of his own nostalgia, chasing a phantom of his once glorious past.