ESPN’s 10-part documentary series “The Last Dance,” which chronicles Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, continued Sunday with Episodes 7 and 8.
Jordan and the Bulls allowed NBA Entertainment to follow them throughout the season and document their final championship. The series features never-before-seen footage, as well as interviews with more than 100 people close to the team.
Here’s what you need to know from the seventh and eighth episodes, which covered Jordan’s first retirement, the mid-’90s Bulls led by Scottie Pippen and the start of the 1998 postseason.
MORE: How to replay Episodes 7 and 8
ESPN’s NBA experts on ‘The Last Dance’
Our team weighs in with their biggest takeaways from the seventh and eighth episodes of the series. This will be updated throughout the night.
Bobby Marks: I can still see the confetti coming down at the old Continental Airlines Arena. After winning the final game of the season at home against the Detroit Pistons, the New Jersey Nets had clinched a playoff spot. Their reward: the defending champion Chicago Bulls.
Game 1 of the series was one of those what-if moments. Two starters, PG Sam Cassell (groin) and rookie PF Keith Van Horn (flu), played a combined 33 minutes. A third starter, SG Kerry Kittles, struggled offensively (3-for-17 from the field). Still, Chicago needed overtime to win Game 1, despite the Nets’ being down 14 in the fourth quarter.
Despite trailing 0-2, the Nets were still so confident heading into Game 3 that the team flew in legendary ringside announcer Michael Buffer to introduce the starting lineups.
Jordan dropped 38 points on 16-of-22 shooting from the field, and the Bulls swept the series in an uncompetitive Game 3.
My lasting memory from that game is the infamous stare-down Jordan gave Calipari. Coach Cal had a penchant for stomping his feet on the sideline and screaming at younger players, in this case Van Horn and Kittles. I can still see Jordan staring at Calipari. The wordless expression was aimed at telling Calipari to leave these two young players alone.
Ohm Youngmisuk: Before the first playoff series I covered for the New York Daily News in 1998, I managed to get a question to Michael Jordan in his news conference before the Bulls faced the New Jersey Nets.
I asked what it would take for the upstart Nets to take a game off the dynastic Bulls.
“We’d have to fall asleep,” said Jordan, who did allow that the Nets could be dangerous with nothing to lose.
The Bulls opened the series sleepwalking, but they never did lose a game to the Nets. I’ll never forget the death stare Jordan gave John Calipari, who just couldn’t stop stomping up and down the court, screaming at Kerry Kittles. Dennis Rodman even referred to the Nets’ coach as “Calamari.”
Jordan had zero patience for Calipari. But the stare-down surely had something to do with a college coach making the leap to the pros and Bulls GM Jerry Krause’s fixation with Tim Floyd, who replaced Phil Jackson.
Unfortunately for the Nets, Jordan gave them the kiss of death afterward, calling them “a team of the future.” The year before, Jordan had called the Washington Bullets “truly one of the teams of the future” after they swept Chris Webber and Juwan Howard. The Bullets/Wizards missed the playoffs the next seven seasons.
The Nets? They fired Calipari in March 1999 after a 3-17 start, acquired Stephon Marbury from Minnesota and won only 16 of 50 games in the 1998-99 season. Jordan put the franchise to sleep until Rod Thorn, the man who drafted Jordan, traded Marbury for Jason Kidd in 2001.
Eric Woodyard: I love my job to death — don’t get me wrong. But it’s definitely bothersome to see how rumors can get started by certain media members without any sort of proof or facts to support them and that they can actually stick all these years later.
As a kid, you heard about all of these stories about MJ leaving basketball the first time because of the supposed “secret suspension” and that he got his father killed because of so-called gambling debts. But in this day and age, there is no way something like that would remain under wraps. We all have a job to do, and criticism is part of solid reporting. But I also believe that you have to be able to convey a human element of these athletes to go with concrete evidence before you write something. Yes, they make millions, but they are human beings as well. In some ways, it seems like the media robbed MJ of his joy of the game. Being like Mike was no easy job. The man couldn’t even mourn his father in peace. That would weigh heavily on anyone.
Ramona Shelburne: All I could think about watching footage of what seems like the greatest summer pickup game ever — on the set of “Space Jam” — was the parallel with LeBron James this past summer.
Each was coming off a bad season. Each was at a place where his career could have fallen off into old guy, not-quite-the-same territory. Each needed to reestablish himself as the king of the NBA, with several young stars emerging.
Both absolutely dominated the season afterward. We don’t know whether LeBron’s Lakers would have won this season. But he clearly used his time on the set of “Space Jam” as effectively as Jordan did.
Dave McMenamin: Just because technology advances doesn’t mean it always gets better. People still get dressed up in old-timey garb at theme parks to pose for black-and-white photographs because they enjoy the ceremony of the pop of the flashbulb over the flick of a finger on their smartphone’s screen. There is something so quaint, so cemented in the time and place that was 1995, about the way Jordan announced his comeback with a fax machine.
It’s not just the method of conveying the message or the meaning of the message that stands out. It’s the syntax of the message itself that makes it memorable. “I’m back” assumes a base knowledge from its recipient. Who is I? Well, Michael Jordan, maybe the most famous person on the planet, of course. Back where? To play for the Chicago Bulls in the NBA, duh.
I always associate the fax, which J.A. Adande explored on its 20th anniversary in 2015, with the clip of Scottie Pippen sitting on the bench during a Bulls game and pointing to the Jumpman logo at the bottom of his Air Jordan X sneakers, beckoning Jordan to return. In this case, technological advancements in the sneaker world paid off. Rather than a basic rubber sole, Nike incorporated storytelling into the shoe, etching MJ’s major career achievements into rivets added not just for traction but for aesthetic.
Fun fact: The fax informed the manner in which LeBron James announced his decision to play for the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2018, according to sources. After the TV spectacle that backfired with “The Decision” in 2010, when James went to Miami, and the extreme course correction that followed with a first-person essay as told to Sports Illustrated in 2014, when he went back to Cleveland, James’ camp wanted something clean and simple in 2018. They drafted a 36-word announcement (Jordan’s was actually 42, including the preamble) and slapped the Klutch Sports logo in the upper-left corner of the page, in the same place that Jordan’s agent, David Falk, had his F.A.M.E. agency’s letterhead in ’95. Below the logo but before the announcement began — just as with the MJ fax — were three words in a strikingly similar sans serif font to prompt the basketball world that major news was about to follow: “For immediate release.”
Michael was released from baseball. LeBron was released from Cleveland.
Nick DePaula: It’s amazing to watch the replay of Jordan being stripped by Nick Anderson in Game 1 of the ’95 Eastern Conference finals — through a sneaker perspective.
MJ debuted the iconic Air Jordan 11 that series. Anderson actually wore a customized Air Jordan 10 — in Magic colors, with No. 25 stitched into the collar, no less. The bottom of the shoes feature all of Jordan’s prior career achievements.
When Jordan retired in 1993, Nike outfitted a handful of the top guards and wings around the league with Air Jordan 9s and 10s in custom colors, with their uniform numbers in place of No. 23. Knicks guard Hubert Davis and Magic guards Penny Hardaway and Anderson were some of those players. The Knicks and Magic being the two teams to knock out the Bulls in ’94 and ’95, while those pivotal players were wearing Jordans, is always a funny, ironic and subtle detail to look back on.
Nick Friedell: The only team that ever got the best of Michael Jordan in the midst of the Chicago Bulls dynasty was … the Orlando Magic.
Episode 8 offered a reminder of just how dominant the Shaq/Penny-led Magic were at their peak, when they beat the Bulls in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals. It also underscored how important Horace Grant’s presence was for that young Magic team and how much Jordan and Scottie Pippen missed him as a defensive force in Chicago.
Nick Anderson’s steal of Jordan in Game 1 remains one of the most important moments in Magic franchise history, but it’s also a reminder that the Magic never took advantage of the opportunity they created after beating the Bulls. They got swept by the Houston Rockets in the 1995 NBA Finals.
Jordan, motivated by the loss to Grant and the Magic, spent the entire summer getting his body back into basketball shape after his baseball hiatus. He came back more motivated than ever to win another title and pay back the Magic. The Bulls went on to win a then-record 72 regular-season games and sweep the Magic in the 1996 Eastern Conference finals. Shaquille O’Neal left Orlando that summer for Los Angeles, ending one of the shortest lived but most entertaining rivalries in recent memory.
Dave McMenamin: I could not believe that Jerry Reinsdorf kept Michael Jordan’s contract on the Bulls’ books when Jordan traded his high tops for cleats.
“When Michael was signed to play baseball, I continued paying his basketball contract, which was something over $3 million a year,” Reinsdorf said in Episode 7. “There was no reason to pay him, other than he was underpaid his entire career, and he made a lot of money for a lot of people.”
Isn’t this the same guy who wouldn’t restructure Scottie Pippen’s contract, another guy underpaid his entire career in Chicago? Didn’t he still have the shrewd Jerry Krause running his front office? You think Krause was comfortable with that monstrous cap hold for Jordan while he was trying to restructure the team on the fly? Even if there were no salary-cap implications and it was more like a generous parting gift from Reinsdorf, doesn’t the payment kind of make you believe that Reinsdorf thought Jordan was coming back to the Bulls all along?
Tim Bontemps: Michael Jordan summed up his entire ethos with one phrase late in Episode 7: “Winning has a price.”
Jordan punched multiple teammates in practice. When several were asked on camera if he was a nice guy, they either hemmed and hawed or simply said “no.”
But to Jordan, none of that mattered. What mattered was the end result. And to him, there was only one acceptable result: winning.
The fact that Jordan got emotional while talking about the way he would drive his teammates and what he was trying to accomplish by doing so was just the latest moment — in a documentary full of them — that exemplified just how badly Jordan wanted to win.
Even now, 22 years later, the competitive fire within him hasn’t dimmed at all. To him, it was the only way to operate.
Because as he said, winning has a price. Jordan was more than willing to make sure that not only he but also everyone around him paid whatever price it took to win.
Eric Woodyard: “Nice game, Mike!” — LaBradford Smith
Michael Jordan was just different. The dude is as motivated as anyone throughout the history of basketball, and that was on display in Episode 8. The fact that he made up this story about LaBradford Smith to motivate himself to destroy Smith the next night in Washington is just wild. Jordan went the extra mile to be great.
His ability to turn it up a notch because of B.J. Armstrong in the playoffs was just as absurd. Most players aren’t willing to dig that deep to be successful. Love him or hate him, that is true greatness. You really have to be an a–hole sometimes to reach feats that others never will.
Jesse Rogers: It didn’t take long to see Jordan’s elite athleticism. It was apparent after just a few days in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1994. Michael Jordan had that quick first step — just as he did on the basketball court.
But as you might imagine, Jordan’s size worked against him, especially in the batter’s box. His swing was long, taking its time through the zone. Even an average fan could recognize those deficiencies.
But when Jordan got moving — on the base paths or in the outfield — it resembled MJ in the open court. He was entertaining, despite a career .202 batting average in 127 games. Each of his three home runs was a thrill, proving that he had some hand-eye coordination and ability. Double-A baseball isn’t exactly a picnic, and there were plenty of times when the 31-year-old held his own.
But MJ wasn’t accustomed to failure. And baseball is all about failure.
Nick DePaula: Throughout Michael’s career, the NBA and MLB each had a work stoppage that canceled regular-season games. Both potentially also impacted Jordan’s decision-making. Although it’s hard to imagine MJ continuing to play without Phil Jackson as his coach, the NBA’s ’98 lockout seemed to help bring his Bulls career to a close.
I was struck by how many people around him during his Scorpions and Barons stints, from lifelong baseball coaches to executives, alluded to him continuing to play baseball and co-signed his potential, had it not been for the MLB strike that scrapped the remainder of the 1994 season.
I’ve always been fascinated by the possibility of Jordan sticking with baseball in an era in which dual-sport athletes such as Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders were celebrated.
Knowing that baseball was a passion of his father’s, I hoped MJ would address whether he had a timeline by which he’d move on if he didn’t make it to the majors. Did the MLB strike end what was a longer-term plan, or was he simply ready to play basketball again?
Andrew Lopez: There are several moments in “The Last Dance” when you think, “What would happen if this occurred in the social media era?” and Scottie Pippen’s refusal to go in with 1.8 seconds left is certainly at the top of that list. A team’s star player not wanting to go in because he didn’t get the play drawn up for him? It’d be insane.
Another thing that stands out: Toni Kukoc seems like one of those players from the 1990s who came around too early. Kukoc played until 2006, but it seems like he’d be perfect in the modern game.
Mike Schmitz: According to our historical database, Scottie Pippen is one of only two NBA players since 1980 to average at least 22 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 2.5 steals over the course of an NBA season, which he did through 72 games in 1993-94. The other? Michael Jordan in 1989, when MJ averaged 32.5 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists and 2.9 steals in 81 games. Pippen’s 1993-94 campaign was further proof that he could have absolutely thrived in a LeBron James-style, jumbo lead, ball handler role with shooters surrounding him.
Kevin Pelton: The Bulls’ celebration of their first title after Michael Jordan’s return was delayed. Up 3-0 in the 1996 NBA Finals after a 22-point win in Seattle in Game 3, Chicago lost back-to-back games, marking one of only two times that happened in its six Finals appearances. Each of the Sonics’ wins came by double figures, something that happened to the Bulls just five total times in the Finals. Yet the delay made Jordan’s celebration at home in Game 6 all the more emotional, as it came on Father’s Day less than three years after his dad’s death.
Jackie MacMullan: If you want to understand how much his father’s tragic death affected Michael Jordan, fast-forward to March 19, 1995, the first time he played basketball after James Jordan’s senseless murder. The same superstar who was so meticulously dressed throughout “The Last Dance,” who, before every single game, painstakingly lined up his shoelaces so they matched exactly, was so overcome with emotion playing without James Jordan present that he actually took the court with his shorts on backward.
Jesse Rogers: MJ’s close relationship with his father highlights the kind of loner he was, which sometimes comes with being so famous. But Jordan went to Chicago that way. His driver, George Koehler, who picked him up on his first day in town, became his lifelong friend and confidant. Koehler and James Jordan basically were MJ’s support system. Jordan had no posse. I can’t emphasize that enough. It shaped who he was from early in his playing career. His life became about basketball and only basketball, and I think that’s why he was so ruthless in all the ways he competed. After his father died, he had only Koehler. There was no entourage to distract him.
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Sunday, May 17
7 p.m. ET | Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 7
8 p.m. ET | Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 8
9 p.m. ET | Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 9
10 p.m. ET | Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 10
Netflix (outside of the U.S.)
Monday, May 11 | 12:01 a.m. PT | “The Last Dance” Episodes 7 and 8
Monday, May 18 | 12:01 a.m. PT | “The Last Dance” Episodes 9 and 10
MORE: How to replay Episodes 7 and 8