ESPN’s “The Last Dance” came to a bittersweet end on Sunday, showing the final championship of Michael Jordan’s career and addressing one last, nagging question:
Did the Bulls really need to be broken up?
20 years later, it’s still a question that clearly bothers Jordan.
For 10 episodes, the documentary showed the Bulls had a once-in-a-lifetime combination with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson, a strong group of role players and the confidence that can only come via already winning five rings.
However, it also showed cracks had formed throughout the team’s foundation. The burden Jordan faced as the focal point of an entire league. Pippen’s unhappiness with his treatment from the team. Dennis Rodman’s health and behavior. Jackson’s eroding relationship with general manager Jerry Krause. Salary demands for a team deep in talent.
The central drama of “The Last Dance” is that the Bulls were a dynasty that was running on fumes by 1998, rather than firing on all cylinders. But they were still a dynasty.
In answering that last question about the team’s end, “The Last Dance” came down to two voices. On one side was Jordan, and on the other was Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, the man truly responsible for the Bulls’ breakup rather than Krause.
Jordan vs. Reinsdorf: Could the Bulls have kept it together?
The debate kicked off with the revelation that Reinsdorf had offered Jackson a chance to stay on as coach despite all those proclamations that Jackson would be leaving at the end of the year.
Soon, Jordan was handed an iPad with Reinsdorf’s thoughts on why the Bulls had to be broken up. Jordan seemed eager to hear what Reinsdorf had to say, claiming he and the owner never had any dialogue on the matter.
As the owner told it, the Bulls dynasty had already ended in 1998 — he was just doing what would get the team to its next championship as soon as possible. The team’s fans are still waiting.
After the sixth championship, things were beyond our control, because it would have been suicidal at that point in their careers to bring back Pippen, Steve Kerr, Rodman, Ron Harper. Their market value individually was going to be too high. They weren’t going to be worth the money they were going to get in the market.
So when we realized we were going to have to go into a rebuild, I went to Phil and said “You’re welcome the opportunity to come back the next year.” But he said “I don’t want to go through a rebuild. I don’t want to coach a bad team.” That was the end. It just came to an end on its own. Had Michael been healthy and wanted to come back, I don’t doubt that Krause could have rebuilt another championship team in a couple of years, but it wasn’t going to happen instantly.
Those had been watching the entire run of “The Last Dance” might have known what was coming. A man, and an iPad.
After throwing out some of his best incredulous faces, Jordan gathered his thoughts and delivered a response he has probably been holding onto for sometime.
Jordan noted that the writing on the wall that supposedly led to all those exits was, in fact, written by someone: Reinsdorf and Krause. Jordan said he believes had the entire team been given the chance to run it all back for a year and go for that seventh ring, the players and coach would have said yes.
Most notably, Jordan says he would have re-signed with the Bulls for that shot:
In ’98, Krause already said at the beginning of the season that Phil could go 82-0 and he was never going to be the coach. So when Phil said it was the last dance, it was the last dance. We knew they weren’t going to keep the team. Now, they could have nixed all of it at the beginning of ’98. Why say that statement at the beginning of ’98?
If you ask all the guys who won in '98, Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler, blah blah blah, we give you a one-year contract to try for a seventh, you think they would have signed them? Yes, they would have signed them. Would I have signed for one year? Yes, I would have signed for one year. I'd been signing one-year contracts up to that. Would Phil have done it? Yes. Now Pip, you would have had to do some convincing, but if Phil was gonna be there, Dennis was gonna be there, if M.J. was gonna be there, to win our seventh? Pip is not gonna miss out on that.
Reinsdorf didn’t get a chance at a rebuttal, but such is life when Jordan is the one with creative control over the documentary.
The documentary producers later asked Jordan if he was satisfied going out on top, still clearly the best player in the world. Jordan immediately said “No,” and didn’t try to hide his bitterness:
“It's maddening because I felt like we could have won seven. I really believe that. We may not have, but man, just not being able to try, that's something I just can't accept. For whatever reason, I just can't accept it.”
Whether or not Jordan is correct can remain up for debate. The people Jordan insisted would be willing to come back didn’t seem so eager in the documentary, but this is also after 20 years of wrestling with the breakup.
What’s not surprising is that Jordan would be so bothered by Reinsdorf’s assessment that the Bulls’ time had come.
Throughout the documentary, Jordan and his allies happily threw out stories of the man lashing out and punishing those who doubted his abilities, and even those who went out of their way to avoid angering him. And here you have the man that presided over the end of a dynasty saying the Bulls couldn’t have won a seventh championship the next year even if they got the opportunity.
Right or not, of course Jordan is going to fight that. Of course he’s going to let his documentary end with him insisting he could have won even more. There was no way for “The Last Dance” to end that better captured the mentality of the legend at its core.
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