The voice of the people was heard on social media with The Last Dance Michael Jordan Thank You For The Memories Shirt. Stopped on March 12 the 2019–20 NBA season, just as it accelerated into the decisive trance of the playoffs, fans forced to stay at home to curb the coronavirus pandemic were discovered, at the worst time, without basketball games. But what about ESPN’s documentary about the season of Michael Jordan’s last Bulls ring, 1997-98? Many asked and the answer was clear: in production and with its premiere set for June. But ESPN/ABC reacted and announced the U.S. premiere for April 19, which will be a day later, on the 20th, in the rest of the world. A joy for NBA lovers.
The documentary will be a mastodonic work of ten chapters that will go through the most convulsing season, and the last one, of which Michael Jordan lived in Chicago, one that was well defined as The Last Dance (the last dance) although journalist Sam Smith, who followed like few the day-to-day of those Bulls of the 1980s and 1990s, explained well how the moods were on the starting grid: “When the season was about to start, no one really wanted to dance.”
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The Bulls ended up winning 62 games (62-20) and were champions after Michael Jordan’s legendary shot after fixing their defender, Bryon Russell. Goodbye led (that’s how it had to be, actually) a full-blown collapse. Tim Floyd replaced Phil Jackson on the bench and barely remained on the bench, from the core, Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper. The quintet was completed by Brent Barry and two rotation players from the previous season, Randy Brown and Dickey Simpkins. It was the year of lockout (1998-99), a strange season that began with the retirement of Michael Jordan (official on January 13), the placing on the market of Dennis Rodman (signed by the Lakers), the transfer of Steve Kerr to the Spurs, from Luc Longley to the Suns and, of course, scottie Pippen to the Rockets.
The 1998-99 Bulls signed a 13-37 record and began a six-year run with no playoffs, until 2005, and with Scott Skiles on the bench. In that 1999-2005 stretch they won an average of 25% of matches. During the second threepeat (1995-98) that average was alien: 83%. Before this 62-20 of the last dance, they had won 72 (72-10) and 69 (69-13) games. Until the Warriors’ arrival of the 73-9, the two best seasons of any team, the second brand shared with the 1972 Lakers.
The fall was thunderous, the end of an empire and a passage through the sewers of reconstruction that had feared even the obsession of General Manager Jerry Krause, a capital figure in the Bulls of the 1990s, for their difficult but sound sporting decisions and because he ended up confronting Jordan and Jackson, an enmity who became hate and who dynamited how little stability a team could have had physically and especially mentally for their efforts from the previous two seasons. For the most benevolent, Krause was just trying to avoid those years of miseries with overhangs on time. But for most, there was an obvious factor of unbeaor and jealousy, the architect tired of only recognizing the actors on the track… and on the bench.
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Krause started the season trying to trade a Scottie Pippen who missed half a campaign for back problems he was dragging on since the 1997 Finals. Their goal was to get a batch of picks from the Celtics, who were looking for star after running out of Tim Duncan in the 1997 draft, and using them in part to score a trade for Tracy McGrady, who he would later pursue in the 2000 free agency, the first of many shots missed by the Bulls’ offices in the following years (Carmelo Anthony , LeBron James…). Krause neither invited nor informed Phil Jackson and his wife of their daughter’s wedding, which was attended by Tim Floyd, who would be coach a year later. And he opened the media day with famous statements in which he claimed that it was the organizations that won the rings, minimizing the individual actors, and that they are still the subject of debate today: Did Krause explain himself wrong, something that happened to him frequently, or shot with bullets? A day later, Jordan himself (who hadn’t gone through the media day) was resounding: there wouldn’t be Bulls without Phil Jackson and with Michael Jordan.
But exhaustion had reached everyone. During the 1997 Finals, Phil Jackson met with Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and told him he would not follow the following season. He then changed his mind, on Reinsdorf’s own visit to The Zen Master’s ranch in Montana. In 1996, after the 72 wins and title, Jackson did not leave him for a timely visit to his home from a players’ entourage, with Ron Harper at the helm. Meanwhile, Pippen engaged in contract discussions about to end the contract. Faced with a Michael Jordan who blamed him for missing half a season for not dealing in time in the summer his problems on his foot and back, he came to assure during his convalescence that he would no longer wear the Bulls jersey, in full fuss with Krause.
Michael Jordan, for his part, agreed to a 10% increase on his base salary of $30 million (he took $33.1) and led the team at 34 and before his second retirement. He then had a small comeback with the Wizards, and it emerged that he could hardly have played in 1999 in any case because he had an ugly wound on one hand with a cigar cutter. In 1997–98, Jordan averaged 28.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He was MVP of the Regular Season, the Finals and an All Star that (at Madison in New York) was the first of Kobe Bryant, who constantly sought him to measure himself. And he endured his team, with moments of obvious exhaustion and a game in which he already flew little and carried a lot. Stronger than ever, he sought contact in the area and constantly resorted to his lethal reverse in fade away. The best use of the granite body that he had started modeling years earlier with the preparer Tim Grover when he got fed up with taking (much lighter and more elastic) blows from the Bad Boys of the Detroit Pistons.
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The season was a tremendous journey in which the Bulls ended up imposing their winning block will in the face of every adversity. Several times on the verge of breaking, they brought forward a tough, far-flung, complex title. They came to be 9-7 in a closed November in (the calendar month) 9-6 with a 3-5 away from home. Then, in April, they won 13 matches out of 14 after going through the All Star in 34-15 and a 25-2 run in 27 games that took them to those 62 wins and first place east, pivotal in a conference final resolved after seven games against the Pacers (Reggie Miller on court, Larry Bird on the bench). A series without home wins and inclined thanks to the court factor.
After leaving behind, without defeats but with problems (3-0), the Nets and around (4-1) a few Hornets ousted by the messes between Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning, the Pacers were the second and last team that led the Bulls to seven games in the six years of their six rings (the other, the Knicks in 1992). With Jordan tired and with bad percentages for a finger problem, he reached the seventh, in Chicago but with the wingspan of the Pacers making a dent: 8-20 out, Jordan’s trick to his teammates at halftime… and very tight victory (88-83). Jordan scored 28 points with a 9/25 shot and saved his team by forcing fouls (10/15 on free throws) against an ultra-physical opponent. Larry Bird still remembers a jump between two that Rik Smits (a 2.24) lost to Jordan with six minutes to go and his team three up. The play ended in three times as many as Steve Kerr and Bird still thinks that if his team had maintained that possession and scored in the next attack, he would have gone into the Finals.
In the title match, the Bulls re-measured Karl Malone and John Stockton’s Jazz, the first time a Final was repeated in the 90s and a 4-2 other way, this time with a field advantage for jazz that had also won 62 games but had taken the two direct duels against Jordan. The series was tough if Jerry Sloan’s disaster was excluded in game 96-54. In the other five, no one scored 100 points (the winner only reached 90 twice) or won by more than 5.
The Jazz saved his skin, 1-3 down, in game five in Chicago (ultimately Jordan’s last with the Bulls jersey at United Center) and after Jordan failed a forced triple in a play designed for a shot released from Kukoc. At 2-3 and two games in Salt Lake City, the Mormon state lost their big chance by being unable to force the seventh against some Bulls breaking, with Jordan exhausted and Pippen’s back problems back. In the sixth, they won 86-83 with 41.9 seconds left. The rest is history: Jordan’s basket, Jordan’s robbery and Jordan’s legendary basket against Russell. There was 5.2 seconds left and time for a triple failed by Stockton. His Majesty Jordan, with one last prodigious quarter, ended up scoring 45 of his team’s 87 points. Karl Malone finished at 31+11+7 but in the last set he scored 6 points for Jordan’s 16. There were two other tight wins of the Bulls, in matches 2 and 4. In those last two quarters, Jordan scored 17 and 11 points and Malone, 1 and 2. One of the keys, the real difference between stars, of the sixth and final ring, a last dance held in a burning hall and, perhaps, of a more human tint and a merit greater than the previous two, those of the plusquamperfect stretch 1995-97. A year that is basketball history and that drew an epic end to a unique team wear The Last Dance Michael Jordan Thank You For The Memories Shirt. And that in a few days we will have in our houses in a ten-chapter documentary series. As if to miss it.