No heroic tale is complete without a villain.
If ESPN's The Last Dance documentary chronicling Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s positions His Airness as the hero, then the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons were the roadblock in the way of greatness.
While the first two episodes of the documentary explained the backstory of the 1997-98 campaign—deemed the last dance by head coach Phil Jackson because it was the last season for the team as currently constructed—with stories of the tension with general manager Jerry Krause, Scottie Pippen's contract concerns and Jordan's emergence, Sunday's episodes introduced the Pistons as a foil and Dennis Rodman as a central character in both stories.
"I hated them. And that hate carries even to this day. They made it personal. They physically beat the s--t out of us."
If there was any question that Jordan still holds ill will for the Pistons, he answered it in emphatic fashion during Sunday's documentary. After all, the Bad Boys of the NBA knocked him out of the playoffs in 1988 and then beat his Bulls in the 1989 and 1990 Eastern Conference Finals, unleashing a brand of physicality never seen before or since in the NBA in the process.
The back-to-back champions used the infamous Jordan Rules and were so physical with Chicago's star that college teammate James Worthy said "I don't know how he came out of it alive" in the documentary.
"When we showed up, it was almost like we were crashing the party," Isiah Thomas said of the group that included himself, Joe Dumars, Rodman, Bill Laimbeer and John Salley playing under head coach Chuck Daly in an era that saw stars such as Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
While the Pistons were busy seizing the Eastern Conference from the Boston Celtics, Jordan's Bulls needed to take their own strides just to reach that level. That improvement happened from 1986 to 1989 under head coach Doug Collins, as Jordan started fully tapping into his powers with a league MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and memorable dunk contest championship.
Before the battles with the Pistons, there was The Shot against the Cleveland Cavaliers during that run in the 1989 playoffs.
Reporter Sam Smith told the story of Jordan going up to every beat writer who picked the heavily favored Cavaliers before the decisive Game 5 and telling them they were all wrong. All he did to prove as much was drain one of the most famous shots of his career at the buzzer, hanging in the air over an outmatched Craig Ehlo.
"We finally got over the hump of loser's mentality," Jordan said in The Last Dance while admitting Cleveland would have been better off defending him with Ron Harper.
Rodman, who went from Pistons rival to teammate for Jordan and Pippen, likely would have been a better defender for the situation too, as the documentary delved into the juggling act that was the Worm fitting in with the Bulls for their second three-peat.
From dating Madonna and dying his hair to kicking a cameraman, Rodman is known almost as much for his off-court headlines as his on-court ones, but Sunday's episodes made it clear how much Chicago needed him.
"Nobody can say anything bad about me as a teammate," Rodman said. "You've got the great Michael Jordan, the great Scottie Pippen, the great Phil Jackson ... but they don't really do what I do."
Rodman was the perfect complement for Jordan and Pippen, never demanding the ball and doing all the dirty work on defense and the glass to help the team win. He averaged 15.3 rebounds per game in his three seasons with the Bulls, keeping possessions alive and creating transition opportunities for his more talented teammates.
Jordan knew it, which is why he said he was "livid" when Rodman was kicked out of a game in 1997-98 when Pippen was sidelined by injury.
Imagine what he thought when Rodman disappeared to Las Vegas for a midseason vacation.
One of the most memorable moments of Sunday's broadcast was Pippen, Jackson, Jordan and Rodman remembering the latter's decision to approach the team and ask for a vacation during that stressful last dance season in 1997-98.
It happened after Pippen came back from injury, and Jackson told Rodman he could go to Sin City for 48 hours. Jordan told the coach there was no way the rebounding machine was coming back in that amount of time if he was allowed to leave.
Turns out, Jordan was right.
Rodman went to Las Vegas, dated Carmen Electra and disappeared from the team for a number of days. "We had to go get his ass out of bed," Jordan said, while Electra revealed she went and hid when No. 23 showed up.
It was apparently what Rodman needed, though, and it is not a stretch to suggest any other coach at the time could not have kept the team together outside of Jackson.
Not only did Jackson bond with Rodman and help navigate the rocky final season, but he had also laid the groundwork for Chicago to finally vanquish the Pistons. "Doug's approach was more catered to Michael, and Phil's approach was more catered to the team," Pippen said of the transition from Collins.
Pippen made the All-Star Game for the first time in his career under Jackson, as the offense diversified beyond just giving the ball to Jordan. While the Bulls lost a heartbreaker in Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals while Pippen was dealing with migraines, the following offseason of weight training and renewed focus under Jackson led to a clean sweep of the Pistons in 1991's Eastern Conference Finals.
"When Pippen didn't respond to that abuse, there's nothing they could do to beat us then," Jordan said of a flagrant foul from Rodman in Game 4, underscoring Chicago's transformation from a team that was intimidated by Detroit's tactics to one that wasn't.
The Pistons then famously walked off the court before the final buzzer, which set the stage for Jordan to call Thomas an "assh--e."
"Straight up b---hes," Horace Grant said of the Pistons walking off the court.
It is a testament to how daunting a foe Detroit was in that era that beating Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in the ensuing NBA Finals was almost an afterthought in the documentary and story of those Bulls.
But Jordan was finally a champion.