Top Takeaways from Night 4 of Chicago Bulls Documentary 'The Last Dance'

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 11, 2020

Top Takeaways from Night 4 of Chicago Bulls Documentary 'The Last Dance'

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    Another night of ESPN's documentary event, The Last Dance, is complete. Now that we're eight episodes in, the filmmakers are really starting to focus on the 1997-98 campaign.

    That doesn't mean plenty of time wasn't devoted to the lead-up, though. Episodes 7 and 8 feature some of Jordan's most revealing quotes of the documentary. His competitiveness is beautifully profiled in these interviews.

    These episodes also delve into the loss of Jordan's father, his brief baseball career, his summer filming Space Jam, the infamous practice fight with Steve Kerr, the 1996 Finals against Gary Payton and the Seattle SuperSonics and so much more.

    The biggest moments from Sunday's episodes are broken down below.

MJ Played for the Playoffs

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    Michael Jordan's 9.2 career box plus/minus is the best mark in NBA history, and yet he still found another level in the postseason, where his 11.1 box plus/minus is, again, first all time.

    "The playoffs is the highest level of competition that we have in our game," Jordan said. "You got 82 games in the regular season, but you can kick all that aside. The playoffs is the playoffs. And to be able to play against the best competition, that was the driving force for me, without a doubt."

    That driving force brought something out of MJ the regular season couldn't. In his 35 career games in the NBA Finals, Jordan had a 10.9 box plus/minus and averaged 33.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.8 steals. His record in those games was 24-11, and he had just two games with a below-average box plus/minus (compared to 27 games at what Basketball Reference considers "MVP level").

    Once he broke through in 1991, Jordan carried a feeling of inevitability with him to every playoff series he played in. The Last Dance gives us a good look at the mentality behind that.

Michael Jordan and James

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    "He's the voice of reason that always drove and challenged me," Jordan said of his father, James, before choking up.

    Episode 7 of The Last Dance dives into the relationship between the legendary wing and his dad. He wasn't just a strong influence—he was a friend and mentor.

    Jordan told a story of his sophomore year of high school, in which he was suspended three times. His father pulled him aside and told him to get it together or give up sports. That was all MJ needed to hear to get on the right track.

    Of course, James was murdered in July 1993, something everyone who was asked struggled to talk about, even two-plus decades later.

    "One of the things he always taught me is that you have to take a negative and turn it into a positive," Jordan said of trying to recover from the loss.

    It didn't help that several writers soon started trying to tie Jordan's gambling to the death of his father.

    "I simply cannot comprehend how others could intentionally pour salt in my open wound by insinuating that mistakes in my life are in some way connected to my father's death," Jordan said in a statement at the time.

    In hindsight, with this tragic event following up all the pressure Jordan faced in the NBA over the preceding years, it isn't difficult to see why Jordan walked away from the game in 1993.

Michael Jordan's Rendezvous with Baseball

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    News broke that Michael Jordan was retiring at a Chicago White Sox game in October 1993. The story blew up almost immediately, leading to a press conference akin to a circus the next morning.

    "It's hard to overstate the loss of Michael Jordan to the National Basketball Association and to the heartbeat of this community of Chicago," Tom Brokaw said during his report that morning.

    Jordan left the door open to return in his comments to the press, but it didn't make the news feel any less "seismic," as ESPN's Andrea Kremer put it. And it only added fuel to the fire of some conspiracy theories.

    The Last Dance then jumps into the long-running theory that Jordan's sudden retirement was actually a secret suspension handed down by Commissioner David Stern.

    "Ridiculous. No basis in fact," Stern said. "I could bang on the table and say it's a calumnious, slanderous lie or whatever. It's just not true. Never was and never will be, no matter how many times people ask the question."

    Everyone else whose answers were shown on this question, including Jordan's, echoed Stern's reply. Again, this was about fatigue from basketball, the terribly tragic death of his father, and ultimately, his jump to the White Sox.

    This was a childhood dream of MJ's. And now, he had a chance to live that out and honor his father. Jordan said his last conversation with James was about walking away from basketball and making a run at MLB.

    Jordan started with the Birmingham Barons, where his manager was future World Series champion Terry Francona. The media and fan attention was unprecedented for a minor league baseball player. Francona explained how quickly games sold out, as well as the respect Jordan had for the game.

    After a 13-game hitting streak to start his baseball career, pitchers started feeding Jordan a steady diet of breaking balls. As he went through a slump, the media hit him with an avalanche of stories about how he was not only going to fail but also be an embarrassment to baseball.

    "That fueled me more so than anything," Jordan said of the coverage. "And it drove me to make this thing work. I had to play catch-up, but I'm going to do it, going to do it, going to do it. I had f--king blisters, second skin swinging that bat."

    One of Francona's assistants said MJ's work ethic was the best he'd ever been around. He spent hours before and after practices and games working on his batting. And eventually, he started to figure it out. He finished with a .202 batting average and 51 RBI.

    "With 1,500 at-bats, he'd have found a way to get to the major leagues," Francona said.

Jordan Never Turned It Off

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    "I tried to get him to fight me a couple times," Jordan said of Scott Burrell. "But he's such a nice guy."

    Jordan brought his ferocity and competitiveness to every practice. Steve Kerr said MJ told the team that if they couldn't handle his intensity in practice, they couldn't handle the playoffs.

    "He was pushing us all to be better," Bill Wennington said as the documentary played clips of Jordan cussing out his teammates.

    The constant pushing may have been a bit much for some, but Jordan didn't know any other way to go. And ultimately, it was a key ingredient in six championship runs.

    "Winning has a price, and leadership has a price," Jordan said. "So, I pulled people along when they didn't want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn't want to be challenged."

    Competing was and is an intrinsic piece of Jordan. He still feels it so deeply that just talking about his desire to win and the excellence he demanded from teammates made him emotional at the end of Episode 7.

    It also led to run-ins like his fight with Steve Kerr, which was detailed in Episode 8.

    In an attempt to cool Jordan down in a practice, Phil Jackson started calling a scrimmage tightly. And Jordan reacted by really fouling Kerr. The "littlest guy on the court," as Jordan described him, threw a punch. And Jordan socked him in the face.

    After Jackson threw MJ out of the practice, he went to talk to him in the locker room. "I know," Jordan said before Jackson could admonish him. He called Kerr to apologize and explained in the documentary that Kerr's willingness to stand up for himself endeared him to MJ.

    Kerr obviously wasn't as talented or big as Jordan, but he was one of those teammates who competed at the level Jordan demanded. That's what Jordan needed.

The Year Without Jordan

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    Jordan missed all of the 1993-94 season. Under the leadership of Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen, Chicago went 55-27. Pippen averaged 22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.9 steals.

    The season also marked the emergence of Toni Kukoc on the NBA stage. In just 24.1 minutes, he averaged 10.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists. But it came at a cost.

    When Jackson drew up a last-second shot for Kukoc in the playoffs, Pippen refused to go back into the game. Kukoc hit the shot, but the team was in shock. Steve Kerr said Pippen quit on the team, and center Bill Cartwright delivered a tear-filled speech in the locker room. Pippen apologized at the time, but he said he wouldn't do anything differently in his interview for the documentary.

    Pippen averaged 21.7 points in that series against the New York Knicks, but he shot 40.5 percent from the field and the Bulls were eliminated.

    Speculation was already percolating about Jordan wanting to get back to the game.

Jordan Created Slights to Go After

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    "I felt like B.J. [Armstrong] should know better," Jordan said of his former teammate's celebration after a Game 2 win for the Charlotte Hornets in the second round in 1998. "If you're gonna high five, talk trash, then I have a bone to pick with you. You know, I'm supposed to kill this guy. I'm supposed to dominate this guy. And from that point, I did."

    In that game, Armstrong hit a crucial jumper with 18 seconds left, finished with 10 points and let all his former teammates know about it as they walked off the floor. MJ finished that one with 22.

    Over the next three games, all Bulls wins, Jordan went for 30.3 points and was plus-37 overall. It was another example of how Jordan fed his competitive fire.

    Earlier in his career, LaBradford Smith allegedly told MJ "Nice game, Mike" after a solid performance against the Bulls. Jordan told his teammates he was going to dominate Smith the next time they met. And he did, to the tune of 47 points.

    Decades later, according to ESPN's Michael Wilbon, Jordan told reporters that he made up that source of motivation. Smith never said it. Jordan manufactured the indignation.

The Return

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    During an MLB work stoppage, Jordan started showing up at Bulls practices again. Speculation ran rampant, but not for long.

    Before the 1994-95 season ended, Jordan penned a press release that simply read, "I'm back."

    He only played 17 regular-season games, and his averages of 26.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 5.3 assists were down a bit from career norms, but getting him back was a jolt to the organization and the league.

    The biggest hurdle for Jordan on a personal level was playing a game without his father watching. His return in Indiana was his first game since the murder of his father. He had 19 points on 7-of-28 shooting in a loss to Reggie Miller and the Pacers.

    Over his first three games, he averaged 22.3 points, but a game-winner and a 32-point performance six days later against the Atlanta Hawks set the stage for his true return game.

    On March 28, 1995, in Madison Square Garden, Jordan scored 55 points on 21-of-37 shooting in a win over the New York Knicks.

    But the '95 campaign ended in a 4-2 second-round loss to Horace Grant and the top-seeded Orlando Magic.

    Jordan averaged 31.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.8 blocks in the series, but Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway eliminated the air of invincibility.

    What the loss provided MJ was something he hadn't experienced since 1990: the end of an NBA season without a championship. And that motivated him to once again be the best. He told his trainer, Tim Grover, to meet him in the gym the next day.

The Summer of Space Jam

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    Jordan filmed Space Jam in the summer of 1995, but he told the studio he needed his own basketball facility to work on his game during the shoot.

    Warner Brothers obliged, putting up a building with a full court and weightlifting equipment. Tim Grover was there with him, and before long, they started inviting NBA stars like Reggie Miller, Juwan Howard and Dennis Rodman for pickup games.

    Despite 6 a.m. start times for the movie, Jordan went all-out on the floor and on the weights. Space Jam wasn't a distraction. The allure of playing on the WB lot with MJ gave him scouting opportunities he wouldn't have otherwise had.

    By the time the 1995-96 season arrived, Jordan was ready to dominate the league again.

72-10

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    In Jordan's first full season back with the Bulls, Chicago won an NBA-record 72 games. MJ averaged 30.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.2 steals.

    But of course, it meant nothing to the GOAT without a championship. In the Eastern Conference Finals, he exorcised the demons of his 1995 loss to the Magic. The Bulls swept Orlando.

    And in the Finals, Jordan found another slight to drive his borderline maniacal desire to win. Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl snubbed a greeting from MJ, which was all the motivation Chicago's superstar needed.

    Jordan averaged 27.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists in the series, but Defensive Player of the Year Gary Payton made things difficult on MJ in Games 4 and 5.

    After Chicago took a 3-0 lead, Payton demanded the assignment to guard Jordan. He went 17-of-41 over those two games, both of which resulted in wins for the Sonics.

    "A lot of people back down to Mike," Payton said. "I didn't. I made it a point, I said, just tire him out. Tire the f--k out of him. You just gotta tire him out. And I kept hitting him and banging him, and hitting him and banging him. It took a toll on Mike."

    That quote drew literal cackling from Jordan, who was shown the clip on an iPad during his interview.

    "I had no problem with The Glove."

    In Game 6, which happened to be on Father's Day, Jordan had 22 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and two steals. He closed out the series against Seattle and secured his fourth NBA title, and first without his father there to celebrate with him.

    "I can't even put it in words," Jordan said during the on-court celebration. "I know [my father's] watching... This is for Daddy."

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