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‘The Last Dance’ Episode 1 recap: Michael Jordan is ‘bigger than the pope’

Chicago needed a savior right as Michael Jordan happened to come along. (Eric Risberg/AP)

ESPN’s “The Last Dance” is a 10-part documentary that focuses on Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. Read our preview here.

“The Last Dance” is the story of the 1998 Chicago Bulls collectively and of Michael Jordan individually, and Episode 1 reintroduced both the title winners and their leader.

Groundwork is laid on two tracks. First, the central tension of the 1997-98 season is summarized: General Manager Jerry Krause has his eye toward rebuilding for the future, while Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Coach Phil Jackson are solely focused on winning their sixth title to seal their run as one of the NBA’s greatest dynasties. Second, Jordan’s 1984 arrival in Chicago is traced from his illustrious career at the University of North Carolina, to his selection with the third pick of the draft, to his franchise takeover during his rookie of the year campaign.

Twenty-odd years later, the Bulls’ internal tension is jarring and requires significant explanatory context, while Jordan’s rise to global stardom goes down easy.

Krause, a longtime target of bullying from the Bulls’ stars, was looking to the future: If Jordan retired and Pippen left for a big payday, Jackson and the remnants of an aging roster were going to struggle. Jordan, who had just won his fifth title in seven years, had different priorities.

“We’re entitled to defend what we have until we lose it,” he said in old news conference footage. “If we lose it, then you look at it and change. Rebuilding? No one is guaranteeing rebuilding is going to be two, three, four, five years. The Cubs have been rebuilding 42 years. If you want to look at this from a business thing, have a sense of respect for the people who have laid the groundwork so you could be a profitable organization.”

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What’s more, Jordan resented the notion that Krause would deign to make such consequential decisions, even though that was precisely his job description. Krause’s statement that “organizations win titles, not players” — which he later said was misquoted — clashed directly with Jordan’s view.

“I would never let someone who isn’t putting on a uniform and playing each and every day dictate what we do on the basketball court,” Jordan said in a recently taped video interview for the documentary. “The most important part of the process is the players. For him to say that is offensive to the way I approach the game.”

There was real bitterness among all parties. Jordan was seen mocking Krause’s height and weight in front of coaches and players after practice and joking that the Bulls would need to “lower the rim” if the executive ever wanted to shoot layups. After Jordan led the Bulls to a victory in a preseason exhibition in Paris, he instructed Jackson to keep the trophy rather than display it at the practice facility. “Don’t let Jerry get it,” he’s heard yelling in behind-the-scenes video.

Jackson, also frustrated by Krause, had to be wooed back for the 1997-98 season by owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who traveled to Montana to sign him to a record one-year, $6 million contract with the understanding that he would not be retained going forward. The fans were wise to all of this, with some booing Krause as he took the court for the Bulls’ championship ring ceremony on opening night.

From this tension came Jackson’s philosophical framing of the season: To open training camp, he distributed handbooks that dubbed the year “The Last Dance.”

“The whole meeting was about enjoying what’s happening because this is it,” center Bill Wennington recalled.

In the modern NBA, a superstar of Jordan’s magnitude would be able to snap his fingers and get Krause fired. But the 1990s were a different era, and Krause had accrued goodwill with ownership over the years with savvy moves such as trading for Pippen and bringing Toni Kukoc over from Europe. In Krause’s defense, his vision of the bottom falling out in Chicago came to fruition: After Jordan’s 1998 retirement, the Bulls endured the worst stretch in franchise history by failing to win over 30 games for six straight years.

Krause’s well-founded fears of life after Jordan mirrored life in Chicago before Jordan. Reinsdorf revealed that fan interest was so low that the Bulls were outdrawn by an indoor soccer team in the early 1980s. Chicago badly needed a savior right as Jordan happened to come along.

Jordan had nailed a title-winning jumper as a freshman at North Carolina and impressed his college coaches with his work ethic and athleticism. Yet he fell to third in the draft because conventional wisdom at the time suggested centers were more important than guards to winning. After Hakeem Olajuwon went to Houston and Sam Bowie infamously went to Portland, Jordan was available for Chicago. In unearthed video from draft day, Jordan said he hoped to build the Bulls into a winning “program” like the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers.

By the end of the summer, his strong play at the 1984 Olympics led Coach Bob Knight to call him “the best basketball player I’ve ever seen.” Jordan established himself as Chicago’s best player within weeks of his NBA debut, and not long after he earned a Sports Illustrated cover with the tagline “A star is born.”

“Suddenly you have a sports figure who puts Chicago on the map,” recalled former president Barack Obama, who was living in the city at the time.

Jordan’s signature fearlessness was on display early: He stared down a veteran teammate at practice, led an early-season comeback over the Milwaukee Bucks and quickly captured the hearts of Bulls fans, who began selling out Chicago Stadium.

“He’s poetry in motion,” gushed one fan in an archived television interview.

Best quote: “Michael was like the pied piper walking down the Champs-Élysées.” — NBA Commissioner David Stern

Capturing Jordan’s fame and popularity in the 1990s was a central challenge for this documentary, which must introduce him and the Bulls to a younger audience. Episode 1 sought to paint the frenzy around Jordan by leaning heavily on behind-the-scenes footage from the preseason trip to Paris.

Jordan, wearing a black beret for effect, was mobbed by fans at all stops. His arrival was greeted by a L’Équipe headline that called him “bigger than the pope.” As he prepared for a television interview in Paris, one show employee asked him for an autograph — drawing a strong rebuke from staffers and a quizzical look from Jordan. When NBA Commissioner David Stern showed up, Jordan greeted him warmly and asked about his wife. Stern saw no need to erect boundaries with the league’s signature star and clearly delighted in Jordan’s mass appeal.

“There will never be another team quite like this,” Stern said proudly at ring night, once the Bulls were back stateside. “They’ve gotten to be the number one sports team in the world.”

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Funniest moment: Deloris Jordan, Michael’s mother, read aloud a letter that he wrote her while in college, asking for $20. The note concluded: “P.S. Sorry about the phone bill. Please also send me some stamps.”

Deloris smiled as she read the humanizing, “before he was famous” missive. Later, Jordan laughed as he watched video of his mother’s narration. Now the billionaire owner of the Charlotte Hornets and a sneaker magnate, Jordan looked genuinely sheepish when confronted by memories of his modest request.

Most revealing scene: Retellings of Jordan’s NBA career tend to pick up in the late 1980s with his heated battles against the Detroit Pistons. Jordan’s earlier years are best known for his 63-point playoff performance against the Boston Celtics in 1986 and the unveiling of the first Air Jordan sneakers.

But Jordan entered a league that was in the middle of a boom and a transition. The Celtics and Lakers were established headlining rivals, but the NBA was still dogged by rumors that drug use among players was rampant.

When asked about his teammates’ cocaine use, Jordan described accidentally stumbling upon a hotel room party during his rookie year.

“Practically the whole team was in there,” said Jordan, who added that he didn’t smoke, use drugs or even drink alcohol at the time. “It was things I’ve never seen in my life as a young kid. You’ve got your lines over here, your weed smokers over here, your women over here. I’m out. All I can think about is, ‘If they raid this place right about now, I’m just as guilty as everyone else in this room.’ From that point on, I was more or less on my own.”

According to one of his teammates, Jordan’s preferred drink as a 21-year-old rookie was a mix of orange juice and 7Up.

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