The 10th and final episode of “The Last Dance” was the most straightforward of the series: There was no longer any need to jump back in time for history lessons, no new characters to introduce and no editorial edict to discuss what became of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls after their sixth title run. Their 1998 NBA Finals rematch with the Utah Jazz, which ended with Jordan’s brushoff of Bryon Russell and an iconic game-winning jumper, was the only story left to tell.
While the documentary captured the buildup to Game 6, its unforgettable ending and the jubilant celebration that ensued afterward in painstaking detail, there were some holes that prevented a completely satisfying conclusion.
Unlike all of Jordan’s other major foils during the 1990s, Utah’s Karl Malone did not appear in an interview. Ditto for Russell. John Stockton did speak for the Jazz, but he wasn’t prominently featured, and Jordan didn’t offer extended commentary on the only team he defeated twice in the Finals. What’s more, Jordan’s story ends abruptly in 1998 — with no acknowledgment that he returned to play for the Washington Wizards from 2001 to 2003. Given that hours were spent on his career before the title years and an attempt was made to explain the dynasty’s dissolution, this seemed to be a glaring and purposeful omission.
Even so, the 1998 Finals were a remarkable stage, and the behind-the-scenes footage didn’t disappoint. Before Game 1, Jordan bopped to an unreleased Kenny Lattimore album on the team bus, noting that the singer was a friend. After a Game 2 win, he brushed off a reporter’s comparison to Shaquille O’Neal. After a blowout Game 4 win, he said flatly that “the job is not done.” In the locker room before Game 5, he confidently promised longtime assistant coach Tex Winter that he will “slide a ring on your finger” — although Malone spoiled the plan with 39 points in a Utah win.
Before Game 6 in Utah, a Bulls staffer looked on as Jordan, wearing a dress shirt and dress pants, relaxed on the training table. The staffer compared Jordan to a “lion sitting in the shade, just staring” on a nature show. “Might see the kill today,” he added.
But Chicago got off to a horrible start in Game 6 when Scottie Pippen aggravated a back injury. The all-star forward tried to play on but had to leave for treatment.
“I went for a dunk, and it jammed my back,” he said. “I was done after that. I’m telling MJ I can’t go any more: ‘Dude, I’m done.’ I was a decoy that whole game, but [Utah] didn’t know it. Michael said, ‘Just stay out here and do what you can do.’ I gutted myself through that game.”
While Pippen left the court multiple times to get heat treatment and to stretch, Jordan and the Bulls did their best to hang on. They were pushed to the edge when a 36-year-old Stockton, seeking the first title of his career, hit a three-pointer to put Utah up three in the final minute.
“I never said, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is the Bulls,’ ” Stockton said in a matter-of-fact interview. “I sure didn’t feel an aura about Michael Jordan or the Bulls. I don’t know how you would play against somebody with that.”
Jordan, of course, handled the rest. Coming out of a timeout, he drove past Russell for a quick layup. Then, in perhaps the defining sequence of his career, he picked Malone’s pocket and set up one-on-one against Russell to take the final shot.
“[The Jazz] ran that play a couple times prior,” Jordan said. “Dennis [Rodman] and Malone had been fighting all game. Karl just totally forgot that I was on the weak side. Now I’ve got the ball. I can see [Coach Phil Jackson] out of the corner of my eye. He wasn’t going to call a timeout.”
The entire building was on its feet, expecting Jordan to take a shot that would end the series if he made it or force Game 7 if he missed. Jordan’s teammates knew what was coming, too.
“Get the hell out of the way [was] the only thing I was thinking,” Pippen said.
Rodman added: “I didn’t have to do s---. He’s going to shoot this f-----. He’s not going to pass this f------ ball. Hell no. This is his turn.”
Jordan bided his time against Russell, eventually driving right before slamming on the brakes. As Russell’s momentum carried him out of the play, Jordan brushed him away with his left hand. Jazz fans are still waiting for an offensive foul call 22 years later.
“Now everybody said I pushed off,” Jordan said. “Bulls---. His energy was going that way. I didn’t have to push him that way.”
Jordan stepped back, launched the jumper and held his follow-through. The shot was pure, giving him 45 points, an 87-86 win and his sixth title.
“He’s a hero,” Jackson said in the locker room. “He’s a guy who delivered every time he was asked to in these situations.”
Footage from the trophy presentation caught Jordan telling his coach that he “knew we were going to do it” despite Pippen’s health, the loud road crowd and the strong opponent.
Later, with champagne in his hand, Jordan marveled at the perfect ending to Chicago’s dominant run.
“Can you believe it? Six,” he said. “Six. Six of them. Six of them. Six of them. You can say what you want. They can’t win until we quit.”
Best quote: “That was poetic.” — Leonardo DiCaprio
The euphoric postgame celebration was quite a payoff for the NBA Entertainment crew that had been embedded with the Bulls all season long.
Jackson could barely believe what had happened as he hugged Jordan on the court. Malone sought out Jordan on Chicago’s bus to congratulate him. The Bulls squeezed into an elevator as hundreds of well-wishers mobbed their bus and hotel. Rodman instructed Carmen Electra to kiss the Larry O’Brien trophy for the cameras. Jordan played the piano for a crowd in his hotel room and narrated his final shot.
“That [Pippen injury] scared the s--- out of me,” he said. “Everything was shot. I had to flick my wrist. Fundamental s---. Throw your two fingers at it.”
But the most unexpected cameo of the entire documentary came from DiCaprio, then in his mid-20s. Somehow, in the post-game hallway bedlam, Jordan and DiCaprio ran into each other, with Jordan offering a hug and noting that the team had just watched DiCaprio’s “The Man in the Iron Mask.”
“You know what I told the guys when we stuck our hands in [for the pregame cheer]?” Jordan asked DiCaprio, before quoting the Three Musketeers’ slogan from the film. “All for one and one for all.”
DiCaprio managed only an awed reply: “Congratulations, man. You did some beautiful stuff just now, man. That was poetic.”
Funniest moment: “The Last Dance” invested major time in Rodman’s off-court exploits early in the series, a move that paid off handsomely in the final episode.
After Chicago’s blowout Game 3 win over visiting Utah, Rodman left the team so he could appear in Detroit alongside Hulk Hogan at a professional wrestling event. Much like his midseason trip to Las Vegas, Rodman’s exit was unexpected and left Jackson to answer questions.
“He’s only taking your focus away from the Finals,” Jackson scolded a reporter who dared to ask about Rodman’s antics. “Not ours.”
The chaotic scene took a turn toward the absurd when Rodman opted not to address the media before Game 4. With the help of Bulls staffers, he attempted to sneak out a side exit to avoid hundreds of reporters.
Rodman’s plot was foiled when the mob caught sight of him, forcing him to sprint up a staircase and into a waiting getaway vehicle. The future Hall of Famer was reduced to a high school kid playing hooky.
“Phil realized I just needed to always do me,” Rodman said. “They’re going to get 100 percent when [I’m] on the court.”
The Bulls parted ways with Rodman that summer, and he retired two years later.
Most revealing scene: The documentary opened with clear tension among Jordan, Pippen, Jackson and General Manager Jerry Krause over the organization’s future. Krause wanted to trade Pippen, move on from Jackson and pursue a rebuilding effort if Jordan retired for the second time. The players and coach took offense to the front office’s proactive planning during an ongoing dynasty.
Krause died in 2017, but he explained his reasoning in an unpublished memoir obtained by NBC Sports Chicago. The short version: Much of Chicago’s rotation was aging and set to receive large offers in free agency, which would leave Jordan without enough help to pursue a seventh title in 1999.
Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf offered a similar rationale in the documentary, although he said he offered Jackson an opportunity to return, which the coach declined.
“It would have been suicidal to bring back Pippen, [Steve] Kerr, Rodman, [Ron] Harper,” Reinsdorf said. “Their market value individually was going to be too high.”
Jordan said he had never spoken at length to Reinsdorf about the dissolution of the dynasty, and he rejected Reinsdorf’s assertion that Krause could have rebuilt another championship team around Jordan if he had wanted to return after the sixth title.
“We knew they weren’t going to keep the team,” he said. “If you asked all the guys in 1998 … we’ll give you a one-year contract to try for a seventh. You think they would have signed? Yes.
“Would I have signed for one year? Yes, I would have signed for one year. I had been signing one-year contracts up to that. Would Phil have done it? Yes. Pippen would need some convincing, [but] … Pip is not going to miss out on that.”
With time and distance to put Chicago’s run in perspective, the man who settled every score on the court sounded unsettled by what many believed was the perfect closing chapter in 1998.
“It’s maddening,” Jordan said. “I felt like we could have won seven. I really believe that. We may not have. To not be able to try, that’s something that I just can’t accept for whatever reason. I just can’t accept it.”
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