“The Last Dance” has sent any and everyone in the gravitational pull of the Bulls’ dynasty on simultaneous strolls down memory lane.
That includes Rusty LaRue, a reserve guard on the 1997-98 team. LaRue played just 140 total minutes that season (none in the playoffs) and hasn’t gotten a mention in the docuseries, but he’s spent the past few weeks sharing relics from the era on social media:
Pulled some of the old memorabilia out! Been forever since I looked through this stuff. Pretty cool I kept The Last Dance team manual and the letter that came with my contract for the season. #TheLastDance pic.twitter.com/WnarVmcy7Q— Rusty LaRue (@Rusty_LaRue) April 26, 2020
During #TheLastDance I was called up 2 weeks into the season. Was waiting on the phone call but had to go to 1st ever game for @IdahoStampede. So I left @tammywlarue at home waiting on the call with a “To do list if it’s a go”. She arrived just before game to give me the 👍 pic.twitter.com/iIRcfomYig— Rusty LaRue (@Rusty_LaRue) May 3, 2020
One post in particular, though, piqued our curiosity. On May 2, LaRue tweeted out a page of an old itinerary packet from an undisclosed road trip during the Bulls’ 1997-98 season. Amusing because, while some Bulls (including LaRue) had no objection with their real names being printed next to their hotel room assignment, most on the team opted for aliases on the written record of their whereabouts — a marker of how widespread the team’s fame was at the time.
The immediate follow-up: Who was who? It’s actually a more crackable code than you might think — and thank you to LaRue, Toni Kukoc, Joe Kleine and Bill Wennington for that.
Take a look at the Bulls’ 1997-98 roster and LaRue’s call sheet side-by-side. See if you notice anything:
Via Rusty LaRue and Basketball Reference
It’s in alphabetical order! Now, these two tables don’t perfectly line up. There are 15 players on the Bulls’ hotel room assignment sheet and 17 on the Basketball Reference roster, which makes for a few crucial inconsistencies. As an example, Kleine is the eighth player listed on the red page, but the ninth on the official roster. And there are four players between LaRue and Wennington on the left while there are five on the right.
For explanation, look no further than the Bulls’ transaction log from that season. During the 1997-98 season, the Bulls made three significant roster moves:
Feb. 19, 1998: Traded Jason Caffey to the Golden State Warriors for David Vaughn and two second round picks
March 2, 1998: Waived Vaughn
March 2, 1998: Signed Dickey Simpkins
Caffey, Vaughn and Simpkins all appear on the Basketball Reference 1997-98 Bulls’ roster because all three spent time with the team at some point during the season, but no two of them were employed by the Bulls at the same time. If we assume the game in question happened at some point after the trade of Caffey, the two lists line up as such:
John Thompson - Keith Booth
Fred Sanford ------ Randy Brown
Greg Noll ----------- Jud Buechler
Tyson Bedford ---- Scott Burrell
Peter Parker ------- Ron Harper
Oscar Miles -------- Michael Jordan
Austin Powers ---- Steve Kerr
Joe Kleine ---------- Joe Kleine
Toni Kukoc --------- Toni Kukoc
Rusty LaRue ------- Rusty LaRue
Stagger Lee -------- Luc Longley
Johnnie Walker --- Scottie Pippen
Brook Mason ------ Dennis Rodman
Bumpy Johnson -- David Vaughn/Dickey Simpkins (depending on if the game was before or after March 2)
Bill Wennington --- Bill Wennington
And if you’re still not convinced, I submit these nuggets as further evidence:
John Thompson served as Georgetown’s head men’s basketball coach for 27 years from 1972-1999, and became the first African American head coach to win a major Division I championship in 1984. Keith Booth grew up in Baltimore, Md. in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s and attended the University of Maryland for college. He would have been well-acquainted with Thompson’s successes and pioneership.
Born and bred in San Diego, Jud Buechler’s lifelong love of surfing is widely known. In fact, Luc Longley sustained a pretty serious shoulder injury body-surfing with Buechler back in Nov. 1996. Greg Noll was a trail-blazer in the big wave surfing game.
Ron Harper’s son, Ron Harper Jr., who currently attends and plays basketball at Rutgers, listed Spiderman (Peter Parker) as his favorite superhero for his athlete biography page. As far as hard evidence goes, I’ll admit this is pretty flimsy. But it’s something!
Who else but Michael Jordan would list an Illinois Golf Hall of Fame inductee (Oscar Miles) as their alias?
Joe Kleine is Joe Kleine.
Toni Kukoc is Toni Kukoc (and how perfect that Kukoc — certainly not not notorious in that moment in time — just could not be bothered with a road-trip alias. What the hell did he have to fear?).
Rusty LaRue is Rusty LaRue.
“I would sign in under aliases Bruce Doull, Norman Gunston, Stagger Lee, which you could get away with over there," Luc Longley once said. No, I cannot independently confirm this quote, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned working in sports media, it’s to believe everything you read on the internet. Blindly and all at once.
John Walker was a prominent civil rights attorney in Arkansas in the latter half of the 20th century. His career achievements include degrees from NYU (masters) and Yale (law), partnering at Arkansas’ first integrated law firm in 1965 and being elected a state house representative in 2010 before passing away in 2011. Scottie Pippen was born in Hamburg, Ark. in 1965. Johnnie Walker is also a famous whiskey brand, and "scotch" is pretty close to "Scott."
Bill Wennington is Bill Wennington.
The icing on the cake: The room assignment sheet LaRue tweeted lists Jordan's security staff as being rooms 1804 and 1810, with Pippen's detail in 1704. Oscar Miles was in room 1809. Johnnie Walker in 1709. Adds up.
All of the above doesn't represent iron-clad reasoning for every alias, to be sure, but it's certainly enough to validate the initial hypothesis. As for the rest, Fred Sanford and Austin Powers are both, of course, iconic pop culture figures; Tyson Bedford (could Burrell have meant Beckford? Or perhaps it’s an allusion to Mike Tyson’s Brooklyn roots?) doesn’t exist; Bumpy Johnson is an infamous New York mob boss, but has no apparent link to Simpkins or Vaughn; and, I’ll be candid, I’m not sure what to make of Rodman’s choice of Brook Mason, which turns up little to nothing on a cursory Google search.
It’s been a little over two months since the NBA suspended its season. It’s been a little over three days since the latest episodes of “The Last Dance” aired. It’s been a little over 20 years since the Bulls capped off the most iconic dynasty the sport of basketball has ever seen.
But this team will never stop providing us mysteries to unfurl. And we’re forever grateful for that.