Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf knows Michael Jordan’s competitiveness as well as anyone.
It flashed again, and forevermore, in the final moments of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary. Jordan arched an eyebrow while listening to playback of Reinsdorf’s interview giving filmmakers an explanation for the dynasty’s end.
Then, Jordan passionately stated why he believes the principals should have been kept intact to try for a seventh championship in 1998-99.
“I was not pleased. How’s that?” Reinsdorf told NBC Sports Chicago in a phone conversation, when asked for his reaction to the scene. “He knew better. Michael and I had some private conversations at that time that I won’t go into detail on ever. But there’s no question in my mind that Michael’s feeling at the time was we could not put together a championship team the next year.”
Don’t get it twisted. Reinsdorf called his current relationship with Jordan “great” and said his favorite part of the documentary is that it should put to rest any doubt about the NBA’s greatest player of all-time.
In February, Reinsdorf found himself at the same Florida hotel as Jordan, now chairman of the Charlotte Hornets. Reinsdorf said he, Jordan and Derek Jeter spent three hours together, sharing laughs and conversation.
“We had a great time. I love Michael,” Reinsdorf said. “Michael is terrific.”
But to Reinsdorf, the revisionist history of the end of the dynasty is less so.
“I asked (coach) Phil (Jackson) to come back. Phil said no. Michael said I won’t play for anybody other than Phil,” Reinsdorf said, reiterating facts that were reported 22 years ago. “I met with Michael on the 3rd of July of that year and I said to him, ‘We’re in a lockout. Who knows when we’re going to play? Why don’t you wait until the lockout is over and maybe I can talk Phil into coming back?’ And he agreed.
“When the lockout was over, I still couldn’t talk Phil into coming back. And the big thing is Michael had cut his finger with a cigar cutter, and he couldn’t have played. So what’s all this talk about bringing everybody back when Michael couldn’t have come back?”
The flip side, of course, is that perhaps Jordan doesn’t pick up a cigar cutter in retirement mode if he knows his preferred coach and trusted teammates like Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman will be re-signed once the lockout is over.
“OK, let’s take that hypothetical. Scottie had Houston offering him a multi-year contract. You think he would’ve turned that down to come back for one year? I don’t think so,” Reinsdorf said. “Dennis Rodman had gone beyond the pale. As it turned out, he played 35 games after that (in his career). Luc Longley was on his last legs. If we had brought that team back, they were gassed. Michael had been carrying that team.”
In his book “Eleven Rings,” Jackson wrote in great detail about Reinsdorf’s offer to return in 1998 and his theory about not staying with a team beyond seven seasons. Ultimately, he coached nine in Chicago but wrote about seeking transformation by moving on.
Reinsdorf once again acknowledged the part that Jackson’s frayed relationship with general manager Jerry Krause played in Jackson’s exit.
“Absolutely true. And Jerry saying he could go 82-0 and he’s still not coming back, that was pretty ridiculous,” Reinsdorf said. “I told Jerry he shouldn’t have said it, and I think Jerry realized that.”
The Bulls and Jackson endured a contentious contract negotiation in 1997, the second straight offseason that Jackson signed a one-year deal. The only difference between that summer and 1998 is that Reinsdorf was able to salvage the negotiations and convince Jackson to return.
“I flew out to Montana and even at that time, Phil said that was going to be his last year,” Reinsdorf said.
Reinsdorf, 84, long has accepted the dynasty’s end. He knows how difficult and rare they are in professional sports. Reliving it through the documentary has only heightened the feeling of appreciation for him.
“This is history. It makes for fascinating stuff,” Reinsdorf said. “And ‘The Last Dance’ obviously should establish in the mind of any person with normal eyesight that Michael was beyond a doubt the greatest of all-time. In my mind, anytime anybody wants to talk to me about comparing Michael to LeBron (James), I’m going to tell them to please don’t waste my time.
“I’m really pleased it showed how great Michael was to people who hadn’t seen him play. I’m truly tired of people trying to compare LeBron to Michael when it’s not even close. They should try to compare LeBron with Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson. Michael was so head and shoulders over everybody, and that really came out in this documentary. He was a phenomenon. We may never see another like him.”