“The Last Dance” ended with scenes of triumph. And a plot twist.
“That night,” Phil Jackson said of the aftermath of the Bulls’ sixth championship at the close of Episode 10, “Jerry Reinsdorf called me up and asked me to come back.”
“After the sixth championship, I offered him (Jackson) the opportunity to come back. He earned the opportunity to come back, regardless of what was said before,” the Bulls owner said in a present-day interview.
It’s a gripping zag, given, well, the title of the series. “The Last Dance.” From the very outset of the documentary, the premise was established and cemented that no circumstances could have spurred this Bulls team to staying together after the summer of 1998. Title or no.
Jerry Krause is portrayed as the primary purveyor of that sentiment. After all, he had his next coach in Tim Floyd waiting in the wings. He is the one who reportedly delivered the quote that if Jackson went 82-0, he still wouldn’t bring him back. Throughout the Bulls’ dynastic run, Krause repeatedly drew the ire of the team’s two best players in Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. That manifested in malicious chides at practice, outbursts on the team bus, targeted performances at opposing players (see: Toni Kukoc, Dan Majerle) and more.
In an excerpt from his unpublished memoir, Krause explained his side of the dynasty splintering — a case of “natural attrition” in his words, a brutal blend of aging stars, soon-to-be overpriced role players and stringent salary cap. Watching how arduous the Bulls’ sixth title was to achieve lends credence to that perspective.
That set the stage for the final iPad pass of the series, and perhaps the most tense one. Minutes before the documentary’s conclusion, director Jason Hehir brandished a screen in front of Jordan’s face, promising it to project Reinsdorf’s reasoning behind the breakup.
“I can’t wait to hear this. We’ve never had any dialogue about why,” Jordan said. “I made my own assumptions.”
Here’s Reinsdorf’s response, in full. It echoes key points of Krause’s reasoning, including the idea that Jackson had explicitly conveyed he didn’t want to coach a rebuilding team.
“After the sixth championship things were beyond our control. It would’ve been suicidal at that point in their careers to bring back Pippen, Steve Kerr, Rodman, Ron Harper… Their market value individually was going to be too high. They weren’t gonna be worth the money they were going to get in the market.
“So when we realized we were going to have to go into a rebuild, I went to Phil and offered him the opportunity to come back the next year. But he said, ‘I don’t want to go through a rebuild. I don’t want to coach a bad team.’ That was the end. It just came to an end on its own. If Michael had been healthy and wanted to come back, I don’t doubt that Krause could’ve rebuilt another championship team in a couple of years but it wasn’t going to happen instantly.”
Jackson’s famous seven-year theorem had already expired by the time the Bulls won their sixth title. By then, he’d coached nine seasons in Chicago. In the documentary he said he thought it was time to “take a break.” Plus: “I said, 'I don’t think it’s fair to Jerry (Krause),'” Jackson said, “and I know it’d be difficult for him to accept that.”
Still, Jordan met Reinsdorf’s explanation with healthy and apparent skepticism. It was written across his face in the form of an incredulous eyebrow raise as Reinsdorf spoke. He put it into words once the video stopped.
“In ’98, Krause already said at the beginning of the season Phil could go 82-0 and he was never going to be the coach. So when Phil said it was the last dance, it was the last dance,” Jordan said. “We knew they weren’t going to keep the team together. They could’ve nixed all of it at the beginning of ’98. Why say that statement at the beginning of ’98?
“If you ask all the guys that won in ’98, Steve Kerr, Jed Buechler… We give you a one-year contract to try for a seventh, you think they would’ve signed it? Yes, they would have signed for one year. Would I have signed it? Yes, I would have signed for one year. I had been signing one-year contracts up to that. Would Phil have done it? Yes. Now Pip, you would’ve had to do some convincing. But if Phil was gonna be there, Dennis was gonna be there and MJ was gonna be there to win our seventh, Pip is not going to miss out on that.”
Indeed, Pippen might have been the most difficult to convince. To that point in his career (11 years in), he had earned $22,275,000. His sign-and-trade to Houston after the 1998 season earned him roughly $77 million over his next five seasons. Jackson, for his part, took his much-needed season off before returning to the bench with the Los Angeles Lakers. As Krause writes, the ancillary cogs in the Bulls’ machine moved on, but nary many reached the individual heights they achieved in Chicago again.
And crucially, despite Jordan saying in an earlier episode that he didn’t want to be a player that had to be carried off the court at the end of his career, he called it “maddening” to have walked away from the game on top, and at, what he believes, was the peak of his physical and mental powers. This wasn’t 1993. He wasn’t done. He wanted to come back. And he believes the whole gang would have wanted to, as well, if presented the opportunity.
“I felt like we could have won seven. I really believed that,” Jordan said. “We may not have, but man, not to be able to try, that’s just something I can’t accept for whatever reason I just can’t accept it.”
It’s hard not to believe him. Or at least yearn for what could have been.
That inability to accept what is as quixotic a storybook ending as you could script is truly at the heart of the entire story of “The Last Dance.” Every mini-flame ignited in Jordan’s eyes upon mention of a past foe. Every tale spun, memory recalled and what-if pontificated. All of them brought him closer to the days he clearly longs for, but can never get back.
His insatiability is what made him the greatest basketball player of all time. Still, it drives him.