Tag team, back again. Check it to wreck it, let’s begin.
It’s Monday, which means it’s time for another Bulls Session. The A.V. Club is back to break down Sunday’s episodes of The Last Dance, ESPN’s 10-part documentary on the Chicago Bulls’ 1990s championship reign. As in the first two hours, episodes III and IV alternate between the Bulls’ 1997-1998 season—their last as NBA champions—and how they got there, including additional in-depth looks at key figures in the Bulls franchise. This time it’s two of the most interesting personalities ever to set foot in the United Center: dogged defensive specialist, rabid rebounder, and certified bad boy Dennis Rodman; and soulful, chill-as-fuck head coach and former New York Knick Phil Jackson, who currently holds the most championship rings of any coach in NBA history. Here we get a glimpse of Rodman’s troubled past—including his childhood in the projects of Dallas and his life on the street as a young adult—and his eventual rise in college basketball and the NBA, due in no small part to his go-for-broke style of play. Jackson’s personal history, though not as tumultuous, is no less engrossing, as he shares the influence of Zen Buddhism and Native American traditions on his coaching and personal philosophy.
Other highlights of episodes III and IV: Jackson becomes the head coach; the Bulls win their first championship, and Jordan cries (no, not that time); he does that jump/punch thing; and Rodman goes AWOL in Vegas. Highlights of our conversation: We like nicknames (both NBA players’ and our own); Danette still hates the Pistons; we heart Phil Jackson and the triangle offense; and one of us (it’s Laura) is getting bored.
Danette Chavez: Hey, want to talk B-ball? I typed that while dribbling with my other hand.
Laura Adamczyk: I do! I’m spinning one atop my finger.
DC: First of all, I’d like to know, 1. What your favorite late-’90s NBA nickname was. And, 2. What your nickname would be.
LA: Hm, what was Bill Cartwright’s? It was something that sort of referred to how old he was, right?
DC: Oh, gosh, I forget. My parents called him Billy Goat Gruff.
LA: I just read that his hoarse voice is because he once took an elbow to the throat during a game!
[Cartwright’s nickname was Teach. —Ed.]
LA: Anyway, I like The Worm for Dennis Rodman, in part because it’s similar to Worm, Edward Norton’s character in Rounders. They’re both wily sorts. As far as a nickname for myself? For a hot sec in high school softball, a coach called me Big Hurt, which was sort of funny. I wasn’t that huge of a hitter. But I also honestly like Karl Malone’s The Mailman. Because he delivers! The mail. And the USPS needs some help these days. What about you?
DC: I will always have some reverence for His Airness, but I loved saying “Clyde The Glide.” And obviously, my basketball nickname would be “Nothin’ But Danette.”
LA: Oh, that’s good. Yeah, if you can work in a pun or some rhyming, it’s gonna stick.
Maybe these nicknames—His Airness and The Worm—are a good way to get into these episodes, the first of which focuses on Rodman. I have so much I can say about him, but maybe I’ll just start with one of the first things he says, when he talks about how he played: “I wanna go out there and get my nose broken. I wanna go out there and get cut. Something that brings out the hurt, the pain. I wanna feel that.” I love that so much. It’s fascinating. He feels like one of the only main players the series talks to who seems aware of what drove him to play and win. Or who at least can verbalize it so specifically. Jordan is “Win at any cost,” which I think is an attitude most people take for granted. And I’m just like, “Whyyy?” (I don’t watch a lot of sports.)
DC: I wanted to dig into nicknames because in episodes III and IV, we see more personalities emerge—“characters” like Dennis Rodman, who became as well-known for his personal relationships as for his unparalleled ability to clean up the glass, as they say. For the first time, it felt like there was an overarching narrative to dig into with each week’s games; we weren’t just watching to see who would win. We had favorite teams and favorite players; we were invested in specific rivalries.
Last week, The Last Dance positioned the Bulls as both the defending champions and the underdogs. They’re on a hero’s (or is it heroes’?) journey, which means it’s time to introduce the Big Bad. Enter the Detroit Pistons, a team name you can’t utter in this city without eliciting a chorus of boos. Watching that footage of Scottie Pippen being sacked in the air revived an old antipathy, and made me realize that I may have avoided visiting the city of Detroit because of the Pistons.
LA: See, my family didn’t really get into the Bulls until after the time of the Pistons had more or less passed. I remember the Knicks rivalry far better. But besides it being so wild how physical a team the Pistons were—seriously, what a bunch of bruisers—I was definitely interested to hear about the “Jordan Rules,” wherein they’d try to keep him on the floor, because it was all over once he “took flight.” That’s the phrasing used by former Piston John Salley, who seems amused and cool. (Side note: Would love for Salley to explain a bunch of this shit to me. His whole demeanor is great.) What’s maybe wilder than all that is how much Jordan still hates all of them! “The hate carries on even to this day.” Uh, why? Get over it, dude, who cares? That whole thing with the Pistons’ not shaking their hands after the Bulls swept them in the 1991 Eastern Conference playoffs? The episode really started to flag around there for me. The walk-off was built up to be this huge drama, and I’m just like, “Have another bourbon, Mike, and relax.” The whole thing feels laden with Jordan’s personal demons, which we never quite get to learn about. Did some of this start to feel a little long to you?
DC: See, I was probably more caught up in this week’s episodes because they reminded me that the Bulls really were a big part of my childhood. We watched these games as a family (and may have taped a few or all of them without the expressed written consent of the NBA). And while I wouldn’t say that any of these hyper-talented people were role models for me—I was never a student athlete or anything—I still took away lessons from their behavior, on and off the court. In watching episodes III and IV, I was struck by how much of my issues with “playing dirty” and needing to “rise above” could be traced in equal parts to the literature I consumed at the time and this big rivalry.
But I think you’re right that the docuseries remains a little too focused on Jordan. I found the detours into Phil Jackson’s philosophy, the particulars of the triangle offense, and Rodman’s drive and his own demons just as fascinating. But, as your pal John Salley noted, the NBA was determined to have a star. And that star was Michael Jordan.
LA: I don’t know if I took those same lessons re: fairness and playing dirty, but I had a similar feeling of intense injustice—that a team was bad because of how they played—with the Knicks. I loathed John Starks, so I can certainly relate.
And for all their flagging energy, these were my two favorite episodes (of the first eight) because of the focus on Rodman and Jackson. It feels like a natural pairing, because they’re both iconoclasts, or at least independent thinkers, in their own ways. Just as the ’90s Bulls shifted its offense to decenter Jordan and open things up to the rest of the team, so too has this doc. And yet… it always, always comes back to Jordan, who is as boring a personality as he was a phenomenal player.
But also, I’m so glad you brought up the triangle offense! I love how so many of Jackson’s decisions seem counterintuitive: 1. He doesn’t build the offense around Jordan. 2. And he lets Rodman go on a bender to Vegas in the middle of the season. And yet that’s what made him such a great coach. He gave his players the freedom to be themselves, and they flourished under him. Another side note: When general manager Jerry Krause was talking about Jackson coming in to interview for a job on the coaching staff, he talks about him not looking cleaned up. Then flashes on screen this picture of him, and I’m like, “Oh, I’d date ’70s era Phil Jackson.” But more accurate, I realize, is that I have dated ’70s era Phil Jackson. That’s more boyfriends than not, right there—tall, gangly, flannel, looks like they just got off a bus—but I digress. Far more interesting: Rodman needs to party. Let Rodman party! What did you make of Rodman’s vacation?
DC: I thought he showed real vulnerability, both by asking to let off a little steam and by being upfront about how he felt like the third wheel once Scottie Pippen had recuperated from his surgery. Rodman played a major role in securing the Bulls’ place in history, and he says as much on camera. But back then, everyone assumed having the former Piston (and Spur) play with the team he once knocked around on the paint would be like oil and water—or, even worse, like a lit match to dynamite.
But even if he wasn’t quite as single-minded about victory as Jordan was, Rodman knew what he was capable of (both good and bad), and clearly responded to Phil Jackson’s recognition of his talent. Speaking of Jackson, I thought all the discussion about Jordan emerging as a real leader during this time could just as easily apply to the head coach, and I think Last Dance sets them up on those parallel paths. I enjoyed revisiting [former Bulls coach] Doug Collins’ contributions to the team; his energy paired well with the Bulls when they were first finding their footing. But the docuseries also reveals how pivotal the switch to the triangle offense and otherwise slowing down their game was in establishing a dynasty.
I asked this last week, but what was your favorite moment from the archival footage? Because damn if I didn’t choke up when Jordan jumped in the air, pumping his fist, after making that buzzer-beating shot during the 1989 Cleveland playoff game.
LA: Yes, absolutely, I love that about Rodman. He knows what he needed (to party), he asked for it, and Jackson let him have it.
As far as favorite footage goes, honestly, I really like that clip of Rodman walking in the halls of the stadium followed by reporters when he says, “I’m bored as hell.” He’s really honest about how it can feel like a grind even if you’re the most dominant team in the league. He doesn’t have that contextless drive that Jordan has. He needs something else to motivate him. I also like when he’s recounting Jackson asking him if he wants to play for the Bulls. “You wanna play for the Bulls?” “I don’t care. Whatever. What’s up?”
But really, I could watch a whole lot more of all the player-specific supercuts set to ’90s rap and rock. Jordan gets Prince’s “Partyman”; Rodman gets some Beastie Boys. And then Jackson gets Cream’s “I Feel Free.” It’s like, basketball, but make it a music video.
DC: Well, if you liked those clips, you might enjoy the NBA Superstars VHS collection. Here’s a copy of one we wore out:
LA: Haha yesss.
DC: We haven’t had a chance to talk about the threat the Los Angeles Lakers posed!
LA: Their presumed threat, Danette. With Pippen picking up Magic full-court, forget about it.
DC: I loved Magic’s passing of the baton: “If I’m gonna lose to someone, I’m gonna lose to Michael.”
LA: Yes, that was good. And it fit into Jordan’s whole narrative of not only wanting to be a great player, but to also win championships, like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
DC: The superlatives and accolades may add up—most points in an away game, MVP, slam dunk contest wins—but they don’t mean much without that ring on the finger.
At this point in Last Dance’s story, the Bulls are still the ones to beat and the underdogs, although those positions have been flipped: When they were going for the championship in ’91, they look much stronger than they do as the reigning team in the ’97-’98 season. It looks like the end of the road for Jordan and Jackson. What are you most excited to see in the stretch in between?
LA: I think I’m most looking forward to seeing Steve Kerr’s winning shot in ’97. We haven’t gotten there yet, and that’s something that I have a clear memory of. Oh, also Pippen’s rather rude dunk on Ewing. What about you?
DC: The lead-up to the 72-win record in 1995-1996. Other things may fade, but they’ll never take that away from me. Well, the Bulls, and by extension, me.