Like many basketball fans, Michigan coach Juwan Howard watched ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary that focuses on Michael Jordan and his final season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-98.
But unlike most viewers, Howard made an appearance and caught a glimpse of himself toward the end of the 10-part series.
Howard’s cameo came during the eighth episode that provided a behind-the-scenes look at some of the legendary pickup games Jordan held in August 1995 when he was filming “Space Jam” in Los Angeles.
After Jordan launched his NBA comeback late in the 1994-95 season following a year-and-a-half stint playing minor league baseball in the Chicago White Sox organization, the Bulls fell to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference semifinals. That’s where the pickup games come in.
Jordan was scheduled to film the Looney Tunes classic over the summer, but he wanted to get back into peak shape and prepare for the next season. So, Warner Bros. constructed a gigantic air-inflated tent on the studio lot — dubbed the Jordan Dome — that featured a regulation-sized basketball court and workout equipment.
Night in and night out, Jordan brought in some of the NBA’s best players and top young talent to compete with and against after a full day of filming. Among those to receive an invite was Howard, the Chicago native and former Fab Five member who was coming off his rookie season with the Washington Bullets.
“I know the impact that MJ has had on my life,” Howard said in an interview with the Big Ten Network earlier this week. “He's always been a big brother teaching me how to be a professional, teaching me work ethics.
“Getting a chance to watch him work out for an entire summer and see how he's been invested into improving as a player, which amazes me the most because here's the greatest player in the world — the G.O.A.T in my opinion — still working at his craft.”
The pickup games would turn into impromptu All-Star affairs with the likes of Reggie Miller, Dennis Rodman, Charles Barkley Tim Hardaway, Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Chris Mullin, Rod Strickland, Gary Payton, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning all dropping in. Even Glen Rice, the former Michigan star, and Grant Hill, who was heading into his second season with the Detroit Pistons at the time, showed up.
The contests were star-studded and entertaining. They were also full of intensity and lasted for hours.
“If you were there, you were there to play. You weren’t there to just BS around,” Hardaway told SLAM magazine. “There was (crap) talking up in your face, good defense. It was very, very, very competitive. You didn’t want to lose. It was all about bragging rights… You came with your best. You were there to bust people’s (butt) and show them, this is the way it’s going to be all season long when I play against you. You wanted to put something in people’s minds. Like, every time I play against you, this is the way it’s going to be.”
Miller, who also spoke with SLAM magazine, added: “Juwan Howard and Dennis Rodman were the two players who really stood out to me, besides Jordan being Jordan. Those two guys always brought it.”
All the epic pickup games that summer paid off for Jordan. The Bulls went 72-10 during the 1995-96 season and won the NBA title, the first in the franchise’s second run of three consecutive championships that decade.
The "Space Jam" battles also proved beneficial to Howard, who went on to average a career-high 22.1 points and earn the lone All-Star nod of his 19-year NBA career the following season.
“That was some of the most competitive basketball that I've ever been around, each and every day when we were out there playing,” Howard said. “I mean, we played like five days a week every night. Just to see MJ and Reggie matched up on the floor against one another and then to see MJ and Rodman on the same team (was memorable).”
While Howard was glued to the TV and enjoyed getting to see a different side of Jordan in the docuseries, he just had one critique.
“They never showed where me and Reggie — we won a lot of those games,” Howard said, grinning. “I'm a little disappointed they didn't show the entire workouts and all the pickup games on how we beat them. Yeah, we lost a few games, too, but it was one of the best summers ever.”