'Last Dance' finale offers deep dish behind Michael Jordan's 'flu game'
For the past five Sundays, ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary on Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls has provided a needed respite from the COVID-19 pandemic and having no live sports.
The final two episodes wrapped the 10-part series with the final stretch of the win in the conference finals over the Indiana Pacers and the NBA finals over the Utah Jazz. As it did in the first eight parts, the final two episodes capture many behind-the-scenes moments and stories that tell a bigger picture — but still not the whole story, as Jordan had some editorial approval over the final cuts — of that Bulls team.
Here are some takeaways from the Episodes 9 and 10 of “The Last Dance” from Sunday:
► 1. The Pistons references weren’t done after the first few episodes. As Jordan described his rivalry with the Indiana Pacers, he said: “If I had to pick a team that gave us the toughest time in the East, it was Indiana — outside of Detroit.”
Jordan seems to harbor significant vitriol for Isiah Thomas — still — but in general about the Pistons, he seems to maintain a level of respect for them as a collective and what they represented: the obstacle that he had to climb in order to achieve his greatness. As a whole, the documentary didn’t portray the Pistons fully nor give them the full respect they deserved, but there was some acknowledgment of their place in the pantheon of that legendary era.
► 2. Near the end of the final episode, Jordan expressed that he wanted to come back for another season in 1999 to try to win a seventh championship. As had been intimated in the first episode, general manager Jerry Krause famously committed to break up that squad, even if they had won all 82 games in the regular season.
"It's maddening (to leave at your peak) because I felt like we could have won seven (titles) ... it's something I can't accept," Jordan lamented.
The debate will rage about whether that Bulls team could have prevailed again in the lockout-shortened season, but that’s part of what makes the discussions so enthralling because we’ll never know.
► 3. What has gone down in basketball lore as Jordan’s “flu game” was explained more fully as “Pizzagate,” as Jordan told that while in Salt Lake City on the night before the game, he ordered pizza from the only local pizza shop that was open late. There were four or five delivery guys who brought the pizza and Jordan ate the entire pizza. Those are some shady circumstances, but I can take a guess which establishment this is, during my trips to Salt Lake City and wanting late-night food as well.
As the story goes, Jordan was up all night with his vomiting and it lasted into the next day of the game, and he played through it tall. The atmosphere for Jazz games is formidable, which was brought up a couple of times in the documentary, including by Jordan’s children, who didn’t take the road trips there because it wasn’t deemed safe for them.
► 4. Steve Kerr is highlighted in his role as a player, which is different from how he’s known now as the coach of the Golden State Warriors. The storyline focuses mostly on his father, who was the head of the American University in Beirut and was killed by gunmen. It’s a subtle hat-tip to Kerr’s continued stance against gun violence and his outspoken political stance, especially on social media.
Another of the key takeaways from the docuseries is how it recasts many of the luminaries of that era in a present light and the juxtaposition of how they’re remembered versus how they’re shown in Jordan’s terms and within some of the untold stories and previously unshown footage.
► 5. The previous two episodes showed how competitive Jordan was and how he’d conjure his own motivation for not liking someone and wanting to beat a person, a team or anyone for any reason. That included then-rookie Jazz guard Bryon Russell, who had trash-talked Jordan during his retirement — a slight that Jordan never forgot and put Russell on “the list.”
That ability to create his own personal vendettas is what separated Jordan from many of his contemporaries. Fans and media members assume that there’s an importance to every playoff game and to every level of competition. Jordan did it for everything, from pitching quarters with his security team to Finals games. It’s an incredible trait that is highlighted well in the documentary.
► 6. The sideshows following that Bulls team, including Rodman taking a siesta to Las Vegas and then another — during the NBA Finals — to do a wrestling show gave a glimpse of how much of a circus that 1998 season was. There were so many distractions, along with so much coverage, that made that team compelling. One wonders how they would have fared during this era that includes social media and more reporters buzzing around. Jordan gave appropriate homage to his security team and many other characters who were around the team during those years, showing that there’s something important about anybody, if given the right treatment and storytelling.