Beard: 'Last Dance' docuseries takes hard dip with Pistons' legacy
Most good stories not only have intriguing characters but also have a good plot and some surprises. “The Last Dance,” the 10-part docuseries about the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 championship season, has all of that — and then some.
But it’s not without its flaws.
One of the biggest shortcomings of the documentary is its depiction of the Pistons and Isiah Thomas. Of course, with Jordan and the Bulls being cast as the protagonists, there has to be a foil — and Thomas and the Pistons are made to fit conveniently into that box.
Throughout the first six episodes of “The Last Dance,” opinions have been shaded by the point of view in storytelling. Some will say that Goldilocks was just tired and needed a chair to sit, porridge to eat and a bed to sleep. Others will say that the Three Bears would have been right to maul an intruder in their home.
It’s a matter of perspective.
History indeed is written by the victors, and how each team is portrayed always was going to be slanted a certain way. Jordan had significant say-so over what direction the documentary was going to take and what things were included — and omitted.
The Pistons beat the Bulls three straight years in the playoffs before Chicago finally prevailed in ’91, on the way to their first NBA championship. It was a pivotal moment for the Bulls, but the “Bad Boys” Pistons, who won back-to-back titles in 1989 and ’90, are portrayed as menacing, ill-mannered thugs more than the champions they were.
Highlights from that era tend to portray the Pistons as the only team that was physical, but that was typical of many teams during that era. The Bulls themselves were just as rugged, along with the Celtics and Utah Jazz. Even the New York Knicks, whom the Bulls beat in the East finals in 1993, were described as “an incredibly tough, motivated and well-coached Knicks team” was an obstacle for the Bulls.
That Knicks team wasn’t as skilled, experienced or successful as the Pistons, who ascended by beating two of the titans of that era in the Celtics and Lakers.
Memories and selective highlight clips have their way of rewriting history in a certain way. The documentary made very little mention of the Pistons as an elite defensive team — outside of the rough stuff. Hall of Fame Joe Dumars, the mild-mannered Pistons guard who capably defended Jordan and was the ’89 Finals MVP. Dennis Rodman was the two-time defensive player of the year and also spent plenty of time buzzing around Jordan.
Beyond the fouls, little is mentioned about Bill Laimbeer, who was far ahead of his time as a perimeter-shooting big man. The late Chuck Daly rarely gets his due as a top-tier coach — even though he was selected to lead the 1992 U.S. Olympics “Dream Team.”
It’s almost as if ESPN’s 30 for 30 piece on the Bad Boys should be required viewing before watching “The Last Dance,” in order to provide a balance in how the story of the two teams is told.
Thomas was the face of the Pistons’ franchise and is the central figure in their stunt of walking off the court without shaking the Bulls’ hands in the ’91 Eastern Conference Finals, in what has become one of the major focal points of the docuseries so far. Thomas explained that it was the way things were done at the time, pointing out that Larry Bird did the same when the Pistons overcame the Celtics years earlier.
That didn’t at all sit well with Jordan then — and it still doesn’t now. While Thomas and some of the other Pistons interviewed in the documentary spoke in more positive terms about Jordan and the Bulls, that sentiment wasn’t reciprocated.
“I respect Isiah Thomas’ talent. To me, the best point guard of all time is Magic Johnson and right behind him is Isiah Thomas,” Jordan said. “No matter how much I hate him, I respect his game.”
Although the first part of the quote is a stunning admission from Jordan, the “hate” in the second part shows that some of the vitriol still remains. In the documentary, Jordan’s nemeses — Thomas, Toni Kukoc and Clyde Drexler and others — all were vanquished and shown in less-than-ideal terms.
Thomas, the 12-time All-Star and 1990 Finals MVP, wasn’t selected for the Dream Team and the documentary resents more information that suggests that it wasn’t because of skill or that some preferred John Stockton over him. Thomas said before the documentary was released that he was leery of how the Pistons’ legacy would be depicted — and for good reason.
Time has affected some of the narrative, which is up for debate and interpretation through the documentary.
“Basketball-wise, I hope it sparked people’s curiosity to go back and examine how we played. What’s happening is people are starting to look at the Pistons and say maybe they were a good basketball team,” Thomas told The Detroit News. “Even though we’re being portrayed as only fouling, people are going back and watching the games.
“They haven’t seen how we played — they had heard — but now they see it. Now they’re seeing how good we were defensively and during that time how futuristic we were in terms of our playing style.”
With Thomas, Dumars and Rodman, that Pistons team had three players who are in the Hall of Fame and along with Vinnie Johnson, they had one of the best backcourt combinations of all time.
As two-time champions in the NBA's golden age, the Pistons deserve more respect for their accomplishments as a bridge between the elite Celtics and Lakers teams and the coming of the Bulls.
They're just not portrayed that way — but it’s all a matter of perspective.