5 surprising things we learned from 'The Last Dance'

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April 20th, 2020

The anticipated 10-part documentary series "The Last Dance" premiered its first two episodes about the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls on ESPN Sunday.

Here are the five most surprising moments from the two episodes.

The feud with Jerry Krause

The documentary paints Krause, the Bulls general manager, as the antagonist. At the height of the Bulls’ success, Krause insisted on dismantling the roster after the 1997-98 season and building for the future.

Ahead of the season, Phil Jackson was told he had no shot at returning as head coach, even if the Bulls pulled off their sixth championship in Jackson’s eighth season in Chicago.

Bulls stars Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen showed disdain for Krause, too. MJ is seen poking fun at the small-statured GM on more than one occasion, and former players and Jackson detail an incident where Pippen berated Krause on the team bus.

One has to wonder if the Bulls would have added another couple trophies to their display case, if Krause had kept the team intact after the 1997-98 season.

Pippen’s salary

Pippen felt increasingly frustrated about his financial compensation near the end of his tenure in Chicago. Although he ranked first on the team in assists and steals, and second in scoring, rebounds, and minutes played, he earned the sixth-highest salary on the Bulls and 122nd-highest in the league.

In 1991, Pippen signed a seven-year, $18 million deal. Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf claims he advised Pippen not to do so, but the small forward wanted to ensure long-term financial security.

Pippen’s significance to the team became clear, when he sat out the first half of the 1997-98 season with a ruptured tendon. Instead of undergoing surgery in the offseason, he intentionally waited to begin the rehab process to make a point to the front office. The Bulls started the season on a four-game road losing streak and went 9-7 in November.

Orange juice and 7up

According to Jordan’s interviewer in the first episode, the Bulls of the early 1980s had been labeled the “cocaine traveling circus” by a local newspaper. Jordan laughed heartily at the suggestion, then told a story about one night during his rookie season in 1984, when he knocked on a teammate’s hotel door and found most of the Bulls players partying with women and illegal drugs.

Jordan left the room immediately and abstained from smoking, drinking, and partying when he entered the league. In footage from his rookie season, Jordan is seen washing his laundry, as Rick Telander of the The Chicago Sun-Times describes the Rookie of the Year winner as living “like a college kid” at the time. His mom visited him often, and former teammate Rod Higgins recalled that “orange juice and 7up was (Jordan’s) go-to.”

Jordan’s secret scrimmages at North Carolina

In Jordan’s second year in the league, he broke his foot in the third game of the season and missed 64 games. The Bulls had a 30-52 regular-season record that season. Jordan demanded playing time once he healed, but the Bulls planned to bench their star because of a 10% chance at re-injury, which could have ended his career.

During rehab, Jordan persuaded the Bulls to let him go back to the University of North Carolina to earn his degree. While he was there, Jordan secretly played one-on-one and worked his way back to five-on-five competition.

The Bulls had no idea he was playing basketball on campus, but they figured it out once they noticed the calf on his injured leg looked stronger than his non-injured leg upon his return from UNC.

Jordan's golf outing with Danny Ainge before Game 2

Once Jordan’s foot healed, he helped the Bulls make a surprise playoff run at the end of the 1985-86 season, despite playing just 14 minutes per game, under a minutes restriction imparted by the front office.

Management then granted Jordan unlimited playing time in the postseason, where he faced Ainge, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Bill Walton, and the Boston Celtics dynasty in the first round. Jordan dropped an astounding 49 points in a 123-104 loss in Game 1. Before Game 2, he and Ainge — now general manager of the Celtics — met up on the golf course.

Ainge remembered taking “a few bucks off of Michael that day,” as Jordan struggled on the course. Jordan said he’d repay Ainge — and his teammate, Dennis Johnson, who guarded Jordan in the series — on the court the next night.

Jordan held true on his promise, as he racked up 63 points (a record for a playoff game), but the Bulls still fell, 135-131, in double overtime. Bird explained the feat, saying it wasn’t Jordan he played that day. It was “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

Two new episodes of The Last Dance will air each Sunday on ESPN, from April 19 to May 17. 

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