ESPN’s “The Last Dance”: 3 Life Lessons from Episodes 1 & 2

How COVID-19 changed everything, Jerry Krause’s quest for control, MJ’s growth & Pippen’s payroll problems.

Artwork courtesy of: Dribble.com

It’s 2020 and COVID-19 has changed the game forever.

Life as we’ve known it has been altered by a virus that we can’t see. Yet, ever present.

History books will recollect on how planet earth stood still due to “The Rona”.

On the lower end of the totem pole, sports fans are not able to tune into their favorite sports teams competing for championships. Usually during this time, the NBA Playoffs would be in full swing, showcasing daily triple headers.

Not the case in 2020.

So what’s the silver lining through all of this? Since, you know, sports provides people relief from their daily routines and now has an unknown return date? Well, In comes ESPN, walking through that door.

By making an executive decision to scrap the original playbook to move the ball quicker due to the deserted court of sports content.

ESPN’s, “The Last Dance” is a documentary discussing the legendary basketball OG’s: The 1990’s Chicago Bulls. In a time of sports desperation, this 10 episode series is sweeping fans off their feet onto Nostalgia Street.

Appreciate it while it’s here my friends. This documentary could very well be the closest thing we get back to NBA athletic normalcy for a while.

The 1997–1998 Chicago Bulls had a chance to re-do the record books. Defending champs embarking upon a second 3-Peat. Two episodes in, the documentary has already shaped up to be quite layered and nuanced on a multitude of levels beyond basketball. How the documentary came to be to the idea was interesting in itself.

ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne recently wrote an insightful article outlining the number of hurdles many potential producers tried to leap over in the race to cover Chi-Town’s hooping rockstars. Earning the opportunity to become Chief Content Officer over elusive ’98 Bulls footage took someone special. See, as Shelburne discusses in her piece, the only reason “The Last Dance” footage even existed was due to a clause in the deal that granted Michael Jeffrey Jordan full autonomy to give the go/no-go on this project. He held king & ace for a royal flush on the NBA’s poker table.

He was Commodus from Gladiator.

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Famous names like Spike Lee and Danny Devito didn’t have the creative chops to convince MJ to release the film. Mars Blackmon couldn’t even get the gig?

It seemed the documentary was DOA from Jump Street.

That is until Mike Tollin battled against the odds to secure his chance to compete for confidential content in the NBA’s colosseum.

Had Tollin not taken his talents to Charlotte, North Carolina on ironically the same day that LeBron James was parading through the streets of Cleveland, Ohio, only Heaven knows where we would be right now without live sports.

The aforementioned “Chosen One” was chasing down blocks and “The Ghost” to beat the one team closest to challenging MJ’s Bulls team for the unofficial moniker as “greatest team ever”. The 2015–2016 Golden State Warriors may have indirectly assisted in releasing the iconic Last Dance footage.

Otherwise, that film could have very well rotted away in Secaucus, New Jersey. What an injustice it would’ve been to allow the Chicago Bulls archives to remain in the abyss. A blatant disservice to hoop fans domestically and globally. In steps our production hero Tollin, whose portfolio included “Varsity Blues” and “Coach Carter”, to show up and save the day by starting his pitch to MJ like this:

“Dear Michael, every day kids come into my office wearing your shoes, who’ve never seen you play..

It’s Time.”

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That’s what my generation calls “BARS!”. No other producer has even gotten IN THE SAME ROOM with The Jumpman to speak about the documentarty..how much getting MJ to pull out his bifocals and read every single line on Tollin’s pitch page.

The moment deserved a Mark Breen “BANG!!!”

Courtesy of The Ringer

Tollin, in my opinion, did two things with that opening intro at His Royal Airness chambers:

First, he showed Michael Jeffrey Jordan, global basketball icon nearly two decades removed from hooping, had been relegated to a recycled footwear fashion aficionado. (Note: Apparently, he hated anything that made him feel old so I’m sure being known more for his retro kicks than his remarkable play is somewhere near the top of that list)

Finally, Tollin challenged the living legend to GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT!

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If that line alone couldn’t convince MJ, his love for A.I. was the last shot in the 4th quarter of their conversation. Apparently, MJ’s answer was secured to do the documentary after he found out Tollin directed The Answer’s documentary three times and cried while viewing it…

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As a man in my early 30’s, I remember some of those Bulls moments then but didn’t really know what I was watching as a kid. So for me, “The Last Dance” was schooling my generation and those younger than me on some life lessons that can be used in everyday living from Episodes 1 & 2:

  1. It’s Better to Catch Bees with Honey than Vinegar

Jerry Krause wanted to be basketball royalty…badly. His desire to be the king of the Chicago Bulls was apparent but he ended up being mocked like a Medieval Court Jester delivering bad jokes.

After the live airing of the documentary, Jackie Macmullen was live on SVP on ESPN. She gave a great anecdote on how the team, notably MJ and Pippen, gave GM Jerry Krause the nickname of “crumbs”. This was due to the amount of muffin debris decorating his dress shirts after feeding his face.

Busting someone’s chops by dubbing them “Crumbs” as a nickname is comical on several layers. I don’t care what ya’ll say. After I saw what Krause looked like, I cannot unsee this man’s nickname being “Crumbs”.

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From watching the first two episodes of this documentary, the internal dysfunction between management and players on an all-time squad was incredible. It all pointed to the man whose pen provided the product on the floor. However, he wanted more credit beyond the contractual ink he acquired by crafting the roster. What Crumbs Krause failed to realize is something the NBA’s Commissioner, the late great David Stern, had hung The Association’s athletic hat on:

It’s a player’s league.

Yes, coaches are extremely valuable because they needed Phil Jackson to get there. Phil was the zen mastermind who orchestrated the athletic musical on the floor to the tune of five championships, embedding mindfulness into the Triangle Offense. Ownership is critical because they are architects of the franchises’ culture. Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the Bulls, cut the checks and kept the lights on. But at the end of the day…

IT’S A PLAYERS LEAGUE…🗣PERIOD!

MJ was the best player of his era. Pippen was the 2nd best player on his team and top 5 in the league then.

Yes, management is important because they construct the roster and Crumbs Krause did a great job but he was the GM who valued his own ego over keeping an elite product together. Recognition over rings. Crispy chicken nuggets over championship champagne showers.

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By alienating Phil and players in the media instead of keeping that information in house, the 1997–1998 season was their last run together. Crumbs had already signed, sealed and delivered on the idea that this dynasty would cease to exist after the year was done. Yet, he couldn’t keep that same media energy face-to-face, breeding distrust.

What if Krause took the Honey vs. Vinegar business approach to keep the team killer bees buzzing?

What if he put his own insecurities to the side and worked in a collaborative environment?

How many more years of quality winning were left?

We’ll never know. Plus, where have I seen Crumbs before? Oh yea..

This was a classic case of when people refuse to evolve internally, they get in their own way. Mike knew this and was on a relentless quest towards perfecting his own craft. Which takes us to the next life lesson learned.

  1. Hard Work Beats Talent when Talent Doesn’t Work Hard

MIchael Jordan started off as just another guy…until he wasn’t.

Got cut in high school? Worked on his game, got taller, and later became a top HS prospect going to UNC. Once at Chapel Hill, force James Worthy to play you one-on-one after practice? Got better so quickly that even James said he was only the best player for all of two weeks once #23 rounded out.

Come in as a rookie walking into a room of adults in The Association? Show out game 3 and earn the title of best player on the team at the tender age of 21.

In college, Mike was hitting game winners in National championship games, making his school millions of dollars and not making a dime off of it. Not much has changed in 30+ years after all. I love the real Mike in this first episode. He showed a human side to him. He would fight his brothers, fight his father for his love and attention, and fight for everything he did on the basketball court. To see how he quickly developed spoke to being raised in an environment that allowed him to build off of breakdowns.

From then on, everywhere he went, even Paris, you would’ve thought he was sliding through OG Jerusalem on the back of a donkey (or GOAT) and palm branches in the form of pens being waved in hopes of getting close enough to him for an autograph. You could tell though that he wasn’t like other players. Besides the God-given talent and competitive nature, his consistent tenacity on the court daily was uncommon. He legit played harder than everyone else on the floor. I’ve probably seen three players since MJ retired that played like that: KG, Kobe, and Russ The Brodie.

When he hit his head on the backboard by jumping THAT high for a block, I had to rewind.

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He broke his foot, rehabbed hard and the franchise tried to sit him out for the early inception of tanking??

No sir, not gonna be able to do it.

Then MJ worked his way back on the court from the foot injury but the front office attempted to implement an early rendition of load management???

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Tuh. They had the wrong guy.

When Jordan dropped 63 in Boston Garden on the eventual Champion Celtics without taking a single three-point shot, I knew more fairytale footage would unwind in due time. If that ’86 playoff footage was the tip of the iceberg, the rest of the Titanic-size NBA teams better watch out.

He came a long way from the college kid not having enough money and sending his mama his account number because he only had $20 in his bank account. Only a single dub in his stash.

Today, he probably has Andrew Jackson’s laced around his toilet paper holder.

Mike would further cement his legacy when Scottie Pippen arrived.

He said it himself, “There’s no Michael Jordan without Scottie Pippen”. All facts.

Besides their complementary court play, the team friendly deal Scottie was on helped. Today, that contract is considered highway robbery. Which leads to the final life lesson of this article…

  1. You Don’t Get Paid What You’re Worth. You Get Paid What You Negotiate

How Upbringing and Bad Representation Plagued Pippen. Scottie Pippen was the early version of “Two-Way” players before they became en vogue with the likes of LeBron, Giannis, and Kawhi. Pippen was a defensive ballhawk with point guard handles in a small forward’s frame. Coming from a small town in Arkansas growing up with 11 siblings, life was tough for his family. His father suffered a stroke, leaving him in a wheelchair. His brother became paralyzed in junior high. Lots of challenges were prevalent in Scottie’s childhood story. His upbringing molded his ideology. That’s why I understand the desire for the upfront financial security of the NBA once he arrived. He never really had money and wanted to make sure that he could take care of his people.

However, he missed one of the keys about business.

You don’t get paid what you’re worth. You get paid what you negotiate.

When he signed with the Bulls in ’91, he took a 7 year/$18 million dollar deal. By the last year of his contract, He was a 5-time champion, 2-time Olympian, Multiple time All-Star, was either 1st or 2nd in every major team statistical category…except for the one that counted arguably the most. He outplayed his contract years ago and had the statistics to prove it. Yet, the stats in his bank account were slim compared to market standard.

In 1997, Scottie Pippen was the 6th highest paid player…on his own team.

Even worse, that year, he was the 122nd highest paid player in the NBA.

Who was Scottie’s agent!? Don’t matter he was bad representation who needed the boot:

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In the documentary, THE OWNER comes out and says you’re making a bad deal for that many years. You know what that means?

…YOU’RE MAKING A BAD DEAL!

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This is a classic case of how growing up poor and uneducated with bad representation in a capitalistic driven sport. If you don’t know the game, you’ll be taken advantage of. No one taught Mr. Pippen the value of betting on himself, especially when dealing with Court Jester Jerry.

By salvaging his summer and having surgery to begin the season, Pippen was taking full advantage of those PTO/Medical/sick leave days. It’s probably the only somewhat smart financial move that came out the first two episodes by him.

Get hurt on company time? Rehab on company time.

All things considered, it’s a heady play by Pip. Do what you gotta do playa..

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MJ later called Pippen “selfish” in the documentary for not opting to have the surgery done over the summer to be ready by season tip-off. Coming from the guy who was making over 30 M’s in the ‘97-‘98 Season? Oh that’s rich. The irony of it all was Pippen ended up surpassing MJ in career NBA salary earnings.

During the first two episodes of “The Last Dance”, you could smell the early tension through your TV screen. It reeked of an interesting stench for one of the NBA’s greatest dynasties.

Speaking of interesting, Dennis “The Worm” Rodman apparently highlights Episodes 3 & 4. In the words of the immortal Bart Scott,

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