He Started From The Bottom: Now He’s Here!

It’s time to Break It Down!

For the previous 5 Sunday evenings, I carved out a two-hour window to watch the 10-part Last Dance documentary, detailing, in general, Michael Jordan’s career as a member of the Chicago Bulls, and more specifically, the 97-98 Title run; the last in the second 3-peat. Hoops fan that I am, I decided before the series started, that I’d render an ode to it, afterward.

You don’t have to believe Mike is the GOAT, you don’t have to want to be like Mike, you don’t even have to like the guy…he’ll be fine. But if you appreciate hoops, especially the NBA variety, he set the bar very high, and the Last Dance documentary more than adequately filled in for the MIA League action. It played over the course of 5 weeks (every Sunday night), 10 hours (distilled from more than 500 hours of footage) of filling in the details about events you knew how would end. It’s hard to imagine it could still be gripping decades later…but it was.

Below is a summation, admittedly gleaned from a Tar Heel lens, that is one of the best things I’ve seen so far, in capturing the flavor of the series.

By Thad Williamson (Inside Carolina):

“The Last Dance: Owning the moment

Millions of Americans tuned in Saturday night to watch LeBron James host an inspiring TV special honoring the high school graduates of the Class of 2020. Many of those same millions no doubt tuned in to watch Episodes 9 and 10 of “The Last Dance,” completing the chronicle of the final running of the dynastic Chicago Bulls in 1998.

Earlier in these rapid reactions to this documentary, I said I was not a big fan of “greatest of all time” debates, and here’s why: true greatness comes in many forms and many shades, and greatness recognizes greatness. LeBron James wouldn’t be who he is as a basketball player without the impact and example of Michael Jordan, and he has used the template of cultural and commercial impact that Jordan largely created.

If in some respects, including his outspokenness on issues (which the elder Jordan has supported), James has taken that template a bit further, good: one would hope there is progress and growth from generation to generation. It’s possible to appreciate and be a fan of both men, both for what they have in common and who they are as individuals.

But leaving the “GOAT” debate aside, here are two claims I feel pretty safe in making:

First, Michael Jordan is the most influential player in the history of pro basketball. This is not just about his obvious impact on James, Kobe Bryant, and countless others. There’s no other pro basketball player that could be judged by serious people to be not only a definitive emblem of American culture but as a symbol of global capitalism (see historian Walter LaFeber’s 1999 title “Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism.”)

Second, Jordan is unsurpassed in modern pro basketball history in helping his team get it done in championship-level competition, every time. I’m not prepared to say “greatest” even in this category because no one can ignore Bill Russell and his 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons, including the last two as player-coach (averaging over 45 minutes a game in the playoffs!)

But the expanded, modern NBA is a different league than that of the 1960s, and here’s the baseline fact: Jordan’s record in the NBA Finals is 6-0. Every time his team got close, they got it done, by hook or crook.

Episodes 9 and 10 don’t really introduce any new themes or revelations, but do present a lot of details reminding viewers just how hard both the 1997 and 1998 championships were, and the full range of circumstances those teams had to overcome. Here are some standout points:

The “flu game” in 1997 vs. Utah was actually food poisoning. Jordan’s performance in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals while physically ill can only be characterized as super-human. Episode 9 lays out the full story that the real issue was a bad pizza that caused Jordan food poisoning. Jordan shouldn’t have played in the game, but did anyway. Overcoming a slow start, Jordan score 38 points on 13-27 shooting, including the go-ahead 3 point shot with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a 3-2 lead.

Reggie Miller is right: In 1998, the Indiana Pacers were loaded, and perhaps had the best team. But Reggie Miller is also right that in the end, when it actually mattered, on the court on game 7 of the epic series between the Pacers and Bulls, the championship DNA of the Bulls rose to the occasion. Or as a friend of mine used to put it, the Pacers got “out-Michaeled.” (Also of note: that push-off by Miller on Jordan in Game 4 before his game-winner was ridiculous!)

The Bulls were definitely better team than the Jazz in 1998, period. Here’s evidence for that point: Chicago 96, Utah 54. The Jazz could legitimately have been expelled from the Finals for their Game 3 performance in Chicago. But they still had a chance in the series because Chicago was just about out of gas.

Rodman being Rodman. I’ll be honest, I completely forgot about the mini-drama about Rodman skipping practice during the Finals prior to Game 4, to go hang out with Hulk Hogan. Rodman then came off the bench to grab 14 rebounds and hit six critical free throws in a close Bulls win.

Scottie Pippen’s bad back in game 6. Just as the Bulls had to struggle to overcome Pippen’s absence at the start of the 1997-98 season, in game 6 Pippen’s ailing back seriously limited his movements. He soldiered anyway, acting as a decoy and even sinking some big baskets, but his pain meant even more of the load fell on Jordan in that decisive game. Jordan scored 45 points, taking 35 of the team’s 67 shots from the field. Dennis Rodman stepped up too (just like earlier in the year), draining an unlikely 20 foot jumper in the fourth quarter, but the end was all Jordan: two baskets against Bryon Russell in the last 41 seconds, and a critical weakside strip of Karl Malone to set up the winning basket. Jordan sunk the dagger jumper against the Jazz, and the Bulls won again to complete the repeat threepeat. That kind of record in the Finals isn’t luck, nor was it a case of the Bulls being vastly better than their opponents all those years.

The edge was Jordan, specifically, as these episodes emphasize, his superior ability to be fully focused in the moment and to play without fear or thought of failure. That mental edge, plus the skills and physical gifts, is what allowed him to “out-Jordan” the competition: every single time.

Other highlights from Episodes 9 and 10:

  • A moving segment focuses on Jordan’s relationship with long-time security man Gus Lett. Lett became a father figure to Jordan after James Jordan’s death, and is shown making a triumphant return from cancer treatment to the United Center for Game 7 against the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls win, and Jordan makes sure Lett gets the game ball.
  • Scottie Pippen revealing his thoughts as Jordan brought the ball upcourt after stealing the ball from Malone to give the Bulls the chance to take the lead in game 6 of the Final: “Get the hell out of the way.”
  • The footage convinced me that I have for over 20 years mistakenly believed Jordan got away with a push-off on Russell on that final shot in Game Six. As Jordan and Bob Costas both observe, Russell was already faked out beyond repair by the time Jordan’s left hand made contact with him, and Jordan did not cause Russell to lose balance. Contact yes, but an actual foul? Not then, not now.
  • I loved the footage of Jordan in the hotel room in Utah after winning the sixth title, banging on a piano and displaying sheer joy in the moment. Someone asks him about going for a seventh title and Jordan declines to answer saying he wants to be fully present right there, right then. Channeling Phil Jackson, Jordan says “It’s the moment, man it’s the moment. That Zen Buddhist sh*t — y’all get in the moment and stay here! Just stay in the moment!” A fitting final thought from an athlete who did just that better than anyone else, time and again, from 1982 to 1998.”

For several years now, there has been an ongoing debate about basketball, and the individual most worthy of the title, Greatest Of All Times (GOAT). We live in a world in which the culture is often dominated by youth. To wit, the names I hear most frequently mentioned are, Kobe (may he RIP), LeBron and MJ. The second wave usually consists of Kareem, Magic, Tim Duncan, and Bill Russell. The Top 10 is rounded out by, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, and Wilt Chamberlain. Folks who know me best, particularly my sports/hoops proclivities, know three things:

  1. I’m a Tar Heel partisan through and through
  2. I’m am/was a Jordan fan, except when he played the Hornets (I’m a homer), and that one time they played the Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals (I’m a Laker-lifer)
  3. By my reckoning, Wilt (100 points in an NBA game/Are you kidding me) is the greatest (Convince me I’m wrong)

Having stipulated the three points above, I hope you enjoyed today’s post, especially Mr. Williamson’s excellent commentary. For those who believe LeBron has eclipsed Kobe, and many do not, I believe he’s in hot pursuit of Michael. I expect him to surpass a number of Mike’s records before he retires. Perhaps, I’ll reassess at that time. For now, my vote goes to Jordan. No, I’m not going to turn to stats. Moreover, since it’s my blog, I don’t have to explain myself. And today, on this question, I will not. But if you want to take it up with me later, you know how to find me.

For now, as Thad said of Jordan, he owned the moment. And to paraphrase Michael in the link below, and Drake’s “Started From The Bottom, He Started From The Bottom: Now He’s Here!”

I’m done; holla back!

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