At first glance, the longtime Chicago Bulls writers figured they just saw another camera crew. Nearly 23 years later, that camera crew finalized its project.
ESPN will show the first two parts of a 10-part documentary series titled "The Last Dance" on Sunday. The network originally planned to debut the documentary in June, but it ceded to NBA fans wanting to watch original content during the coronavirus pandemic. But the project first started with NBA Entertainment following the Bulls during their sixth and final championship season in 1997-98.
Plenty of stories will emerge from the documentary. Plenty of them will be familiar to former and current Bulls writers that covered them during that season. So USA TODAY Sports spoke with them about their memories.
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The panel includes:
• Greg Boeck, former USA TODAY Sports writer (1990-2007) and NBA writer (1992-2000) and adjunct professor at Arizona State's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication (2008-present)
• Roland Lazenby, author of various Bulls-related books including Blood on the Horns, Mind Games: Phil Jackson’s Long Strange Journey and Michael Jordan: The Life.
• K.C. Johnson, Bulls insider for NBC Sports Chicago after helping with Bulls coverage for the Chicago Tribune during their last three-peat (1995-98) before becoming the lead beat writer (2000-19)
• Sam Smith, insider for Bulls.com after covering the Bulls and NBA for the Chicago Tribune and authoring various books, including The Jordan Rules, Second Coming and There is No Next.
What is your favorite Michael Jordan story?
Boeck: "It was after Jordan retired (during the 2000 NBA playoffs). I'd golf with (former NBC NBA sideline reporter) Ahmad Rashad. They would talk on the phone during golf two or three times a round. They would argue back and forth about who’s the better golfer. Jordan would tell him, 'I just shot a 70' at some place. I would be driving on the cart with Ahmad, and he would be talking to Jordan comparing scores and giving each other grief. Jordan was just as competitive with golf as he was in basketball."
Johnson: "I went to Beloit College to play Division III basketball. My freshman year (1985-86), the Chicago Bulls held training camp. Since we were on the team, we got to be ballboys at practice. Michael Jordan and Quintin Dailey were having this free-throw contest. It was loosey-goosey, jokey, kind of fun. Then they started throwing money down. Quintin had gotten ahead and started talking some smack. Jordan freaking snapped. He had this incredible focus. He got so locked in and was almost angry. He came back and beat Q in the shooting contest. I don’t remember the pot that was there. But I know it was substantial. He cackled as he ran off the floor and he was just taunting Quintin Dailey."
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Lazenby: "No one ever wanted to play MJ one-on-one. But Scott Burrell kept insisting on it. Steve Kerr just couldn’t believe how stupid that was, that Scott would poke the bear like that. Burrell just kept picking MJ to play one-on-one. Scott got close to him. He got within a point, but Jordan won. Scott wanted to play again. So Jordan said, 'I’m sure you do want to play again. You want to tell your grandkids that you beat Michael Jordan. What the hell am I going to tell my grandkids? That I beat Scott Burrell?' "
Smith: "The Bulls start the 1989 playoffs against Cleveland in Cleveland. So everybody picked the Cavs. There were three beat writers then — Lacy Banks with the Chicago Sun-Times, Kent McDill with the Daily Herald and myself. So he’s clapping his chalk right before the decisive Game 5. He walks up in front of Lacy, who picked the Cavs in three. Michael said, 'We took care of you.' Then he walks next to Kent, who picked the Cavs in four. Michael points to him and said, 'We took care of you.' I had picked Cavs in five. So Michael points to me and says, 'We take care of you today.' That’s then the turning point in the franchise. Michael’s shot over Craig Ehlo has been shown so many times."
What is your memory of Michael Jordan in his final Bulls game against Utah?
Boeck: "The Jazz had Game 6 won. They had the ball and a one-point lead with about 15 seconds to go. Sure enough, Jordan, the defensive whiz that he was, stole the ball from (Karl) Malone, came down the court and pushed Byron Russell. That was the end of career No. 2. I remember the press conference afterwards. There was such relief on him."
Johnson: "That last sequence distilled everything that made Michael so great. It’s almost a simplistic way of summarizing his greatness. It’s not only his shot. But it starts with his defensive play on Malone on the other end. Then coming down without a timeout. Then surveying the scene. Then getting away probably with an offensive foul and making the shot. To me, it summarized all of Jordan’s greatness in one amazing sequence."
Lazenby: "It was the crowning touch to this whole entire story with the drama and this massive conflict. I do remember thinking he had pushed off (of Russell). They had won so much, and it was such a nasty fight. It wasn’t muted in the locker room. But there was so much pressure. Jordan took all this pressure himself. That’s why it was so hard on everybody, especially with all the conflicts. It was unreal. So in the locker room, there was some release with that pressure."
Smith: "There was this incredible last sequence that basically summed up his entire career. He recognizes what Utah is trying to do. He comes over and freelances to help. He sneaks up on Malone and gets the ball. He doesn’t call timeout so they can’t set their defense. Then he gets himself in position to make that shot. He makes a statue of it in the ultimate 'screw you' to the opposing fans. There couldn’t have been a better act and conclusion to a story than that. Showing every element of Jordan — the defense, IQ, scoring ability, the competitive arrogance to do it in your face. You couldn’t write it like that. Nobody left like that. But then, of course, he came back."
What was that final season like?
Boeck: "Phil Jackson was going to leave. Scottie Pippen was a free agent. Dennis Rodman was a free agent. They ran their course mainly because they played into June for three straight years. It was exhausting. Then there's the controversies with (then-GM) Jerry Krause. I think Jordan saw the end. Phil was done, too. He wasn’t done obviously because he came back and did another three-peat with the Lakers. But he thought he was done. I think it was a little bit because of Krause. Phil was tired of his meddling. He and Krause got along better than Krause got along with the players. But I still think he was a meddler. I think he was tired of the grind, and also the meddling. But I think it was more of the grind and he had enough of it and the circus that was around them."
Johnson: "I just remember everybody being exhausted. They were their most vulnerable. They barely won that Eastern Conference finals over the Pacers. They needed a quick stand in that fourth quarter at home in a Game 7. It was a defensive stand. (Toni) Kukoc made some big shots. Pippen was everywhere defensively. They were just spent. It sounds cliché and too tidy of a story line. But anybody around that team remembers how weary they were. Obviously, I've stayed in touch with Steve Kerr over the years. I’ve talked to him at times during the Warriors dynasty. He obviously has a perspective on how draining that can be. People don’t understanding playing that many games at that level over that period of time, it wears you out mentally and physically. … There was an inevitable feeling to that being the end. Only because Jerry Krause so gleefully announced it as Phil’s last year as coach. Phil had called it the last dance. Michael, on the record, said 'I will not play for another coach other than Phil Jackson.' When Michael says something, he’s not joking. Even when they won, you knew it was over."
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Lazenby: "The anger between Krause and Phil over that period in the fall of '97 where he said, 'I don’t care if we go 82-0, he’s not coming back.' It was like Democrats and Republicans today. There was that level of hatred, really. Phil wanted to be paid. Of course, Jordan and Pippen had their intense disputes with Krause. Phil, being the master he was in motivation and stuff, he used that. It was obvious. He took the players’ side. … Phil and Krause’s war had gotten out of control. On the other hand, they stayed together for six championships. They remade that team twice. They didn’t like each other, but a lot of these teams work together and manage to get by until they don’t. You have to give them all the credit."
Smith: "They were done with one another. It was not Jerry Krause shutting it down as it’s easily portrayed. It wasn’t that. Phil had this thing that as a coach, people stop listening to your voice after seven years. I know their big thing is Krause saying, 'Phil, even if you go 82-0, you wont be back.' But there were many more factors involved that foreshadowed the end for this group. … Jerry Krause is eager to move on, and he’s not completely wrong in that sense. Basically his philosophy was, 'We’re a really old team at the end. If I have a chance to add a great young star, I should do that.' So he arranges a deal with Boston to trade Pippen for (Tracy) McGrady and a couple of other picks.
"(Owner) Jerry Reinsdorf says, 'We’re not doing that. We have another chance to win and we'll ride this out until we can’t.' He overrules the deal. Pippen learns about it and gets (ticked) off. He postpones his surgery he was supposed to have in June after the ‘97 Finals. He waits for it until September. So he won’t be able to play the first half of next season. That infuriates Michael and Phil. As mad as they were at Krause, they’re mad at Scottie, too, because the Bulls said, 'Let’s stick around another year.' Reinsdorf also knew what he had in Phil. He told Phil he would like to offer him an extension. Phil doesn’t want that. He knew he would be going into rebuilding in the next year or two, and didn't want to be a part of that. When you take into account all of these things, it was clear this team was going to implode anyway."
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