The Michael Jordan documentary has captured the nation’s attention like few — any? — documentaries ever. Sports fans across the country have been riveted every Sunday night as ESPN broadcasts back-to-back episodes of “The Last Dance.”
I’ve watched every second because I remember watching Jordan play, and the nostalgia is intoxicating. Younger folks than me watch because they’ve heard stories of Jordan, but never seen him like this. And some people — such as Scott Burrell — watch because, well, they know Jordan and they can see themselves on the television.
“I think it’s awesome,” Burrell told Sporting News in a phone interview on Monday. “You see old live footage of when you played with that team, and how it was to play with Michael, what makes Michael great and all the advantages Michael tries to get on people, or what motivates him.”
Burrell played with Jordan during the 1997-98 season, the “The Last Dance” season. Cameras followed Jordan and the Bulls everywhere, filming pretty much everything. And a few of the scenes that made the final cut showed Jordan giving Burrell — who was in his first year with the Bulls, his fifth year in the NBA and who turned 27 during the season — plenty of trouble on and off the court.
One scene in particular shows Jordan telling the video crew about Burrell’s propensity for late nights and partying.
I asked Burrell if he knew that was coming. He just started laughing.
“Oh, I knew. I’ve seen parts of the video, so I knew it was coming,” he said. “Oh yeah. It doesn’t bother me. It’s 22 years ago, No. 1. And No. 2, it was an exaggeration of who I am and what I’d do. But that’s how stories are built, what makes things fun, the exaggeration. You don’t tell someone you caught a fish six inches long. You tell them you caught one that’s 22 inches long. The little one is everyday, but an exaggerated story makes it fun. That’s the way I look at it because that’s the way it was. But Twitter had fun with it.”
And then there was the scene where Jordan berates Burrell during practice because he wasn’t properly running the offense. There was no exaggeration there, only a demand for perfection.
“That’s a good representation. That was one of my first practices,” Burrell said. “I just gave him an answer because I didn’t know what to say to him. I mean, first of all, no one is ever going to double-team me. He’s like, ‘What are you waiting for the double-team for?’ And I’m thinking, ‘Because that’s the first thing that came to my mind.’ But I was new and I didn’t know the triangle offense yet. So when the wing guy cut and the corner guy cut, I’m like, ‘Damn, what’s the next thing in this offense?’”
Burrell, a 6-7 small forward who played college ball at UConn, was traded from the Warriors to the Bulls straight up for Dickey Simpkins about a month before the 1997-98 season started. So he not only was learning the triangle offense, but also was walking into one of the most intense seasons in NBA history. It was the last dance for the Bulls as everyone knew them. It was Phil Jackson’s last year as the team’s coach, and rumors were flying that Jordan would follow him out the door. Scottie Pippen was unhappy with his contract and Dennis Rodman was, well, Dennis Rodman.
I started to ask Burrell if anyone on the team — Michael, Scottie or Dennis, or maybe Phil — sat down with him to explain his role, and he cut me off.
“Ryan, Ryan, Ryan. I’m playing with three Hall of Famers. You know what your damn role is already, my man,” he said, laughing loudly. “You don’t need to ask. A team that won five out of seven championships, two in a row, you don’t need to have your role defined. Just give him the ball. Rebound, play D, make shots. There’s no role definition that needs to be taught. Don’t mess this s— up. That’s all you’ve got to do.”
We only see a bit of Burrell in the documentary. The focus, as it should be, was on Jordan and the other big names. Burrell played his role well for the Bulls, averaging about 14 minutes, 5.2 points and 2.5 rebounds per game during the regular season, then about a dozen minutes per game in Chicago’s run to the 1998 championship.
But that’s just a snippet of Burrell’s fascinating athletic career. At Sporting News, I’ve spent most of my time writing about baseball or college hoops, and Burrell knows a thing or two about both of those subjects. So of course I talked with him about that, too.
Before he was a first-round pick (20th overall) by the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets in 1993, Burrell was a first-round pick (26th overall) in the MLB Draft in 1989.
Yep, he was a baseball pitcher. Burrell turned down the Mariners’ offer that year, though, opting to attend UConn on a hoops scholarship. The Blue Jays picked him in the fifth round of the 1990 draft, and Burrell signed with the Jays, with the goal of playing both professional baseball and college basketball. That was, putting it lightly, a challenge.
“The majority of those guys played baseball and that was it, but I’d have to go back to school in September,” Burrell said. “And I’d go to summer school each year, then go play baseball for like six weeks, so I never got to play enough. Basketball is a winter sport, so I never really got my arm strong before I got to baseball. I’d always be on a pitch limit, trying to get my arm strong. Then I would start a few games, but I never really got to where I knew. I did miss it, but I loved basketball. I’ll put it that way. I never really gave myself a full chance to be great at baseball.”
Burrell averaged 8.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game as a freshman at UConn. That summer, in his first taste of pro ball, Burrell made seven starts for St. Catharines in the Low-A New York-Penn League. At 19 years old, he quickly learned his formula for success in high school — throw hard and mix in a curveball or two — wouldn’t cut it. Mike Owens, a lefty slugger for Batavia, taught him that lesson.
“You think you’re bad because you throw hard when you’re young, but let me tell you something: I saw one of the farthest home runs I’ve ever seen, hit against me, especially with a wooden bat,” he said with a laugh. “It was unbelievable. I learned quickly that I needed to learn about location and changing speeds. He crushed it. Just crushed it.”
Burrell finished those seven starts with a 5.86 ERA, with 24 strikeouts and 15 walks in 27 2/3 innings. After upping his hoops averages to 12.7 points and 7.5 rebounds as a sophomore at UConn that winter, Burrell had a much better summer on the diamond.
He had a 1.50 ERA in two starts at St. Catharines, and the Jays quickly moved him to Class A Myrtle Beach. There, in five starts, Burrell posted a 2.00 ERA, with 31 strikeouts, 13 walks and 18 hits allowed in 27 innings.
Burrell threw hard — mid-90s, he said — and added new breaking pitches to his repertoire as he spent time in pro ball.
“You know what I loved about baseball? In the minors, you learn how to use your mind, you learn how to throw a better curveball, a changeup,” Burrell said. “I never had a changeup before. I had a fastball and a curveball. But talking with guys in the minors, I worked on a knuckle-curve, I worked on a changeup, and that’s what I loved. People would help you become better. Just like playing with Jordan. He helped me become better. You stop learning and you’re doing yourself an injustice.”
Burrell’s basketball game took a big step forward that winter. In his junior season, he averaged 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. That changed his future prospects.
“I knew I was good at basketball, but I didn’t know if I was draftable,” Burrell said. “But then you start playing in the Big East against guys like Alonzo (Mourning), Malik Sealy, Dikembe (Mutumbo), so you get a better judge of how good you are, or how good you can be. And then you talk with scouts, your coaches and get more confidence in yourself and your basketball game.”
Burrell averaged 16 points again his senior year, was drafted in the first round and embarked on an NBA career that lasted eight years. Baseball was in the rear-view mirror.
“I always wondered how good I could have been,” he said. “Could I have lasted and had a great career in baseball? No regrets, but I just wonder.”
We can’t talk about Scott Burrell without mentioning his most famous moment at UConn, of course. In his freshman year with the Huskies (1989-90), coach Jim Calhoun’s squad rolled to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a 28-5 record. UConn blitzed through its first two opponents, but found itself trailing Clemson by one point in the Sweet 16 with 1.0 seconds left on the clock.
The ball was in Burrell’s hands, on the far baseline.
“I knew Elden Campbell was guarding the inside of the court, so I couldn’t get anything to the left side of the court,” Burrell said. “That was taken away. I had two guys pretty open near halfcourt, but that’s not a really good chance of making that shot. So I saw Tate George was doing a great job of holding his guy, Sean Tyson, off, and Tate showed me his left hand.”
Burrell, remember, had been a first-round pick of the Mariners the previous spring. But it was his football days he harkened back to in that moment: He tossed the ball all the way down the court.
“My quarterback days in high school helped for that pass,” he said. “I knew I had to throw the old flag corner pattern. Once I released the ball, it was up to Tate. He was doing a great job holding his guy off. I saw him in the corner, close to the basket, so I threw it, he caught it, turned around and knocked it down.”
George’s shot knocked out Clemson and is still on the short list of greatest NCAA Tournament buzzer-beaters of all time. But, the buzzer-beaters give and the buzzer-beaters take. UConn was knocked out in the very next round when Duke’s Christian Laettner hit one of his own to send the Blue Devils to the Final Four.
Burrell is a basketball coach now. After eight years as an assistant at Quinnipiac, he was named the coach at Southern Connecticut State, a Division II school, in July 2015. In his five years, the Owls have a 91-56 record.
“I love what I do. I love coaching,” he said. “I love trying to make an impact on kids’ lives. I love trying to win a championship without playing, trying to figure out what the other team’s going to do each night. I love the ins and outs of coaching. The challenges are finding guys who are self-motivated — truly self-motivated, not fake self-motivated — and figuring out what pieces you need for each team.”
And now, if he needs lessons on motivation or finding the right pieces for a team, he has a documentary for his players to watch that just might hit home.
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