Ok, we’re back with another review of ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary. In preparation for tonight’s episodes let’s go over last week’s showing of episodes 3 and 4.
These episodes can be summed up by the following 3 major focal points: Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson, and the Bad Boy Pistons.
I was happy to see these episodes go in those directions, because episodes 1 and 2 already gave us background information on Jordan and Pippen.
Let’s touch on each of these 3 “characters” within the documentary and how they were portrayed:
Dennis Rodman seemed like a celebrity who happened to play basketball. Between dating Madonna and Carmen Electra and taking mid-season vacations to Las Vegas it seemed like basketball was something that Rodman did on the side the same way an accountant might practice the piano in his spare time.
That doesn’t mean Rodman didn’t take basketball seriously. During the documentary Jordan called Rodman one of the smartest teammates he ever played with.
The clips of Rodman watching film and taking notes and studying other player’s tendencies showed that he couldn’t be put in the box of, “talented player who cared more about fame and status than basketball and didn’t put the work in.”
The anecdote of Rodman bringing his friends to the gym to shoot the ball while Rodman chased rebounds was hilarious.
Marc Stein, NBA reporter for the New York Times tweeted out a similar story about Rodman’s time with the Mavs.
Bill Simmons got a lot of heat for the following tweet about Rodman after episodes 3 and 4 aired:
Simmons was riffing off of a point that Ryen Russillo brought up on last Sunday’s Bill Simmons Podcast episode that they recorded together.
Russillo was making the point that Rodman would do all these crazy antics, dying his hair, going to Vegas, wearing a wedding dress to promote his book, and then when given the opportunity to explain himself in interviews, was either incapable or unwilling to give a clear picture of his motives.
I had a similar observation watching Dennis Rodman’s 30 for 30 documentary Rodman: For Better or Worse this past September and his interview for The Last Dance only hammered my idea home.
Rodman is terrible at getting his message across while speaking. The guy mumbles in his raspy voice and you can barely make out the words he is saying half the time. Maybe he likes it that way, and is not keen on just spilling his heart out on camera, but he it’s not like he drops gem after gem while getting interviewed.
That may not be entirely fair, I would have to go back and watch is 30 for 30 because I do remember him having some genuine, vulnerable emotional moments, but it is my general takeaway from the interviews I’ve seen of him.
His best moment while being interviewed during The Last Dance was his pantomiming of his rebounding strategy:
Russillo started his take with; “Dennis Rodman is incredibly boring” which is where I think the confusion came from.
It seems Russillo’s point was that all the Rodman antics started to wear thin when he repeatedly failed to explain himself, which is his right to do if he wasn’t comfortable opening up, but also lends itself to people thinking that there is no “deeper meaning” behind his actions and that they were just shallow, attention-whoring.
Doesn’t mean that is the truth but if you constantly fall back on, “Nobody understands me” without going deeper on what we should understand, it makes sense.
The doc goes into Rodman’s childhood, just as it did for Jordan and Pippen, and how Rodman was kicked out of the house by his mom when he was 18.
Rodman in his own words was then recruited by, “some guy for some college”, that college being Southeastern Oklahoma State University, where he impressed, eventually getting drafted with the 27th overall pick by the Detroit Pistons.
It was so insane how, similarly to Pippen, Rodman’s HOF career had such obscure beginnings with neither of them being highly recruited, or going to schools known for their basketball.
One moment in the documentary that was enlightening was that Rodman started to spiral out of control during the 1998 season only when Pippen rejoined the team after his surgery.
Rodman commented how it was back to being, “the 3 amigos” rather than Jordan leaning on only Rodman for help.
It was clear that Rodman needed to feel wanted and included and valuable to the team in order to remain engaged.
The man who was tasked with keeping Rodman engaged is the next “character” on our list.
Episodes 3 and 4 of The Last Dance covered Phil Jackson in depth, talking about his upbringing in a religious household in Montana and how he used to play with Native American children when he was growing up.
Jackson was described as bringing, “Zen Buddhism and Native American philosophy” to the Bulls’ locker-room and was notorious over the years for handing out books to the players on his teams.
Funnily enough, Jackson and Rodman shared a bound over their interest in Native American culture, Jackson littered the team room with various Native American artifacts, and Rodman had a necklace he got from the Ponca Indians while in Oklahoma.
During the doc it’s discussed how Jackson referred to Rodman as a heyoka, meaning a “backwards walking person” in Native American parlance.
Seeing Rodman and Phil’s bond was cool, and it was insight into Jackson’s man-management techniques for coaching. He clearly knew that different players needed different leadership approaches and didn’t use a one-size-fits all strategy for handling the players on his team.
Watching the clips of Jackson’s early coaching career in Puerto Rico, where there was chicken blood being poured on the visiting benches, and mayors shooting referees was hilarious.
Jackson has been known as “The Zen Master” for as long as I can remember but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t be a cold and calculated political pragmatist when the situation called for it.
Jackson sidling up to Tex Winter, originator of the Triangle Offense, at General Manager Jerry Krause’s behest was a savvy move, one that allowed him to position himself as Doug Collins’ successor when Krause fired Collins, in part because of his reluctance to incorporate the Triangle Offense into the Bulls’ gameplan.
Jackson is a fascinating character in the NBA universe and I will definitely be buying some of his books to learn more about his approach to coaching and life.
Bad Boys Pistons:
The third “character” from episodes 3 and 4 of The Last Dance that I want to touch on are the Bad Boys Pistons.
In Jordan’s hero’s journey the Bad Boys were the major villain that he needed to vanquish in order to finally reach the Promised Land.
The documentary discussed the Pistons’ brutal style of play, with cheap shots and dirty play being pivotal to their success in beating Jordan and the Bulls 3 straight years in the playoffs from 1988-1990.
The fouls the documentary showed from the Pistons on Jordan were nothing crazy. They were definitely trying to send a message as part of their “Jordan Rules” defense but let some of the old head NBA journalists tell it, the Bad Boys Pistons were shanking Jordan with machetes any time he stepped in the paint.
It’s not like Jordan didn’t put up great numbers during these series either.
Regardless Jordan mentions how the punishment he and the rest of the Bulls received from the Bad Boys led to them starting a weight lifting regimen in order to bulk up and being able to withstand the brutality.
It reminds me of Lebron’s losing in the 2011 Finals to the Dallas Mavericks forcing him to develop a postgame.
Ultimately both Jordan’s defeats to the Pistons and Lebron’s to the Mavericks made them better overall players, and helped round out their games.
The documentary also details the infamous walk-out by the Bad Boys Pistons after the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals Game 4.
Possibly hot-take incoming: Who gives a shit?
Why are we supposed to pretend that what the Pistons did was some sort of heinous, criminal act? It was disrespectful and bush-league and perfectly on brand for the villainous Pistons.
Aren’t sports more fun when we have all have a team to root against? Well part of that is having a team that does things that inspire dislike.
I have a hard time believing that this walk-out was the sole reason Isiah Thomas was left off the famed Dream Team for the 1992 Olympics.
There has to be more to the story.
In addition, The Last Dance, which obviously had to run editorial decisions for the documentary by Jordan for his approval, didn’t give the full story of the Jordan-Bad Boys beef.
As Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports detailed in his article: https://sports.yahoo.com/dont-buy-into-michael-jordans-narrative-the-bad-boys-pistons-deserve-your-respect-154544792.html
Jordan said, ““The Pistons are undeserving champions,” between Games 3 and 4 in Detroit in 1991. “The Bad Boys are bad for basketball.”
How are you going to say that and then whine about the Pistons not shaking your hands and congratulating you after you beat them?
Give me a break.
Overall I really enjoyed episodes 3 and 4 of The Last Dance, let’s give them a solid A-.
As for Episodes 5 and 6 in t-minus 45 minutes?
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