Approximately one year after ‘The Last Dance’ captivated sports’ fans across the globe, guest contributor Łukasz Muniowski revisits the docuseries and deconstructs its mythologies.
By Łukasz Muniowski
Much has already been written about The Last Dance, the award-winning ESPN/Netflix documentary miniseries by Jason Hehir. As such, there is hopefully no need to explain in detail multiple topics and sub-plots that the series gets into. The main plot of the docuseries is constructed around Michael Jordan’s last season on the Chicago Bulls, with excursions into the past, retelling well-known events about how Jordan earned the reputation as the best basketball player in history. Although other members of the team can be perceived as subjects of the series, the focus is clearly on Jordan and his career, and it is his career trajectory that the series follows. While Hehir is the director, he decided to tell Jordan’s side of the story, following a well-known narrative path. In turn, any the complexity of Jordan, which has been touched upon by numerous scholars, most notably in the Michael Jordan, Inc collection of essays, edited by David L. Andrews, was avoided.
Hehir’s series does nothing to disrupt Jordan’s narrative of success. Nor does it question, let alone dispute, the anthropological myth at the foundation of his brand. Mythical aspects of Jordan’s career are brought up whenever his status is questioned, as his annual quest for supremacy in the best basketball league in the world consisted of adventures which easily allowed themselves to form a coherent story of undisrupted excellence. “The Shrug,” “The Double Nickel Game,” “The Flu Game” or “The Shot” are immediately recognized by basketball fans just by their names, which underlines their exceptional position in the basketball lore.
As enticing as constructing such narratives is, heroization of human beings and mythologization of real-life events cannot occur without antagonists, whose status as villains is often dependent on the perspective. By taking on Jordan’s point of view, Hehir not only limits the perspective and the interpretative potential of Jordan’s basketball career, but also picks a rather obvious villain for the series, time and time again reminding the viewer that Jerry Krause, general manager of the Chicago Bulls from 1985 to 2003, is to blame for the titular “last dance” of the Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. This is somewhat understandable when taking into consideration Jordan’s tense relationship with the team’s general manager. It is also worth mentioning that his company, Jump 23, was a partner of the series.
I want to prove that despite the creators’ best efforts, it is not Krause, nor Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls’ owner, who are the villains here. Rather, the blame for the breakup of the Bulls dynasty should be put on time and time alone. Krause himself recognized the antagonist, as evidenced by the excerpt from his unpublished journal on NBC Sports:
During the last championship run in 1998, cracks in the foundation of the teams we’d built began to alarmingly show up at inopportune times. To the adoring public, the age that was showing on Dennis Rodman, the lack of movement by Luc Longley, the slowdown in efficiency after playing over 100 games per year in two of the previous three seasons, was not apparent. The lack of recovery time in the summer, where beaten-up legs could have enough time on (strength and conditioning coach) Al Vermeil’s summer program to gain back the strength they’d lost in playing far longer than any other team in the league, never struck the fans or the media.
This reasonable line of argumentation, referencing his players’ old age, is completely ignored in the miniseries. The counterargument, put forth by Jordan, which can be neatly summed up as “I felt we could’ve won seven [championships],” seems more promising to casual basketball fans, who do not concern themselves all that much with the intricacies of building a winning organization.
In the first episode of The Last Dance Jordan says in a voiceover:
We had just finished winning a fifth title. It’s a lot of uncertainty and management started talking about the franchise is gonna change or we’re gonna rebuilt. I thought it was unfair. I would never let someone who’s not putting on a uniform and playing each and every day dictate what we do on the basketball court.
Before Game Seven of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals between the Bulls and the Indiana Pacers this sentiment is more or less repeated by journalist Bob Costas, who said before the broadcast:
Everybody thought that if the Bulls were to be broken up, the dynasty was to ended, it would be ended by somebody in a suit someplace there’d be more closure and more justice if it happened on the floor.
During this statement Krause is suggestively shown walking with his wife in the arena. Short and unathletic, he simply looks the part of the perfect antagonist to a (relatively) young and gifted hero. Little attention is devoted to Krause’s past, despite his importance for the construction of one of the best basketball teams of all-time––as the Bulls team is presented in the docuseries––as well as his ability to scout great players.
Starting as a baseball scout, Krause relied on what he referred to as a “gut feeling” when selecting not only basketball players, but also the coaching staff. Jordan was selected by Krause’s predecessor, Rod Thorn, who was immediately apologetic after picking the shooting guard third overall in the 1984 NBA Draft, stating that he would prefer to draft a center. Krause took over a year later and in three years traded away every player on that Bulls roster except for Jordan, constructing the whole roster around this significantly talented individual. The general manager’s background as a scout made it hard for Krause to relate to players, as for years his job was to evaluate them on the basis of how they played, not who they were. He was always thinking about the bigger picture, which made him great at his job, while Jordan focused on each and every game, which made him great at his.
The conflict between the two started during Jordan’s second year in the league, when Krause wanted him to sit out the whole of the 1985-86 season for his broken foot to fully heal, and the team stand a better chance at drafting with a higher pick. Jordan wanted to play as soon as possible and he felt that Krause could not be trusted with creating a winning organization since he did not care about winning during that particular season (in which the Bulls had no chance of succeeding). Furthermore, Jordan wanted the Bulls to draft Joe Wolf, his college roommate, instead of Scottie Pippen or Horace Grant in 1987. Pippen and Grant were starters on three Bulls’ championship teams, while Joe Wolf was never a starter in the NBA. Jordan also opposed the idea of trading his friend, power forward Charles Oakley, to the Knicks, for center Bill Cartwright, who turned out to be a reliable inside presence on the same three championship teams. Krause perfectly understood what he had in Jordan and his goal was to construct a roster that was best suited to complement the superstar, Jordan though wanted the team to draft his fellow UNC players.
It is somewhat surprising, maybe even applaudable, that the two managed to keep their positions for so long. The 1997-98 season would however be the last, precisely because of the time that passed since the creation of the dynasty. In the last episode of the miniseries, when questions regarding the future of the franchise are brought up, there is no discussion or argumentation, just vague statements. The most unrealistic is expressed by Jordan himself, who assumes that almost all members of the team would sign one-year contracts and come back. He even goes one step further and says that in the 1997-98 season he was simply better as a basketball player. Instead of questioning that statement, the director asks Jordan if it was satisfying to leave at his peak.
The usage of the word “peak” is highly questionable, as during the 1997-98 season Jordan was 34 years old, shooting with the lowest field-goal percentage (46.5) in any full season of his career to date, and averaging 28.7 points per game, his second-lowest career average in a full season, as well as career-low averages in steals (1.7) and assists (3.5) in full seasons. While Jordan was still the best player in the league, the statistical decline meant that he was no longer capable of carrying a team on his own. The questions regarding him being at his peak are therefore based on the false assumption that Jordan was at his best in 1997-98.
For proof of unsustainability of the Bulls roster, one needs to look no further than the statistics and career trajectories of other important players on that team. Without Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, and Luc Longley, the Bulls finished the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season with 13 wins and 37 losses, eventually earning the first selection in the next-year’s draft. The only significant players remaining on that Bulls’ roster from the second three-peat were Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper. Kukoc, whose contributions to team success are mostly ignored in the docuseries, started 52 games during the Bulls’ last championship season, and 17 of the 21 games the Bulls played in the 1998 playoffs. While he did not turn out to be as good as Krause expected (or advertised, to Pippen’s and Jordan’s chagrin), he was a vital element of that team.
Kukoc continued to play in the NBA for eight more seasons, and the one following Jordan’s second retirement would be his last as a starter. The other championship-winnig starter left on the 1998-99 roster, Harper, was averaging 11.2 points per game on 37.7 shooting. He then would spend two seasons on the Lakers, winning two NBA championships under Bulls-turned-Lakers head coach Phil Jackson. He was primarily a locker room presence and a defender, serving essentially the same role he occupied on the Bulls.
Harper, just like Longley, had chronic knee problems, so trading the latter for three role players and the 16th pick in the 1999 NBA Draft was a great move for the Bulls, who were well aware of his health issues. Longley retired from the league after three seasons. Despite his ability to set picks, rebound, block, and finish in the interior, Longley was not even interviewed for the documentary, nor were his contributions to the team appreciated in any shape or form by Hehir.
Rodman, who joined the Lakers before Jackson took on the coaching job in Los Angeles, appeared in just 23 games during the 1998-99 season and was released, as his lack of focus was deemed hurtful to the organization. After a short stint with the Dallas Mavericks a season later, Rodman was out of the NBA. While he still remained a spectacular rebounder, it was evident that basketball was not among his priorities.
Assuming that Pippen, traded to the Houston Rockets before the 1998-99 season, would return is highly questionable, considering the salary cap situation of that theoretical Jordan-led 19980-99 Bulls team and Pippen’s well-known desire to finally sign a big contract after years of being underpaid. After the season, the Bulls offered Pippen a five-year $67 million deal, which he signed as a “going-away present,” as Krause put it, since the team could offer him around $20 million more than he would get signing anywhere else as a free agent. No mention of that is made in the documentary.
Considering that the Bulls were way over the salary cap during their “last dance” season, with Jordan’s contract alone putting the team in luxury tax territory by over $6 million, there was no chance for the Bulls to return in that form. This is exactly what Reinsdorf points to in the docuseries, when stating that it would be “suicidal” to bring these players back, as “they weren’t going to be worth the money they’d get in the market.” It was a fair assumption, considering that Pippen was not the only former Bull to get a raise on a different team. While the increase in pay was not as significant in the case of the Bulls’ role players as it was with Pippen, resigning Steve Kerr (from $750,000 in 1998 on the Bulls to $1,774,000 in 1999 on the Spurs), Jud Buechler (from $500,000 to $850,000 on the Pistons), and Luc Longley (from $3,200,000 to $4,000,000 on the Suns) would further put the team in a tough spot financially. While Krause could bring in a different set of players, building chemistry would have been an issue, especially when taking into account Jordan’s relentless, often cruel, approach to his teammates.
Chemistry would have been even harder to establish had Jackson returned as head coach––the tensions between the team and the staff, and the management were already just one step short of toxic. It was Jackson who came up with the theme for the season, naming it “The Last Dance” of this particular roster. As a coach who throughout his NBA career established team chemistry by positioning himself on the side of his players and alienating the management — first in Chicago and then in Los Angeles — Jackson knew how to manipulate and make great use of antagonisms within the franchise. It is understandable why Krause did not want him to return, and it is also clear why Jackson used his relationship with Jordan to strengthen his position in the organization.
Krause did not help his case as one of the most vilified executives in sports history, demanding the spotlight and appreciation, both of which he felt he lacked, but positioning him as the main reason for the team’s breakup, and simply vilifying him as a person make The Last Dance nothing more than a nostalgia trip for Jordan fans, with no exploration of the complexities of running an NBA franchise. Pippen is appreciative of Krause, as in the end, albeit quite reluctantly, calls him “the greatest general manager in the game.” Jordan stays silent on the issue, even though his negative attitude towards Krause is clearly visible throughout the series. On May 18, 2020 Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix wrote an article with the title “Jerry Krause Deserved Better in ‘The Last Dance.’” Not only Krause, but all in-club workers making sure that the players are simply able to play professional basketball, whom Krause more or less represents, deserve better as well.
Łukasz Muniowski recieved his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021).