Michael Jordan’s ‘The Last Dance’: Winners and losers as Ewing, Drexler, Karl, Krause all deserve better

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If you feel like “The Last Dance” just started, you’re not alone. But here we are, eight episodes down with just two remaining as ESPN’s 10-part series chronicling the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls comes to a close this Sunday. 

Topics yet to be covered include the seven-game showdown with Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in the 1998 Eastern Conference finals and the two NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz, the latter of which gave us the “flu game” and Michael Jordan’s iconic, hanging-follow-through game-winner that would become the effective parting shot of his career. 

And with that, one of the great sports stories in history will again come to an end, and we’ll be left to ponder what, if anything, we learned from this latest accounting. If you were already well versed in Bulls and Jordan history, and came into this looking for new information, you may be disappointed. 

This has been about nostalgia, a rebirth of tales that have, for the most part, already been told. In essence, this has been a five-week trip down memory lane narrated by those who lived it and, importantly, framed by the one man most responsible for creating it: Michael Jeffrey Jordan. 

With that in mind, and through that lens, let’s take a look at who have been the series biggest winners and losers as we await the final two episodes. 

Obvious winner: Michael Jordan

If Jordan’s motivation to finally sign off on the production and release of this footage was, as certain theories have suggested, to re-establish his name at the top of the GOAT conversation after LeBron James beat the 73-win Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Finals, he has succeeded in typically dominant fashion. As our Bill Reiter wrote, this documentary has been a necessary reminder of Jordan’s transcendent greatness. 

Jordan’s radiant charisma has colored this whole series. He’s been funny, emotional, authentic, and ultimately true to the tyrannical traits that piloted his greatness and have only become more romanticized with time. He’s the hero and the villain, and both have been equally celebrated in this series. 

Has the series been a truly objective piece of journalism? No. Jordan, to his credit, has not ignored the most controversial parts of his career and life — the gambling, the bullying of Jerry Krause and teammates, the lack of meaningful activism. But the doc has served as something of a Michael Jordan defense attorney delivering one big, powerful, moving closing argument to an already awestruck jury. 

Sure, the guy could pretty mean and vindictive, but like he said, winning has a price. Yes, maybe he gambled with a few shady characters, but he didn’t know they were shady at the time and everyone likes to dabble in a few side bets on the golf course anyway. No, he didn’t take much of a political stance against a known racist, but the “republicans buy sneakers too” comment was said in jest and taken completely out of context. 

In the end, whatever evidence that might’ve run even the slightest bit counter to our nostalgic, heroic Jordan perceptions has been strategically covered during this trial, presented merely for the purpose of discrediting, and it has worked like a charm. 

I’ll happily admit that I’m one of those awestruck jurors. I am transfixed by the man. His competitiveness, his smile and athletic grace, his mesmerizing coolness, the man is an icon in every sense of the word. A gravity-defying superhero. Does that mean I think he was, or is, a perfect human being? Of course not. To tell you the truth, I don’t even believe he was a perfect basketball player. I believe he played against relatively inferior competition and was so far ahead of his peers athletically that this “refuse to lose” mantra in some ways wrote itself. 

I do not believe for a second that Jordan would be undefeated in the Finals in today’s game. He would be playing super-teams, and he wouldn’t be being defended by Dan Majerle and Byron Scott and Craig Ehlo and Jeff Hornacek and Bryon Russell and John Starks; he would be being defended by Kawhi Leonard and prime LeBron James. He would be attacking the rim against Anthony Davis and defenses prohibited by the illegal defenses of the day and thus allowed to sag into the paint and clog up driving lanes with effectively amounted to off-ball zones. 

People love to romanticize the physicality of Jordan’s era, and clearly this series has played to that with the montages of Jordan getting bludgeoned by the Bad Boys, but for all the things that were more difficult in Jordan’s era, there were a lot of other things playing to his advantage. The doc doesn’t cover those things, or even hint at them. 

Instead, it’s been painted very simply. You crossed Jordan, you got killed. And you know what? For the time that he played, that was — with the exception of Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons — the truth. Everything Jordan did, everything he represented, good and bad, was aimed at winning. And he won. Reasonable conversations about the conditions under which he dominated notwithstanding, that’s the bottom line of this documentary and, ultimately, his legacy.

Loser: Jerry Krause

Krause, who died in 2017, has gotten a relentlessly raw deal in this doc, to the point that his family is now releasing periodic excerpts from his unpublished and unfinished memoir to at least offer his side of the story. Over the course of this series, Krause has gotten some due for his obviously integral role in building the Bulls, but the compliments have been backhanded at best and entirely overshadowed by the overarching theme of his team-destroying insecurities. 

Jordan, for his part, has been ruthless in his Krause attacks. Pippen, who is cast as a central Krause bully, said he and MJ “were going to do everything we could to make Jerry look bad” by humiliating Toni Kukoc, a Krause favorite, in the 1992 Olympics. 

By the end of it all, you’d think Krause was nothing more than an insecure little egomaniac who wanted more credit than he deserved, to the point that he was willing to trade Pippen and push out a six-time championship coach, to the chagrin of the greatest player in history, and in doing so effectively blow up maybe the greatest team ever, all to validate his own self-serving stance that organizations, not players, win titles. 

That’s not the full truth, but that’s the picture this documentary has painted. And it’s not a pretty one for Krause. 

Winner: Isiah Thomas

All Jordan opponents in this documentary have one thing in common: They lose. Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, Gary Payton, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Dan Majerle, poor B.J. Armstrong, and on down the list. Every single one of these guys finds himself in Jordan’s crosshairs and promptly gets killed. 

Except one. Isiah Thomas. 

Say what you want about Isiah being kept off the Dream Team because nobody liked him, but that dude beat Jordan in his prime. Twice. You can argue the Bulls weren’t the Bulls yet, that Pippen hadn’t evolved and Phil Jackson’s impact hadn’t been fully felt yet. Whatever. Isiah beat the best, and you can tell it ticks Jordan off to this day. He hates the guy. You beat the best to ever do it, and stay under his skin three decades later, you’re a winner. 

Winner: ESPN

The series was originally slated to air in June — on off-days during the NBA Finals — but was moved up to April with most of the country stuck at home doing the quarantine thing. That was a good decision. The ratings have been through the roof, with an average of 5.8 million people viewing the first six episodes (ratings for episodes 7 and 8 are not available yet), making this the most viewed documentary in network history, per ESPN. 

Winner and loser: Scottie Pippen

This documentary has sparked two main conversations surrounding Scottie Pippen. The first one was how under-appreciated he was when he was the sixth highest-paid player on the Bulls after multiple championships. That was a good thing. People need to remember, and talk about, how great Pippen was. He was not a sidekick. He was one of the 20-30 greatest players ever, and one of the five best defensive players ever. When Dennis Rodman said Pippen was the best player in the world when Jordan went to play baseball, that might’ve been a stretch. But not by much. 

The second conversation around Pippen was not so flattering, stemming from his refusal to re-enter the game in the 1994 playoffs after Phil Jackson designed a last-second shot for Toni Kukoc rather than Pippen. It was a terrible look at the time, and what has made it even worse this time around is Pippen actually doubled down on his actions, saying “… if I had the chance to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t change it.”

Man, that is bad. Quitting on your team is a cardinal sports sin, and Pippen is saying, even after all these years to consider his actions, that he would do the same thing today. That’s a huge loss, and an unfortunate narrative that I think people are going to remember for a long time after this doc. 

Winner: Jerry Reinsdorf

Jerry Krause took a lot of the blame for things Reinsdorf, the owner, could have changed. When Pippen wanted more money, that was Reinsdorf’s hardened business stance that he never re-negotiated with players currently under contract. It was just Krause who took the heat. 

But when it was time to hand out the credit for getting Phil Jackson to come back for the 1997-98 season, there was Reinsdorf saying he got Krause out of the way and went to Montana and sat with Phil and got the deal done. When Jordan went to play baseball, Reinsdorf makes sure to mention he kept paying Jordan his basketball salary because he’s “made a lot of money for a lot of people” over the years. What a great guy. 

Reinsdorf came out of this thing smelling like roses. 

Winner: Phil Jackson

This is pretty simple. Before Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan was perceived as a great individual player who couldn’t elevate the play of those around him and ultimately win championships. After seven and a half years with Phil Jackson, he had six titles and would come to be known as the greatest winner the sport has ever known. 

Phil is the guy that brought that out of Michael, the guy who convinced the greatest scorer in history that his team would be better off if he controlled the ball, and ultimately scored … less. So ordained was Jackson that Jordan, as this documentary has reminded us week after week, refused to play for anyone else. Jackson is a huge winner. 

Loser: Clyde Drexler

When the timeline of the doc reached the 1992 Finals, Clyde Drexler was painted as a guy who thought he was on Jordan’s level and found out he wasn’t even close. That’s not entirely fair. No, Drexler was not on Jordan’s level, but nobody was, and at the end of the day, he was a lot more than the Jordan whipping boy this documentary portrayed. 

In 1991-92, Drexler was runner-up to Jordan for league MVP, and his Portland Trail Blazers, lest you forget, had the Bulls tied 2-2 in that Finals. In Game 5, Jordan did what he always did in series-defining games, scoring 46 points, but it’s not like Drexler was some pushover. The guy put up 30 points and 10 boards. 

It’s too bad the Drexler quote that will be remembered from this doc is Jordan saying he “took offense” to people comparing him to Clyde, because Jordan would’ve taken offense to being compared to God. Drexler was an all-time great basketball player who went on to win two championships, and he kind of got portrayed just another fake superstar that Jordan exposed. 

Winner: Gary Payton

Jordan laughing at Payton suggesting his physical defense “took a toll” on Jordan was an instant meme, but Payton is not the butt of this joke. Fact is, he largely held Jordan to 36-percent shooting over Games 4-6 of the 1996 Finals. 

Jordan says his head was elsewhere, which is understandable given the loss of this father and the fact that Father’s Day was approaching, and certainly you could make the case that once the Bulls were up 3-0 in the series Jordan wasn’t fighting with his typical venom. 

But all that is intangible. What we know for sure is that Jordan, even when the series got to 3-2, was held to 5 for 19 from the field in Game 6. Payton is not merely the guy who hand delivered the world a meme. He stood up to Jordan, and he acquitted himself as well, if not better, than any defense/defender of the time

Loser: George Karl

Karl was a great coach. But in this doc, his only role is as the guy who didn’t put Payton on Jordan to start the series (a regret he has since admitted), and didn’t say hello to Jordan before the series, which apparently incensed MJ so much that he decided to make the series “personal” with Karl, who end up looking like the goat for slighting the GOAT. 

Like Drexler, Karl, the sixth-winningest coach in NBA history, deserves better.

Winner: Dennis Rodman

First, Rodman was part of the Pistons team that was the only team to beat the Bulls in Jordan’s prime. Then he came to the Bulls, who were so fond of his on-court contributions that they let him run completely a muck off it. Ask yourself, how many players would Michael Jordan care enough about to personally go to Las Vegas and drag them out of their hotel room to get back to practice? 

Listen, you get your NBA coach to give you a 48-hour Vegas vacay in the middle of the season, and then proceed to spend that time with Carmen Elektra, you’re not just winning. You’re in the Hall of Fame. Immediately. 

Winner: Steve Kerr 

He’s the guy who had the stones to punch Michael Jordan, who in turn said Kerr “earned my respect.” Kerr then went on to hit the game-winning shot in Game 6 vs. Utah to secure Chicago’s fifth championship in 1997, which will surely be covered in the final two episodes this Sunday. 

Not a big shock that Kerr has come up aces in this documentary. The guy has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of greatness we’ve ever seen, winning a total of eight NBA championships as a player and coach by landing on some of the greatest teams of all-time. First he played on Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs. The Jordan’s Bulls. Then for his first coaching job, he inherited Stephen Curry and was later gifted Kevin Durant. 

This isn’t to take anything away from Kerr. He was one of the greatest shooters to ever play, and that first Warriors championship came with basically the exact same roster that had lost in the first round a year earlier under Mark Jackson. Kerr did for Golden State what Phil Jackson did for the Bulls in taking over for Doug Collins. He turned a talented but flawed team into a champion. 

But there’s still a lot of good fortune in there.

Loser: Horace Grant

Jordan pegged Grant as the mole who leaked inside, locker-room information to Sam Smith for his book, “The Jordan Rules.” Grant denied it. Smith denied it. But Jordan said it, and people will remember that. 

Winner: Scott Burrell

Before this documentary, hardly anyone knew Scott Burrell’s name. Now, almost everyone does. Case closed. 

Loser: Walt Frazier

Early on in the doc, after Jordan is drafted by the Bulls, we see old footage of Walt Frazier on TV saying: “Michael’s got to realize he’s not seven foot, so he’s not going to carry a team in the NBA.” Oops. 

Winner: Toni Kukoc

Kukoc is the only non-Hall of Famer to get a large chunk of an episode devoted to him. We see him get destroyed by Jordan and Pippen in his first Olympic matchup with the Americans, but we also see him bounce back with 16 points, nine assists and five boards in the Gold Medal Game. Not a lot of players could take that kind of beating, mentally and physically, from Jordan and Pippen and have the resolve and confidence to come back firing on point days later. 

Kukoc is also the hero to Pippen’s most villainous act. When Pippen refused to enter the game in the 1994 playoffs, it was Kukoc who hit the buzzer-beater to beat the New York Knicks. If you only remembered Kukoc as the sacrificial lamb for Jordan and Pippen’s Jerry Krause disdain, this documentary set the record straight that he was a pretty damn good, and tough, player. 

Loser: Patrick Ewing

It’s not talked about enough that the second-best player on these Knicks teams Ewing was trying to take down Jordan with was probably John Starks. Ewing was a Hall of Fame player who was collectively outgunned, and he wasn’t as good as Jordan. Join the club.

The difference is Ewing and the Knicks suffered more heartache at the hands of Jordan and the Bulls than any other team. Four times the Knicks were eliminated by Chicago. The only time they beat the Bulls in the playoffs was in 1994, when Jordan was playing baseball and Pippen refused to go back in the game. 

Heck, Ewing even lost the college national championship to Jordan, who hit the game-winner in 1982 as North Carolina took down Georgetown, as depicted in the second episode of the documentary. Ewing told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that to this day, Jordan will rib Ewing that he’s ‘never beaten [Jordan] when it counts.”

You can’t argue with that. 

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