Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Hey, look who had more of a "starring" role in The Last Dance than at least a dozen Bulls players did

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You know, it sure was nice that relative nobodies such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson could follow my lead so we could work together to give sports fans the awesome viewing experience that was ESPN's The Last Dance.

Here I am, about 43 minutes into Episode 3, standing on the periphery of a January 1998 locker-room scrum around Jordan, dutifully taking notes.

ESPN
If you're reading this (and you are), you almost surely know that I was a newspaper guy back then. At the time of that 10-second cameo, I was a reporter for The Associated Press, but just a couple months later I started my columnist career for Copley Newspapers.

Anyway, still own that green Faconnable shirt, which is now older than at least a half-dozen players on the current Bulls roster.

I made two more "appearances" in the series ... which means I had more air time than Jason Caffey, Dickey Simpkins, Joe Kleine, Robert Parish, Bison Dele, James Edwards, Keith Booth, Rusty LaRue and David Vaughn ... combined!

About 42 minutes into Episode 8, as Jordan was just starting to sit down at his post-game press conference following the Bulls' 1996 Eastern Conference Finals sweep of the Magic, I asked the opening question:

"Was it extra sweet beating Orlando for you? That had been a motivating thing for you for over a year now."

Jordan's answer: "Because of last year, the number change, and (Nick Anderson saying) 45 didn't look like 23, and whatever. But we all were disappointed, and we came back to redeem ourselves as a unit. I think we did that - effectively."

And then about 16 minutes into the series finale, I asked Michael a long (probably too long) question after the Bulls won Game 4 of the NBA Finals to move within one win of Title No. 6:

"What are your thoughts, that it might not only be your last game with the Bulls but your last game ever? You know, you're sitting on a pedestal here, and obviously it's the thing that the world wants to know."

Jordan's response: "Well, I mean, the world basically is gonna hafta wait and see what happens. The job is not done, so let's not celebrate yet."

He ended up being right; the Bulls actually lost Game 5 at home and had to go back to Utah, where they clinched No. 6 after Michael stole the ball from Karl Malone, calmly dribbled down to the offensive end, found his spot, gave Bryon Russell a little shove, swished the championship-winning jumper and then held his follow-through extra long.



AllPosters.com

A few other random thoughts after having watched the series ...

++ What an undertaking it must have been to edit the hundreds of hours of film they had and to turn it into such a compelling story. I heard some criticism about the story jumping around some, but I thought they did a remarkable job.

++ Jordan had control over the series' release, and I was impressed at the breadth of information he allowed to be shown. The stuff on his gambling (including a late-night outing during the playoffs), his father's death, and his brawl with Steve Kerr especially resonated. He cussed easily and often. He often revealed himself as a bully and a tyrant and, to quote Will Perdue, "a dick." 

++ The scene in which Jordan defended his dickishness as necessary to foster a winning atmosphere was one of the most memorable for me as a viewer. Tears were starting to well up in his eyes before he called for a "break" and took off his microphone. Although it's hard to argue with the results, the fact is that plenty of great teams in all sports over the years did not have a singular star who treated co-workers the way Jordan did the Bulls.

++ Jordan's blanket dismissal of Gary Payton after being shown an interview of Payton saying he could defend Michael was classic.

++ Michael never got into his failings as an executive, first with the Wizards and more recently as the Hornets' owner. Also, his family and his love life were kept almost completely out of it, and I don't blame him.

++ I joked about me being in the series more than several Bulls players, including Bison Dele (aka, the late Brian Williams). But I think it would have been interesting had they done a little something about him. He came up huge during the 1997 playoffs, when Rodman went off the rails a little, and his life story (and the tragic ending to it) would have been a great subject. Having said that, I know they had only so much time to profile so many players.

++ The only playoff game I missed during the second threepeat was the infamous "food poisoning game" in Utah, in which a dehydrated, ill Jordan carried the Bulls to an amazing victory and then had to be helped off the court by Pippen. My Mom had died a couple of days earlier, and I had to fly to Philadelphia for the funeral. She was buried that day, and I watched the game on TV with my brothers that night.

AP Photos
++ One of the most quoted people in the series was Mark Vancil,  Jordan's long-time biographer, award-winning author, and the guy who ran Rare Air Media for nearly two decades. 

I got to know Mark when we were both young sportswriters in Minneapolis in the late-1980s: He covered the Twins for the Star Tribune, and I was the local AP guy. I always liked him, and I like to think the feeling's mutual. I also have to admit that Mark did a lot better job of advancing his career than I did.

++ No player in sports history was as good at finding "insults" to motivate him as Jordan was. He would use any and every slight - even if he had to invent it - to be so pissed off that he needed to get "revenge" on his opponent. It would have been comical ... except it worked pretty much every time.

++ I was glad to hear Jordan say in the final episode that the dynasty didn't have to end, and that the team would have had a very realistic chance at a 7th title ... but neither Jerry Reinsdorf nor Jerry Krause wanted to let them try.

Reinsdorf had bought into Krause's plan: Blow up the dynasty and then use the enormous space under the salary cap to reload quickly by signing 2-3 superstar free agents. Unfortunately for Reinsdorf, neither he nor Krause anticipated the players association being as resolute as it was, nor did they anticipate collective bargaining agreement changes that would offer significant incentives for players to not change teams.

And finally, Reinsdorf had way too much faith in Krause's ability to attract free agents who would want to play for a blown-up franchise and an unproven coach. One of the saddest/funniest things to watch during the summer of 2000 was the way one free agent after another led Krause and Tim Floyd around on leashes in public dog-and-pony shows, only to choose other teams. After getting rejected by the likes of Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady and Eddie Jones, the desperate Bulls ended up throwing piles of money at Ron Freakin' Mercer.

Reinsdorf, through Krause, badly bungled the Jackson situation. Even if you didn't want to keep him beyond 1998, publicly embarrassing the best coach of modern times due to a vendetta was horrible management.

Despite Jordan's insistence that he would have only played had Jackson stayed, the truth is that he almost surely would have stayed had Jackson been replaced by somebody he respected (such as John Paxson or Bill Cartwright) and had Pippen been taken care of. After speaking to somebody very close to Jordan, I actually wrote a column to that effect in 2002 during Jordan's comeback with the Wizards.

So all it would have taken for the Bulls to be favored to win another title or two would have been for Krause to have eaten his pride and for Reinsdorf to have been willing to spend the money out of the golden pockets that Michael had lined for him for years. Instead, Reinsdorf let Krause hire Floyd, watched the best player in basketball history walk away, and then saw his franchise spend the next several years as NBA laughingstocks.

Many organizations in all sports chase even one elusive championship for decades. I mean, just look at the Cubs for over 100 years. When you win as often as the Bulls did, however, sometimes you undervalue what it means to win titles. You also think that you easily can replicate the success if you start over because, "hey, we did it once so we can do it again." 

Reinsdorf made a big bet on Krause, and he's now a bazillion miles away from anything close to success happening for his franchise again for the rest of his life.

++ There is little doubt that Jordan had several great seasons left after 1998. He was still the best player in the league, still playing 82 games a year. When he came back in 2001-02 to the Wizards at age 38 after having sat out three full seasons, he was averaging 25 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists through the first 50 games. He personally had willed a bad Washington team into playoff contention and was a leading MVP candidate. 


Getty Images
++ So you keep Jackson and Jordan, you give Scottie the contract he deserved, you still have Kukoc and Harper, each of whom had a few good years left, maybe you get Rodman to accept another cheap 1-year deal, and you build around all of them with good role players, something Krause did very well. But Reinsdorf didn't want to pay them all, and Krause desperately wanted to prove he could win without Jackson and Jordan. Which he couldn't.

++ The baseball stuff involving Jordan was fascinating. I actually had moved to Chicago to work for AP shortly after Michael wrapped up his one minor-league season (1994), but my talented colleague Rick Gano handled most of the Jordan/baseball stuff. 

++ As I watched Kerr talking about his fistfight with Michael, my mind drifted back to the fall of 1995, when Kerr had an autograph-signing session at the Dominick's grocery store right down the street from where we lived in Chicago.

Ben, who was 8 years old, found a Kerr basketball card and begged me to take him. There were no fans there when we arrived, nor did anyone else show up as he talked with my son for several minutes, nor was anyone else coming up to see him as we left the store.

Kerr might as well have been Jud or Dickey.

Obviously, he ended up having some big moments for the Bulls after Jordan returned, including the title-clinching shot in 1997. 

NBA.com
Michael eventually made him a ton of money, as Kerr got a way-too-big contract from San Antonio. And of course Kerr has gone on to be a great coach, and he was an outstanding announcer, too.

But for 10+ minutes in 1995, nobody gave a rat's rump that Steve Kerr was signing autographs for free at Dominick's. Had he done the same even a year later, when everybody associated with Michael & The Bulls achieved rock-star status, there probably would have been a line out the door and around the block.

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So ... what was my relationship with Michael Jordan?

I'd be lying if I claimed we had a "relationship." I was never a daily beat writer, so I wasn't around him all the time, at home and on the road. Nor was I one of "his guys" in the broadcast media, such as Ahmad Rashad. I was always big on the separation of "church and state" when it came to writer/subject relationships, and it's not as if Jordan had time for or interest in that kind of thing anyway.

But I did have the advantage of having a recognizable face (and head), so he definitely knew who I was even if he didn't remember my name. Most importantly, I always felt he treated me with respect (as I did him). As the series showed, I also was pretty aggressive in asking questions early and loudly in post-game settings, because it was the only way to get heard over the hype. I think he recognized that, too.

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I was not a big autograph guy or memorabalia collector. Mostly, I liked saving snapshots of my sportswriting life, especially my press passes from big events. 

A few of my favorite keepsakes are newspaper clips of photographs in which I happened to be part of the scene.

For example, on the wall of my office, I have a framed edition of the New York Times sports section from March 29, 1995. The previous night, Jordan - who had just come out of retirement 9 days earlier - pulled off his famous "Double Nickel" performance, in which he scored 55 points in a win at Madison Square Garden.

Most of the Times' front sports page was a huge photograph of Jordan taking a shot from the baseline. And in the lower left corner of the photo, there I am on press row, my face seemingly right next to Jordan's airborne Air Jordans.

Here's another one I like from a post-practice press conference in Portland during the 1992 NBA Finals.

The Oregonian
Jordan is looking up at me as he answers my question. As always, I have my 4-color Bic pen in my hand. I also still had a decent amount of hair, though my future lack thereof is pretty easy to foresee.

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One of our family jokes was that if one of my kids' friends asked if their dad got to talk to Jordan, they were supposed to respond, "No ... Michael Jordan gets to talk to my Dad."

I'm not sure either Ben or Katie actually ever used that line, but thinking about it still brings a smile to my face.

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Gotta run now and collect my 7-figure royalty check from ESPN ...
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