Could Michael Jordan and the Bulls have won a seventh title? Or at the very least competed for it.
It’s a hell of a hypothetical and will undoubtedly be the hottest debate topic in the world of sports for the next few days after MJ revealed his frustration over the breakup of the Bulls dynasty in the final few moments of The Last Dance.
Ten episodes and 10 hours later, The Last Dance, easily the most hyped sports documentary of recent memory, came to a climactic conclusion Sunday and delivered some incredibly compelling television. While it could never be a proper substitute for the sports we’ve lost in the pandemic, the docuseries was inarguably one hell of an awesome diversion as we learned what really made the GOAT the GOAT.
Where The Last Dance ranks among the best sports documentaries is another great debate we can have now that it's over. In the meantime, episodes IX and X—especially X—left viewers with some gems like the real story behind MJ's Flu Game and an incredible "what if" that will surely birth a ton of thinkpieces. We highlighted that and much more in the biggest takeaways from the final two installments.
The Pacers Gave Jordan and the Bulls the Toughest Time in the East
Jordan and the Bulls had plenty of rivals in the Eastern Conference over the years—the Pistons in the late 80s and early 90s and the Knicks in the mid-90s are arguably the ones most observers point to immediately. But perhaps the most underrated foe who was a constant thorn in Chicago’s side was the Reggie Miller and the Pacers.
“If I had to pick a team that gave us the toughest time in the East, Indiana was probably the toughest…outside of Detroit,” Jordan said. “They were tough. Every time I went in that fucking game I came out with a new scratch. It became personal with me.”
While many were intimated by MJ and his aurora, the skinny 3-point shooter from LA wasn’t one of those guys.
“Most people feared Michael Jordan, and rightfully so. But I didn’t fear him like the rest of the league did,” Miller said.
The Hall of Fame shooter would get physical and up in Jordan’s face whenever the two teams clashed. But he learned early on in not to jaw at Jordan. After taunting him during a game in Chicago in the 80s, Miller watched MJ torch the Pacers in the second half. And he’ll never forget what MJ told him after the game.
“Don’t ever talk trash to Black Jesus,” Jordan told Miller.
The 3-point specialist never called Jordan “Michael Jordan” after that game. “Jordan or Black Jesus or that Black Cat. I never call him Michael Jordan after that,” Miller said.
MJ was fueled by Karl Malone’s 1996-97 MVP award in the 1997 Finals
Time for another MJ used the slightest of slights to motivate him story.
The 33-year-old Malone won the first of his two MVPs in the ‘96-97 season when the Mailman averaged 27.4 points, 9.9 boards, and 4.5 assists per game as the Jazz went on to win 64 games. That's good, fantastic. The Finals will be a different story than the regular-season, Jordan vowed.
“I’m not saying he wasn’t deserving of it. All I’m saying is that fueled the fire in me,” Jordan said.
So in the 1997 Finals, Jordan averaged 32.3 points, 7.0 boards, and 6.0 assists during the six-game series. Malone averaged 23.8 points, 10.3 boards, and 3.5 assists.
Bryon Russell Was on Jordan’s Hit List Long Before the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals
The man who is most famous for getting worked by MJ in his iconic last shot with the Bulls in Game 6 the 1998 NBA Finals first appeared on Jordan’s radar when he was playing baseball.
During his days playing baseball, Utah was in town to play the Bulls, and Jordan just happened to be in Chicago. The Jazz practiced at the Bulls facility so Jordan dropped by to say hello to his Dream Team buddies John Stockton and Malone. While there, a young guard from Long Beach State, Bryon Russell, started gassing up MJ, asking him why he quit. “Man you know I can guard your ass,” Russell teased MJ.
Jordan told Malone the kid needed to cool his jets. “Karl, you need to talk to this dude, man,” Jordan remembers telling Malone. “But from that point on he had been on my list.”
Whenever the Bulls would play the Jazz upon Jordan’s return to the NBA, Russell would get defensive duties against MJ.
“Bryon Russell made our team in the first place through incredible effort,” Stockton said. “He earned the right to take on some of the tougher assignments. And it doesn’t get any tougher than Michael.”
But because Russell had to shoot his mouth off to Jordan once upon a time, MJ studied the ways to slice and dice Russell so he’d be ready whenever they faced off.
“I have no doubt that Michael had a number of edges that he could’ve sharpened for whatever reason,” Stockton said.
The first really memorable shot Jordan hit over Russell was a 19-foot jumper that clinched in Game 1 of the 1997 Finals. MJ shook Russell loose, got himself a clear look, coolly knocked it down, and the Bulls were three wins away from becoming back-to-back champs.
Don’t call it the ‘Flu Game.’ Call it the ‘Food Poisoning Game.’
Jordan’s performance in Game 5 of the 1997 Finals was legendary because he appeared to be sick as a dog with what everyone generally believed to be the flu. Jordan, despite looking like death, still manned up to score 38 points and carry the Bulls to a win and a 3-2 advantage in the series. We now know it wasn’t the flu. Instead, it was some potentially tainted Utah pizza that almost incapacitated Jordan.
As the story is told, around 10, 10:30 p.m., Jordan’s getting hungry at the Bulls hotel, but there’s no room service at the Marriott the team is staying at. So MJ’s inner-circle, including friend/assistant George Koehler and trainer Tim Grover, called around Salt Lake City to find any kitchen that was still open. They found a pizza joint that could deliver.
“Five guys deliver one pizza,” Grover said. “They’re all trying to look in. So I take the pizza and I pay them and I put the pizza down and I have a bad feeling about this.”
Jordan ate it and, sure enough, became sick in the middle of the night. He called Grover to come to his room and summon the team doctor because Grover said, “he was curled up in a ball, shaking.”
MJ’s mom, Deloris, told her son he shouldn’t play. Jordan stayed in bed all day and didn’t participate in the team’s shootaround. He even had an IV administered. Phil Jackson came to Jordan’s room to check on his condition hours before the pivotal Game 5.
“Phil comes in and said, ‘What do you think?’ I said I’m going to try,” Jordan said. “It’s Game 5. If anything I can be a decoy. So I’m going out. I’m going to play.”
“He was in pretty bad shape,” Scottie Pippen said. “But a lot of times when you’re sick you’re able to find something deep down inside that you didn’t’ know was there. I just think it was one of those games that we wanted to win so badly that he stayed with it.”
Jordan played an astounding 44 minutes in Game 5 and looked absolutely spent during every timeout. But the Bulls left Utah with the win and closed out the series in six games back in Chicago for Jordan’s fifth title. Commonly called the Flu Game, we need to officially rename one of MJ’s most iconic performances.
“It really wasn’t the flu. It was food poisoning,” Jordan said.
Jordan Grew Incredibly Close With His Head of Security
We all know Jordan couldn’t live a normal life during his final few years with the Bulls so he developed a closer bond with his security detail, most especially the head of it, Gus Lett.
Since MJ was in his mid-30s and, well, more mature than most NBA players around him, he liked surrounding himself with older guys like Lett and the Sniff Brothers who protected him and would do just about anything Jordan needed.
Lett was a former Chicago policeman who eventually went on to work security at the United Center. He befriended MJ during his second season in the league when the future star missed a huge chunk of the regular season with a broken foot. Lett would make sure Jordan got to his car and back ok.
“He was a great protector for me,” Jordan said. “With people around, they think they’re entitled to certain things. Gus would put ‘em straight. He was a protector. But he was more than that. I saw him for being more than that.”
The bond deepened after the death of James Jordan in 1993. Lett became a father-like figure to MJ and Jordan wanted the security guard around him wherever he went until Lett was diagnosed with cancer.
“He was inspiration for me,” Jordan said.
Lett ended up with a nice souvenir following Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. Jordan secured him the game ball after the Bulls fought back from a fourth-quarter deficit to continue their drive toward a second three-peat.
Dennis Rodman Missed a Practice During the NBA Finals To Hang with Hollywood Hogan and the NWO
We couldn’t get through this documentary without one more ridiculous Dennis Rodman story, right?
After Game 3 of the 1998 NBA Finals, with the Bulls ahead of the Jazz 2-1, Rodman was nowhere to be found for the Bulls’ practice between Games 3 and 4 because he was off living it up with Hollywood Hogan and the NWO crew at a televised WCW event outside of Detroit.
Rodman was shown on TV backstage partying it up with Hogan then later pummeled Diamond Dallas Page with a chair in yet another outrageous display of Dennis doing Dennis to the potential detriment of his teammates. Predictably, the absence caused a massive media stir that was way worse than when Rodman took a mid-season vacation to Las Vegas a few months earlier. This time, Rodzilla was fined for the transgression while Jackson did his best to downplay the controversy.
“I just think Phil realized I always needed to do me,” Rodman said. “I’m just going to do what I do. You know, like missing a playoff [practice], I went to go wrassle. They going to get 100 percent when I’m on the court.”
The Bulls won Game 4 so no harm, no foul on Rodman ducking out of practice.
Pippen’s Bad Back Had the Bulls on the Ropes in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals
The Bulls didn’t want to see a Game 7 in Utah. NBA teams historically do not win Game 7s on the road, especially in the Finals—except most recently LeBron James and the Cavs in 2016. So the Bulls, obviously, preferred to take care of business in Game 6. But even before opening tip the task was going to be difficult since Pippen’s back was really bothering him. Then disaster struck after his first bucket of the game—a dunk—irritated the injury so badly that Pippen was practically useless the rest of the game.
“When Scottie left we were just kind of holding on,” Jackson said.
Jordan was going to have to play hero. Again. Fortunately, it was a role he was ideal suited for as Fox Sports 1’s co-star of Undisputed Skip Bayless outlined in our story, 9 Journalists Share Their Favorite Michael Jordan Stories, from April:
Scottie Pippen had scored two of his eight points on a dunk early in the game, and after the game I learned he had aggravated a back injury that had been plaguing him all year. So in that game, he had eight total points in 26 minutes. Jordan had 45 points in 44 minutes. Michael out-scored Scottie 45 to eight and out-scored the rest of his teammates 45 to 42. Clearly, he knew Scottie was ailing and he said, ‘I got this. I’m going to put this whole team and my whole city on my back, and I’m going to shoot a dagger into their hearts one more time with one more shot.’ I was so taken by the circumstance that he knows he might be without the guy I always called Tonto to his Lone Ranger.
“I was a decoy that whole game. They didn’t know it,” Pippen said. “Michael said, ‘You just stay out here and do what you can do. You’re better out here than in the locker room.’”
At the end of another long and exhausting run through the NBA Playoffs, in the sixth game of the Finals against a bruising Utah squad that was deep, talented, and mentally tough, the 34-year-old Jordan, who had played all 82 regular-season games, and averaged 41.5 minutes per game in the postseason, was running on fumes without Pippen to pitch in.
“I’m bringing all the energy and I have very little in the tank,” Jordan said.
With 41 seconds left and the Bulls down three, of course, Jordan dug down deep into his reserve and went to work on Russell, getting a quick bucket to bring the Bulls within one. On defense the next possession, Jordan swiped the ball from Malone’s blindside. Bringing the ball up the court, Jordan saw Jackson didn’t want to call a timeout. That set up the final MJ-Russell one-on-one showdown.
Every Bull Knew Jordan Wasn’t Passing up the Last Shot
Duh. But it’s funny to hear them talk about it now.
The only thing Pippen could think of on his way down the court on the Bulls’ final offensive possession was “get the hell out of the way” and let Jordan do his thing. Rodman, too.
“I didn’t have to do shit,” Rodman said. “All I did was plant myself down there. I know he was going to shoot it. I knew he was going to shoot this fucker. He is not going to pass this fucking ball to John Paxson or fucking Steve Kerr. Hell no. It’s his turn.”
Jordan knew he could take Russell—it was just a matter of choosing to go to the hole or pulling up for a money mid-range jumper.
From the left wing, MJ drove right and shook Russell around the top of the key—possibly getting away with a minor push-off depending on how much you love or loath Jordan—and drained his 44th and 45th points of the game. It was 87-86 Bulls. There were 5.2 seconds between the Bulls and a second three-peat.
Jordan Says He Didn’t Push-Off Russell
For the record, MJ’s calling bullshit on all the haters who say he committed an offensive foul on Russell.
“Everybody says I pushed off. Bullshit,” Jordan said. “The man, his energy was going that way. I didn’t have to push him that way.”
MJ’s bucket stunned the Utah crowd that thought it was headed for a Game 7 only 40 seconds of game clock prior to that. It was Jordan’s last shot as a Bull and, unequivocally, his most famous. You’ve seen the highlight and still shot a thousand times. But the Bulls still had to play defense for one more possession to secure the dynasty’s place in history and Jordan was absolutely spent. He wasn’t sure what he could muster on defense.
Stockton’s contested three was off the mark—possibly partially blocked by Ron Harper—and Jordan celebrated a championship with Jackson and his teammates for the sixth and final time.
Jerry Reinsdorf Offered to Bring Jackson Back for the 98-99 Season
The Bulls owner essentially vetoed Jerry GM Jerry Krause, who had steadfastly said the 97-98 campaign would be Jackson’s last as coach of the Bulls—no matter what happened. Because Jordan wasn’t going to play for anyone other than Jackson, we all know it would be his last run with the Bulls. But Reinsdorf talked to Jackson after the season and told him he could return to the sidelines “regardless of what was said before now,” Reinsdorf said. The owner was trying to bring the band back for one more dance.
Jackson wasn’t having it.
“I said, well, I think I should just take a break,” Jackson said. “I said I don’t think it’s fair to Jerry and I think it would be difficult for him to accept that.”
Jackson obviously never returned to the Bulls and the team was broken up before the start the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. But could the Bulls dynasty really have been saved and a fourth-straight title, and a seventh overall, been secured? Or at least given an honest attempt?
Could the Bulls Really Have Comeback for One More Run After 98?
Depends who you ask. Reinsdorf says yes. MJ says no, but is pissed the Bulls didn’t give it a legitimate shot.
“After the sixth championship, things were beyond our control,” Reinsdorf said. “Because it would’ve been suicidal at that point in your careers to bring back Pippen, Steve Kerr, Rodman, Ron Harper. Their market value, individually, was going to be too high. So when we realized that we were going to have to go into a rebuild, I went to Phil and offered him the opportunity to comeback the next year. But he said I don’t want to go through a rebuild. I don’t want to coach a bad team.
“That was the end. It just came to an end on its own. Had Michael been healthy and wanted to comeback, I don’t doubt that Krause could’ve rebuilt a championship team in a couple of years. But it wasn’t going to happen instantly.”
MJ aint’ buying it.
“When Phil said it was the last dance, it was the last dance,” Jordan said. “We knew they weren’t going to keep the team. Now they could’ve nixed all of that at the beginning of 1998. If you ask all the guys who won in 98, Steve Kerr, Judd Buechler, blah, blah, blah…we give you a one-year contract to try for the seventh. You think they would’ve signed it? Yes, they would’ve signed it. Would I have signed for one year? Yes, I would’ve signed for one year. I had been signing one-year contracts up to that [point]. Would Phil have done it? Yes.”
But would Pippen, who had bitterly feuded with the Bulls and Krause over being severely underpaid during the Bulls championship years, been onboard?
“Now Pip, you would’ve had to do some convincing, but if Phil was going to be there, if Dennis was going to be there, if MJ was going to be there to win our seventh, Pip is not going to miss out on something like that,” Jordan said.
Jordan Found it ‘Maddening’ to Leave the Game at his Peak
When we walked away from the game for a second time, Jordan was slightly past his prime at age 34 but still undoubtedly the best player in the game. And he said the 1998 title was the most satisfying of his career because at that point he was not only torching opponents with his superior physical skills, but his mental game and basketball acumen had reached its peak.
“98 was much better than any other years because of how I was able to use my mind as well as my body,” Jordan said. He called it “maddening” that he walked away from the game again because the Bulls front office couldn’t get its shit together when he felt “we could’ve won seven. I really believe that. We may not have, but not to be able to try is something that I just can’t accept for whatever reason. I just can’t accept it.”
Jackson differed. He thought it was the right time to walk away. The dynasty was going to die at some point and a dignified death was what it deserved.