With little else going on in the world of sports, predicting that The Last Dance would be a massive ratings hit was a layup. A record-setting audience tuned into ESPN for the first two episodes of the 10-part docuseries when it debuted last weekend. Chances are almost everybody returned for more Sunday night.
The drama that unfolded in the first two episodes largely lived up to the hype and episodes III and IV delivered the kind of spicy commentary from Michael Jordan fans have been dying for. Just like we did for episodes I and II, we're offering up the biggest takeaways from this weekend's installments that focused on Dennis Rodman's contributions (and distractions) to the Bulls and Jordan's rivalry with the Bad Boy Pistons during the late 80s and early 90s that arguably produced the most honest and interesting insights from MJ so far. Enjoy.
Dennis Rodman doesn’t think the Bulls win three-straight titles without him
Rodman's fit into the culture of Chicago wasn't always a sure thing when he was acquired. But he turned out to be perfect despite his penchant to be a distraction from time-to-time. If you caught the Rodman 30 For 30 last fall, then a good amount of the info on The Worm won't be news. As we all know, the combustible power forward was tough to keep under control and his antics on and off the court often created controversy. But his contributions on the court were undeniable and, in his own words, without him there is no Bulls' three-peat.
“Nobody can say anything bad about me as a teammate,” Rodman said. “If you take me away from this team? Do they still win a championship? I don’t think so.”
Rodman said he did things Jordan and Pippen couldn’t do. And he’s right about that. The rebounding machine was legendary for doing the dirty work, extending plays, and locking down his defensive assignments. He also stepped up big time when Pippen missed the early portion of the season and formed a different dynamic duo with MJ in December of the ‘97-98 season when the Bull started clicking following a sluggish start.
“Dennis is what held us together with Scottie out,” Jackson said.
Rodman had a unique way of apologizing
Before the Bulls started to resemble the Bulls early in the ‘97-98 season, Rodman was languishing and struggling with self-motivation. He was playing selfishly and it was grating on Jordan as the Bulls got off to a disappointing 9-7 record as November turned to December. It reached a tipping point after one game when Rodman got tossed and basically left Jordan alone on the court to will the Bulls to a victory.
“Dennis hadn’t accepted the role that Scottie wasn’t going to be around and we needed you to be more accountable. I need to count on you,” Jordan said. “He leaves me out there by myself because Scottie’s not playing and Dennis knew he fucked up.”
Rodman could tell he was in Jordan’s doghouse and wanted to bury the hatchet. So one night on the road, he went over to MJ’s hotel room and knocked on the door. “Dennis never comes to my room,” Jordan said.
Asking for a cigar, but never actually apologized for his lackluster play, Rodman said MJ knew it was his way of saying “my bad.”
“He didn’t say anything, but by him coming to my room it was his way of saying ‘Look, man, I fucked up,’” Jordan said. “From that point on, Dennis was straight as an arrow. We started to win.”
Doug Collins and Jordan had a very close relationship
Some of Jordan’s best years came when Doug Collins coached the Bulls from 1986-89. Taking over for Stan Albeck after the 1986 season, Collins further unleashed the beast in MJ since the two were cut from the same cloth.
“Dougie was a breath of fresh air,” Jordan said. “He believed in everything I believed in. He wanted to win. He was an easy guy—great guy to play for.”
Under Collins, Jordan had monster seasons. He won three straight scoring titles, but he had an absolute beast of a season in ‘87-88 when he won the 1988 Dunk Contest, was named the 1988 All-Star Game MVP, was the 1988 Defensive Player of the Year, and earned his first of his five NBA MVPs.
“That’s greatness. He was now the best player,” Collins said.
Collins, Jordan said, designed the Bulls’ offense around Jordan’s strengths so it would compliment the way he wanted to coach. MJ was in heaven even if he would get pissed off in practice when Collins purposely stacked the deck against him in 5-on-5 situations.
“I think he loved my competitiveness,” Collins said. “He understands that the greatest respect you can give a great player is to coach him and coach him hard.”
Jordan kept tabs on the media’s predictions
The Bulls met the Cavaliers in a first-round best-of-five series in the 1989 playoffs and few gave Chicago a chance to win since the Bulls had a reputation of coming up small when it mattered most.
A master at using any slight for motivation, Jordan directed his anger toward some of the Bulls’ beat reporters who all predicted Chicago would get bounced. The Bulls managed to force a Game 5 in Cleveland and, before tip-off, Jordan pointed toward each writer to tell them how wrong they were about to be.
Jordan, of course, infamously hit “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo—”which honestly was a mistake,” Jordan said, “because the guy who played me better was Ron Harper.” Ehlo, let the record show, defended Jordan rather well on the play. But Jordan contorted his body enough to find the slimmest of openings and drained the iconic foul-line jumper, advancing the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals.
An ecstatic Jordan was vindicated and reveled in proving the writers wrong. “Get the fuck outta here,” Jordan remembers feeling. “Go fucking anywhere, but you outta here. Whoever’s not with us, all you fuckers go to hell.”
The win over the Cavs pulled the Bulls out of a losers mentality that had reigned over the franchise for years and instilled a new sense of confidence in Jordan and his teammates.
“We were starting to become a winning franchise and the sky was the limit,” Jordan said.
Jordan still hates the Bad Boy Pistons
Perhaps Jordan’s greatest rivals on the court were the Detroit Pistons of the late 80s and early 90s. The Pistons were on their way to back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990 and took great pleasure in bouncing MJ, indisputably the future of the NBA, from the playoffs in physically debilitating fashion via The Jordan Rules.
What were The Jordan Rules? “You have to stop him before he takes flight because you know he’s not human,” former Pistons forward John Salley said.
More specifically, The Jordan Rules were:
- On the wings, push him to the elbow and prevent him from driving to the baseline
- When he’s at the top of the key, push him to his left
- When he got the ball in low-post, trap him
- And when he did drive and elevate, knock him to the ground
“We tried to physically hurt him,” Rodman said.
“I hated them,” Jordan said. “The hate carries even to this day. They made it personal. They physically beat the shit out of us.”
Phil Jackson’s first meeting with Rodman “was awful”
GM Jerry Krause acquired Rodman in a trade in 1995 and Jackson’s official introduction to his new player awkwardly went down at Krause’s house. When Jackson walked into the living room, Rodman was sitting on the couch and wouldn’t get up to greet Jackson.
“I said, ‘Stand up, Dennis. Take your hat off,’” Jackson remembers.
Rodman got up and two went outside to “break bread,” in the words of Rodman, and basically be convinced by Jackson how he would be accepted by the veteran Bulls. Despite the reservations of many in the media, it turned out to be a great fit.
“Dennis was a dominant defensive player and what Dennis brought was exactly what we needed: somebody who gave us that edge on the frontline,” Steve Kerr said.
Jordan was incredibly patient answering questions about his future
His future with the organization had basically been written since Jordan proclaimed he didn’t want to play under any coach other than Jackson, and it was announced Jackson wouldn’t return after the end of the ‘97-98 season. But Jordan was asked time and time again—most especially when the Bulls were on the road—if he’d be back playing next season. Jordan showed an incredible amount of patience calmly answering the same questions in different cities. Many of today’s superstars would have zero tolerance for that.
Rodman requested a vacation from the Bulls in the middle of the season
When Pippen finally returned to action, Rodman struggled with his new role. No longer Robin to MJ’s Batman, it played with his psyche and he started to act out.
“When Scottie came back, we got the Three Amigos again, but I’m pretty much the third-wheel of the family,” Rodman said.
It brought him to a dark place and in a hilarious and absolutely preposterous story that would never happen in today’s NBA, Rodman asked for some time off in the middle of the season.
“Dennis was a model citizen” when Pippen was out of the lineup, Jordan remembered, to the point where it was “driving him fucking insane. When Scottie came back, Dennis wanted to take a vacation.”
As Jordan tells it, Jackson told Jordan after practice one day that Rodman had a message for him. “When Dennis wants to tell me something I know it’s not something I want to fucking hear,” Jordan said.
Rodman told him he needed a vacation. Amidst the pressure of the season, he had to let loose. He needed to get away from it all. And Jordan couldn’t believe it. “If anybody needed a fucking vacation I need a vacation,” Jordan said. Rodman told them he wanted to go to Las Vegas.
“Phil, you let him go to Vegas, we’re definitely not going to see him,” Jordan said. Jackson asked Rodman if he could limit his vacation to 48 hours and Rodman agreed. “I’m looking at Phil like you ain’t going to get that dude back in 48 hours. I don’t care what you say.”
“Dennis was bizarre, but I think what made it work was Phil and Michael‘s understanding that to get the most out of him on the court you had to give him some rope. And they gave him a lot of rope,” Kerr said.
Jordan had to retrieve Rodman when he went AWOL
Rodman, unsurprisingly, did not return to the Bulls after his 48-hour vacation and kept partying in Vegas with girlfriend Carmen Electra well past Jackson’ deadline to return.
“One thing about Dennis, he had to escape. He liked to go out. He liked to go to the club,” Electra said. “It was definitely an occupational hazard to be Dennis’ girlfriend. He was wild.”
Electra had no idea what the Bulls schedule was so she didn’t protest the good times continuing in Sin City. But when the Bulls had enough, Jordan said he showed up to Rodman’s hotel room—where, he don't know, but presumably Vegas—“to go get his ass out of bed. And I’m not going to say what’s in his bed, or where he was, or blah, blah, blah.”
Electra hid when she knew Jordan was at the door. Rodman knew his good time was up and was soon back at practice where amazingly it looked like he hadn’t missed a beat. During a competitive conditioning exercise Jackson put the team through called The Indian Drill, Jordan told his teammates to slowly jog so they wouldn’t be punished for Rodman’s time away. Instead, Rodman blew away his teammates with his performance.
“That’s what was so cool about playing with that team,” Rodman said. “They were all about anybody need to do something, they were all about it.”
Rodman and Jackson had a special bond
The two most eccentric personalities on the Bulls shared a mutual interest in Native American culture and that’s how they bonded. Jackson had his office and a team room at the Bulls' practice facility decked out in various artifacts and Rodman realized it right away since he would wear a necklace from an Oklahoma tribe.
“He didn’t look at me as a basketball player. He looked at me like a great friend,” Rodman said.
Jordan wasn’t a Jackson fan at first
Doug Collins catered the Bulls offense to Jordan and for good reason. But after he was let go following the conclusion of the 1989 season, Jackson took over and installed the triangle offense (the genius of basketball guru and Bulls assistant Tex Winter) that prioritized ball movement and nixed the iso-heavy schemes of the previous regime. Jordan, predictably, wasn’t happy.
“I wasn’t a Phil Jackson fan when he first came in because he was coming in taking the ball out of my hands,” Jordan said. “Doug put the ball in my hands.”
The triangle irrevocably changed the Bulls offense and Jordan, who had won two straight scoring titles under Collins, thought it was the wrong strategy. Winter would yell at Jordan to keep the ball moving and Jordan initially rebelled.
“Everybody has an opportunity to touch the ball, but I didn’t want Bill Cartwright to have the ball with 5 seconds left,” Jordan said. “That’s not equal opportunity offense. That’s fucking bullshit.”
In the long run, it was better for MJ and the team. He couldn’t be the only one relied on to score and being relieved of much of the massive offensive burden allowed others, most especially Pippen, to blossom.
Jordan and the Bulls were devastated losing to the Pistons again
After another defeat in the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals to the Bad Boys, Jordan was so distraught and emotionally drained that he cried on the team bus to his father.
Along with the rest of the Bulls, they were so hungry to defeat Detroit that instead of doing what would normally be expected—immediately head for vacation and some necessary time off—the team went right back to the gym and went to work.
Jordan became newly devoted to a weight-lifting program and transformed his body from that of a sinewy scorer to a chiseled assassin.
“I was getting brutally beaten up and I wanted to administer pain. I wanted to fight back,” Jordan said.
He was driven to beat the Pistons, and the rest of the NBA, and it officially rubbed off on Pippen that off-season who was right there with Jordan during the summer workouts.
“The thing about Pip, you stand next to him you make him stronger,” Jordan said. “Scottie and I bonded because he felt like, ok he has someone he can count on. I looked at it like I have someone I can count on.”
Jordan thinks Isiah Thomas is an “asshole” for not shaking hands after the ‘91 ECF
One of the most notorious controversies in NBA history went down at the end of the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls had finally vanquished their nemesis, the two-time defending champion Pistons, in another physical playoff series. But it wasn’t competitive. The Bulls swept the Pistons to finally ascend to the NBA Finals. Instead of showing respect and acknowledging the passing of the torch, the Bulls’ bitter rivals walked off the court with 7.9 seconds remaining like sore losers, refusing to shake hands.
“We walked off the court like, ‘Fuck you guys. Thanks for kicking our ass,’” Rodman said of his former team.
Pistons center Bill Lambeer, according to Isiah Thomas, told the Pistons not to shake hands with the Bulls. They justified their behavior by saying the Celtics pulled a similar stunt on the Pistons years earlier.
“I know it’s all bullshit,” Jordan said. “You can show me anything you want there’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an asshole.”
Jordan couldn’t understand why Thomas and his teammates couldn’t do what the Bulls had done previously—show some sportsmanship to victors even if “it fucking hurt” losing to the Pistons.
Vanquishing the Pistons was one of Jordan’s most satisfying accomplishments
MJ hated the Pistons so much that beating them in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals was one of the most satisfying accomplishments of his career.
“That, in some ways, was better than winning a championship,” Jordan said.
The Bulls went on to beat the Lakers in five games in the 1991 NBA Finals and Jordan had officially established himself as more than just the game’s best scorer—he was now considered one of the game’s top winners. He was so emotional, crying as he cradled the Larry O’Brien Trophy, that his teammates couldn’t believe they were witnessing the same Michael Jordan who acted like a killer on the court and in practice.
“When they beat us, we met between both locker rooms and he just put his arms [around me] and just started crying. He was so happy that he won, that he busted through,” Magic Johnson said. “That was a special moment for him and myself.”
Scott Burrell got roasted by MJ
As we saw in the first episode, Burrell usually was one of MJ's favorite targets, often suffering from his tough love approach. The funniest scene of episode IV came toward the end when, on the Bulls charter plane, Jordan ripped Burrell playfully for being an "alcoholic" and partying way too much. Flustered with the cameras hovering over their conversation, Burrell protested to Mike that he didn't want his parents to hear that. Twenty years later, whatever the UConn product was doing as a young adult with some money in his pocket and using his clout from playing alongside a legend like MJ, it's probably safe to assume it's out of his system.