ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” its 10-part docuseries detailing the Chicago Bulls’ 1998 NBA title, has been great on its own and especially great, for whatever importance sports have right now, during the current void after the new coronavirus pandemic vacuumed live competition out of our lives.
The 1997-98 season was the sixth and final championship won by the Bulls and Michael Jordan in the 1990s. Director Jason Hehir has walked viewers through the timeline of that dynasty over the last four weeks as two episodes per night have aired each Sunday, with the final night coming this Sunday with episodes nine and 10.
Those eight episodes to date — which can be viewed on the ESPN app, for those wanting to catch up — have expertly painted numerous backstories that culminate in the 1998 title: Jordan’s NBA path paved by injury and defeat before the ’90s dominance, his draw as a personal brand, the rise of Phil Jackson as a coach, Scottie Pippen’s awful contract situation, the stunning, tragic murder of Jordan’s father and his subsequent retirement foray into professional baseball, and more.
As someone who grew up on the 1990s NBA, it’s been a treat to relive the Bulls’ Finals battles against Magic Johnson and the Lakers, Clyde Drexler and the Blazers, and Charles Barkley with the Suns.
But the pain is coming for you, Jazz fans.
The series is built on the fact that Jordan is likely retiring after the 1997-98 season, that Pippen’s inability to renegotiate his bad contract means he’s going leave the team in free agency, and that Bulls general manager Jerry Krause made certain Jackson would not return as head coach the following season. This was to be the end of the dynasty.
The Bulls have advanced to the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals for a date with the Indiana Pacers, whose star Reggie Miller says, “I want to be the one who retires Michael Jordan.” The ball is tipped for Game 1 and the eighth episode ends.
Instantly, I shuddered.
I was transported back in time to that year. “Jazz Fever,” as it was dubbed locally, was never higher.
It probably hasn’t escaped anyone around these parts that the Utah Jazz were really good: John Stockton, the stoic leader and the all-time NBA leader in assists and steals; Karl Malone, the physical freak who would end his career as the No. 2 all-time leading scorer in league history; sharpshooting Jeff Hornacek and a cast of lovable role players.
And, despite repeated refrains from pundits that their window was now closed, that the stars were simply too old after suffering some serious heartache earlier in the ’90s, they finally reached the NBA Finals in 1997.
After the Bulls topped the Jazz in six games in 1997, an almost identical Jazz squad recorded the league’s best record in 1998 and held home-court advantage in the Finals.
But on the other side of the bracket was Michael Jordan and an almost identical Bulls squad.
The Jazz routed a 61-win Lakers team in a 4-0 sweep to reach the 1998 Finals, giving plenty of time for fans to look east and watch the Bulls and Pacers battling.
On a set of walls in my bedroom, I taped game stories and box scores each day as a way to follow the playoffs, organizing them by series in a sort of timeline. I can still see in my mind where these clippings were.
Somehow, the Bulls were on the ropes and the Pacers had taken the Eastern Conference Finals series to its seventh and deciding game. I still remember staring at some clipping about Game 7 and allowing my poor boy heart to wonder, “what if the Pacers win?”
So as the series concludes with episodes nine and 10 — set for 7 p.m. Sunday on ESPN and ESPN2 (The Deuce is where you’ll want to be for family-friendly censoring) — Jazz fans are ripe for heartbreak.
Neither of the 1997 or 1998 NBA Finals has appeared in the series to this point, so the final two episodes will chronicle both times the Bulls, already with one of the most accomplished runs in sports history, denied the Jazz even one championship. Jazz fans will have to take on some pity and self-loathing to complete the journey.
Deep down, despite all the hopes that are abundant in young fanhood, I knew if the Jazz had to face the Bulls in the Finals again, Jordan and Chicago would no doubt find a way to end with victory.
As disappointing as the 1997 Finals defeat was, I remember being secretly as crushed by the Pacers losing that 1998 Game 7.
Still, I do expect something new. Previous episodes have shown Bulls center Horace Grant calling the Pistons names for their cowardly, early walk off the court after the Bulls finally vanquished Detroit in 1991. It’s featured Jordan saying he felt disrespected in 1992 by being compared to Drexler ahead of the Finals, and later laughing at video of Gary Payton describing how well he defended Jordan during the 1996 Finals.
There are perhaps some similar storylines to mine with the Jazz; namely, Malone’s inability to hit clutch free throws, or some level of discussion about Utah repeatedly trying to slow Jordan with Bryon Russell.
But I also remember Pippen and Jordan acknowledging the Jazz as the definitively toughest opponent in any of their five Finals matchups. Stockton will be a featured interview as the series closes, and he apparently avoided doing it for a time because he didn’t want to be part of a “Jordan puff piece.”
From the tip in 1997, the matchup felt different: Chicago needed a buzzer-beater to win at home in Game 1.
But how the first of 12 Finals games ended between the Jazz and Bulls was foreshadowing for both series: Michael Jordan wasn’t about to lose anything.
Have fun reliving that.