It has been a long week. ESPN’s 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan and the ’90s Chicago Bulls, “The Last Dance,” began with two episodes Sunday that were so good, so compelling, that the wait for parts 3 and 4 this Sunday has seemed interminable.
But there’s been a related development, and not exactly an unexpected one, as this forever-in-the-making documentary has helped fill a coronavirus-caused sports vacuum. We are again treated to – or is it plagued by? – the renewal of that incessant debate on social media, with all of its GOAT emojis, regarding who was the Greatest Of All Time. Michael? LeBron? Kobe, maybe?
Sports arguments are a sign of normalcy, so I suppose we shouldn’t be too hard on those who have renewed the debate. And a look back at those ’90s Bulls with their twin three-peats and the drama surrounding that marquee franchise is quite instructive for those who have forgotten or didn’t experience that era of the NBA, or those who remain convinced that LeBron James invented basketball when he joined the league in 2003.
(Unless it was the Warriors in 2015. You know, recency bias and all that.)
But don’t those arguments get tiresome after a while? After all, you could look at the numbers and say Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, still the league’s all-time leading scorer, might have the best case. Or Bill Russell, still the league’s all-time winner with 11 championships.
Otherwise, it’s just personal bias, or team loyalty, or “my era was best” logic, when in reality all of those players were/are gifted and unique in skills, work ethic and competitiveness. Fighting over whoever might be the GOAT does all of them a disservice.
So maybe we all should just cool it.
As someone who covered the NBA beat through most of the ’90s, I can attest that decade was far different than today’s more cautious, more restrictive atmosphere (which will, once we come out of this pandemic, undoubtedly be even more cautious and restrictive).
When I first jumped on, as the first-year Lakers beat guy for The Press-Enterprise in October of 1989, there was still some of the “we’re all in this together” mentality among the league’s players, coaches, executives, league officials and, to an extent, media members. Even with the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird thrills of the 1980s, the NBA was still No. 3 in popularity nationally, though the Lakers’ five titles that decade had drawn them at least even and maybe even a little ahead of the Dodgers in the L.A. pecking order.
In that era, even commissioner David Stern would drop into a media workroom. Rarely, but it happened.
Jordan and the Bulls would further enlarge the NBA’s audience in the ’90s. The Lakers were their first Finals victims in 1991 in a marquee matchup between Magic and Michael, though it’s easy now to forget the two incidents that would change that series in Chicago’s favor.
The first was Scottie Pippen being switched over to guard Magic at halftime of Game 2, disrupting the Lakers’ offense. The second: The Bulls had the Lakers’ game plan, literally. Someone had forgotten to retrieve a printout with a detailed list of the Lakers’ plays, with options, from under the visitors bench in Chicago Stadium following Game 2. As Sam Smith, longtime Chicago Tribune beat writer, related in his 1992 book “The Jordan Rules,” that document wound up in the hands of the Bulls’ coaches and provided valuable confirmation of what the Lakers wanted to do.
The Bulls won that one in five after the Lakers won the opener in Chicago on Sam Perkins’ game-winning 3-pointer. For those who may have forgotten – spoiler alert! – Chicago knocked off Portland in the 1992 Finals and Phoenix (with Charles Barkley) in ’93. Jordan then stepped away, spent a season playing minor league baseball in the White Sox system, returned for the final 17 games of the 1994-95 season, and led the Bulls to titles in ’96 (over Seattle) and ’97 (over Utah).
After that season, Phil Jackson signed for one more season as coach, with general manager Jerry Krause announcing publicly that it was Jackson’s final season, and Jordan promptly indicated that if Phil was gone after that year, so was he.
Thus, the title “The Last Dance,” Jackson’s theme for that season. And thus the presence of documentary cameras in the locker room and around the team all through that final season, shooting footage that only now is being seen. The idea that a team would grant such unfettered, uncensored and unfiltered access, with no first refusal rights over content, would be unheard of today. Cameras maybe. Editorial freedom, no.
But consider this difference in eras: The league-mandated pregame media access period was 45 minutes then, and the superstars generally made themselves available. Barkley would hold court on the trainer’s table in the middle of the visitors locker room at the Forum. Johnson, not surprisingly, always was ready to talk. And Jordan would, too, even if he was usually measured in what he’d say.
This now seems hard to fathom, but the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Jim Trotter and I were the only local writers at a Bulls practice at Long Beach State in December of 1995, early in Jordan’s first full season back. He sounded humble, saying: “Two years have gone by. No one has seen if I can still play the game of basketball the way I’m capable. So for anyone to assume that I’m the best player in the league at this particular time, without seeing if I’m still capable of putting up those numbers . . . it’s kind of unfair to the other players. I’d rather take a back seat and work my way back up.”
It didn’t take long for him to do so, obviously. But the point: Even midway through that decade, the NBA was still fighting for market share, and superstars were accessible.
In this era, a reporter needing LeBron or Anthony Davis – or even the non-stars – for a pregame comment for deadline purposes had better go to the morning shootaround and hope they’re in a mood to talk, because locker rooms are pretty much empty during the now 30-minute pregame access period. (In other words, those who believe in the Wilt Chamberlain theory of shootarounds – you can have me either in the morning or at game time, your choice – are out of luck.)
Another takeaway: It is equally amazing, even under the circumstances and given their star status, that Jordan and Pippen would have disrespected Krause as openly as they did with so little pushback. As noted in Part 2, Jackson actually interceded to try to get Pippen, angry over his contract, to tone it down.
But Lakers fans with long memories should appreciate this: Pippen purposely postponed surgery on his left ankle until just before the start of the 1997-98 season. History repeated itself for Jackson when the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal did the same in 2002, holding off on toe surgery until just before training camp and saying: “I got hurt on company time, so I’ll rehab on company time.”
Consider this, by the way: No Jerry Krause, no Phil Jackson to Los Angeles. And, maybe, no Lakers championships in the 2000s instead of five.
So, how soon can Sunday get here?
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter