Jordan in Paris and The Traveling Cocaine Circus
Just like they did in their playing days, Michael Jordan and the Bulls delivered the goods when it was needed most. With no NBA playoffs, March Madness, or MLB to satisfy sports fans during this Spring of Quarantine, ESPN programmers moved The Last Dance, their 10-part documentary about the ’96-’97 Chicago Bulls, up from June. The first two of 10 hours of this much-anticipated documentary aired last night and lived up to the hype. Even if you lived through the Bulls dynasty, it’s unlikely you knew the stories of the “traveling cocaine circus,” the “headache death pills” or how former Presidents fit into this story.
I’d been waiting for a documentary like this ever since living through the real Last Dance as a kid in the Chicago suburbs. Sure, we had quickie championship season videos and the fun “Ultimate Jordan” and goofy “Learning to Fly” videos to watch the last twenty years, but we needed the full uncut story. It’s here, and it’s spectacular.
The Bulls’ dynasty lined up perfectly with my childhood. Jordan played his first game two weeks before I was born in 1984. The Bulls won the championship when I was 6, 7, 8, 11, 12 and 13 years old. I had a Bulls-themed Bar Mitzvah during this exact “Last Dance” season. The night after the Bulls squeaked past the Nets in the United Center, I was becoming a man 18 miles away at Beth Hillel Synagogue with a life-size Jordan cutout at the party, with my own last dance to worry about, with girls four inches taller than me.
But back to the series. The raw footage goes deep and the touted “unprecedented level of access” really stands out. We truly go behind the scenes. There are so many good new tidbits, mixed with every possible talking head you could hope for providing new interviews. It all adds up to a fun, never-boring watch that sent me back to all the fond memories of watching Bulls games with my dad.
The first two episodes are a lot of setup, but it doesn’t feel like overkill despite the long run time. Parts one and two focus mostly on Jordan and, to a lesser extent, Scottie Pippen. We intercut between their pro and college highlights and their childhoods. The Last Dance focuses on the similarities between them, going from unheralded high-school athletes who bloomed in college (much more for MJ) and then broke out almost instantly on the Bulls and grew into the best one-two punch in NBA history.
But we knew a lot of that going in. What new info or aspects did the documentary treat us to or remind us of 20-odd years later? Let’s count down the top 10 moments of the first two hours of The Last Dance:
Any quote about Jordan’s competitiveness
Whether it was his college coach Dean Smith saying Jordan “never freaking turns it off” or Ahmad Rashad saying, “He played every game like it was his last game.” We get a little of the overcompetitive Jordan yelling at Toni Kukoc and staring down teammates, but the good competitiveness is refreshing to see too.
The old talk-show clips
It’s not just hilarious to see mid-late 90s MJ on Oprah, Pippen on Arsenio and Rodman on Letterman, it’s a nice reminder of how much bigger than sports those 90s Bulls teams were. If we’d actually gotten more than just the introductions of them and got to see more of the interviews, this would have been higher.
Jordan hits his head on the backboard
While dunking in college, MJ leapt so high he banged his head on the backboard. And hard enough that the next shot is of him with an ice pack on his head. By ’97-98 he was mostly a jump-shooter, but young MJ was an athletic marvel. What a joy to see again.
How bad the Bulls were before MJ came to town
The Bulls were getting outdrawn in attendance by the Chicago Sting, a now-defunct professional soccer team. In related news, the early-80s Bulls were heavily into cocaine. More on that later.
Jordan in Paris
Every bit of MJ in Paris for the McDonald’s Championship is amusing. MJ ignoring questions from French journalists about the Eiffel Tower while MJ dons a beret. He’s totally checked out, and doesn’t even consider answering. He looks at his handler like “can you tell this guy to shove it?” Classic Michael. The interviewer still tries to get MJ’s autograph after that. How do you say “nah” in French? Similarly, a French player gets destroyed by MJ and then asks for his sweaty armband as a souvenir. Then Jordan sings a little song about getting to go home. High comedy.
President Obama and Clinton’s funny tie-ins
When showing President Obama, the title card reads “Former Chicago resident.” He then talks about how he was too poor to even get discount Bulls tickets when Jordan came to Chicago. He never mentions getting to play with him or meet him, which I’m sure happened. What’s the opposite of a flex? Obama did that. Clinton, ever the politician, talks about his connections to fellow Arkansas native Pippen and cracks jokes.
The look Jordan gives when no one is open
Angry MJ showed up without Scottie on the floor, since the Robin to his Batman was currently holding out. The pure disgust Jordan flashed at teammates when they disappointed him was truly something to behold. We then get a few minutes of Jordan going into eff-you mode and single-handedly winning the double-OT game. That’s all fun and Jordan did that all the time, but it’s that look that’s special.
These 10 episodes may supply us with fresh memes for the next two years. #TheLastDance
— ᴋʏʟᴇ ᴄᴏᴜʟᴛᴇʀ (@KyleCoulterVids) April 20, 2020
“The Cubs have been rebuilding for 42 years…”
Jordan’s reasoning on why the Bulls would be foolish to rebuild while still champions was so damning and so true. It would be another 20 years before the Cubs would win their first title. The Bulls haven’t been close to the championship since MJ left, 22 years and counting later. So, there’s that. The Bulls front office foolishly broke this team up a couple years early. The Last Dance covers this well. The Bulls won six and it still feels like they left two or three on the table between Jordan’s first retirement and management breaking up the team.
The headache death pills
In his second season, Jordan broke his foot. The Bulls front office told Jordan that if he reinjured himself his career would be over. The doctor said there was a 10 percent chance of that. Trying to prove a point, they give him this analogy:
“If you had a terrible headache and I gave you a bottle with 10 pills. One of the pills will kill you, the other nine will cure you. Would you take the pills?”
“Depends on how bad the fucking headache is!”–Jordan
Jordan ended up training so hard in the pool and in off-court secret workouts at his old college that his injured calf muscle became stronger than his non-injured one. You couldn’t hold MJ down.
The Traveling Cocaine Circus
The documentary interviewer tells MJ that the Bulls were called the “traveling cocaine circus” when he first arrives and asks if it’s true. Michael has an enormous belly laugh. He hangs on that first word like he hung in mid-air when dunking.
“Ahhhhhh… I never heard that…” He then proceeds to tell the story about one night his rookie season when he found the whole team in one hotel room with lines of cocaine in one corner, the weed guys on one side and women there. He says he didn’t drink yet and got worried for what would happen if the place got raided, so he left. Sadly, no footage of the traveling cocaine circus has yet emerged.
Parts 3 and 4 come out next Sunday. They focus on Rodman and Phil Jackson, so it should be loaded.