The Zen Master and The Worm

Jackson and Rodman take center court in ‘The Last Dance’

Dennis Rodman is the most infamous NBA player of the last 30 years, and the stories of his misadventures are the stuff of legends. So when I found out he and the “Zen Master,” Coach Phil Jackson, are the focus of Parts 3 and 4, of ESPN’s Chicago Bulls documentary The Last Dance, I knew we were in for trouble.

Narrowing the list of memorable moments from these two hours to just 10 moments would be even harder than getting Rodman back from his Vegas hiatus. We can only speculate about this mid-season “vacation,” during which the agreed 48 hours stretched to nearly a week. A week that ended only because Jordan himself knocked on Rodman’s hotel door—while Carmen Electra scrambled for a hiding spot. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The series shifts focus from Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen to Rodman and Jackson, who are far more colorful characters. Along with great hairstyles and facial hair, these two up the ante with some drug/drinking stories and wild dynamics that fill out the picture of the ‘90s Chicago Bulls.

Let’s get into the top 10:

Doug Collins’s mullet

Doug Colins

This brash young coach was what the Bulls needed at the time. He fed Jordan the ball and told everyone else to get out of the way. Literally. They enjoyed his energy and wanted to win for him. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get them over the hump; he coached them to back-to-back playoff losses to the Pistons. But that mullet was an A+. I can’t stop smiling at this picture of Collins and his mullet asking Jordan for a kiss.

Jordan giving Collins water and promising him a win in his first game

Sweet moment here. Collins was sweating, pacing the sidelines, chewing his gum so much it became powder in his mouth as he coached his very first NBA game—a close one, to boot. Jordan walked up with a cup of water, told him to relax, take a sip, and he’d win the game for him. Jordan scored 50 points and won the game for an elated Collins.

Young acid-taking, bearded Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson

What a treat to see young Jackson becoming the man who would lead the Bulls. He looked cool and bearded on the Knicks while playing tough defense. But his free-spirited days topped that, as he took acid and consequently believed he was a tiger. Young Jackson opened up his mind, allowing himself to become the “Zen Master” who could bend to any personality.

“I see a screaming devil. You make a mistake; he’s gonna scream at you.”

John Salley was summing up the pathologically competitive Jordan here, of course. Around this time, Jordan, tired of losing to the Pistons, was adding muscle in the off-season. “Instead of them dishing it to me, I’m gonna dish it back to them,” Jordan said. His trainer said any time that he told Jordan to do six reps, Jordan would do 12.

“You don’t put a saddle on a mustang.”

This quote from former Pistons coach Chuck Daly shows why he bonded so well with Rodman. He saw another coach trying to work with Rodman and told him to leave Rodman alone. As the Bulls later learned, you’ve got to give Rodman a lot of rope to be himself.

Jackson bonding with Rodman over Native American art

Jackson was known for bonding with his players, no matter how big (or odd) their personalities. So how did the Montana native bond with Rodman? Rodman had collected Native American art while in college in Oklahoma, which Jackson showed him was similar to his own Montana collection. Jackson knew to let Rodman be Rodman and let him have his freedom when he needed it.

“Give the ball to Michael, everybody get the fuck out of the way and go to the basket.”

This advice from Collins worked well enough when Jordan hit “the shot” over Craig Ehlo and the Cavs, but it wasn’t ultimately the winning strategy. Collins was a solid coach, but even he could predict that his assistant, Jackson, was going to take over and lead the team with Tex Winter’s triangle offense. They weren’t going to get past the Pistons, Lakers and Celtics with the strategy of “just give [it] to Michael.” They had to get Pippen and the rest of the team involved to win.

The Jordan-Rodman dynamic healed by a cigar

Rodman

When Pippen was on his injury holdout during the “Last Dance” season, Jordan knew before Rodman did that he needed Rodman to step up. For the first few weeks, Rodman wasn’t finding the motivation or his typically hyper gear, and got ejected from a game. After that game, Rodman knew he’d screwed up and needed Jordan to know that he knew. But an apology wasn’t in Rodman’s character. After that game, he went to Jordan’s hotel room and asked for a cigar. I thought Jordan would be offended. Quite the opposite. He got the gesture. Rodman never came to his room. Coming to him asking for something was a peace offering, and they went on a win streak right after, turning the season around.

“You can show me whatever you want. No way you’re gonna convince me he wasn’t an asshole…”

That’s Jordan on Isiah Thomas. Almost 30 years later, Jordan and Bulls fans are still salty that after the Bulls finally beat the Pistons in ’90-’91, the losing team walked off the floor without shaking hands. Jordan shook his head in disgust as Thomas tried to explain that’s the way it was then. Jordan will never accept this excuse. Earlier in the episode, he’s asked if there was “hate” between the two teams. “Hate carries even to this day,” he responded. The “Jordan Rules” was the Pistons’ internal rules that you had to foul Jordan hard and take him to the ground. As Salley said, “You have to stop him before he takes flight because you know he’s not human.” He may not have been human, but he took it all personally.

Rodman’s 48-plus hours in Vegas

I could’ve watched an entire hour on Rodman’s midseason getaway to Vegas. Every detail is worth diving into:

-Rodman drinking a Miller Lite while walking through the hallway after a game

-Rodman promising to be back in 48 hours and leaving on a motorcycle, prompting Jordan to say Rodman would never come back

-Electra saying the party was non-stop from the second that they arrived

-Jordan being sent to fetch Rodman in Vegas and not even wanting to detail what he saw there

-Electra hiding when she saw Jordan at their door

-Rodman coming back refreshed, somehow outrunning everyone on the team in sprint drills

As fun as Rodman and Jackson were, the series feels a bit stuck in setup mode, bloated with excessive game-by-game details from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s against the Pistons. Those moments are great to relive for Bulls fans who remember the season fondly and, like Jordan, still hate the Pistons. But I’m not sure how much they’re adding to the story of the ’97-’98 season. I hope we actually get into the ’97-’98 season now that we have the proper backstory.

Zack Teibloom

Zack Teibloom spent his 20s sneaking into music festivals and documenting them on his music blog Festival Crashers. Now in his mid-30s, he moderates the discussion forums for Apple full time.

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