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Three thoughts from The Last Dance

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The ESPN documentary lifted the spirits of NBA fans and brought us back to game nights. It also showed how times change less than we think.

Chicago Bulls Vs. Boston Celtics At Boston Garden Photo by Bill Brett/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

When 9 p.m. arrived, it felt like a game night again. Anxiety, boredom, and aimlessness were replaced by a collective experience. ESPN hyped “The Last Dance” to the ends of the stalled earth as they claimed five weeks of uncontested programming. You can’t even blame them for hosting a Scott Van Pelt-led post-game show like it was a Game 7 or the Super Bowl.

We needed this and it lived up to the hype. The most covered athlete of all-time somehow had untold stories, like Common’s attempt to make $5 by getting an autograph from him that Jordan let him forge — only Common misspelled “Michael.” Better yet, J.A. Adande said he saw Scottie Pippen rap “Regulate.”

The details of the first two episodes — many new to me as someone born in March of 1998 — showed how much things seem to change yet stay the same. Twitter was quick to point out instances where Michael Jordan’s career touched on topics that many believe are new novel ideas today that weaken the league like players buddying up, contract disputes, load management, and tanking.

  • Danny Ainge and Jordan golfed between Game 1 and 2 of their 1986 first round matchup. Whether AAU friendships, offseason workouts, or post-game hugs, critics of today’s game constantly bemoan the buddy-up of the NBA. I can’t think of a comparable situation to two opponents golfing at a nearby country club between games. In Jordan fashion he departed with a message for Dennis Johnson: he had something for him in Game 2. He sure did. Sixty-three points, still an NBA playoff record and somehow, it came in a loss. Jordan needed four more points and a longer putter.
  • One of two things happened to the Bulls in 1986. They either preserved Jordan’s health following his foot injury for the playoffs — some would say load management — or looked to tank for a lottery pick. In 1986, seven teams flipped envelopes for draft positioning, so the difference between No. 9 overall as the final playoff team and the chance at a No. 1 pick proved far more difficult than a near-certain 14th overall pick for the first team out today.

Still, Chicago’s threat to fire Stan Albeck if he broke Jordan’s minute restriction reeked of load management more than tanking. Jordan could play seven minutes in each half after returning from a foot injury apparently identical to Joel Embiid’s. The Bulls pulled Jordan from the essential game needed to make the playoffs with under one minute remaining, and still managed to clinch a 30-52 season. If Chicago was tanking, they did an awful job and sparked resentment from Jordan.

  • Those worried about player empowerment should realize how opposite it was the years prior. A one-year deal worth $30 million for Jordan was seen as repayment for being underpaid and locked up for nearly his entire career. Episode 2 covered Scottie Pippen’s seven-year, $18 million contract that was a borderline labor violation. It created a cloud over the team far more defined, as Pippen admitted a postponed surgery that lost him games in 1997 so he could save his summer.

With a wave of Krause criticism, Jordan, Pippen and Phil Jackson pose as blameless onlookers to the Bulls’ demise. All three had concerns about their own responsibility and legacy that players like Kevin Durant and LeBron James have been criticized for over leaving their teams. Twenty years ago, Jordan and Pippen held far less power and Krause’s support from ownership allowed him to make the final decision in the feud. Jordan reportedly came within minutes of leaving Chicago for the Knicks, a move that was likely too bold for that time.