Starved for sports content, ESPN’s 10-part documentary “The Last Dance” couldn’t have come at a better time, and it certainly helps that the miniseries has met or exceeded expectations four episodes in.

“The Last Dance” presents itself as an in-depth look at the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, headlined by all-time great Michael Jordan, as the team was gunning for its second three-peat of the 1990s amid behind-the-scenes turmoil. That turmoil stemmed from the knowledge that it would indeed be the Bulls’ “last dance,” as general manager Jerry Krause had made it known head coach Phil Jackson would be replaced the following season.

No Jackson meant no Michael, as Jordan publicly stated he wouldn’t play for anyone other than Jackson, and the team was also expected to let go of its other key players like Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. Kraus believed the Bulls’ best players were in the twilight of their respective careers and that a rebuild was necessary following what would hopefully be another title in 1998.

Kerekes

Kerekes

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in the ’90s and, despite not following the NBA closely as a child, I knew who Michael Jordan was and that he was considered the best player to ever play basketball even back then. I remember attending a Catholic school in first grade and one of my classmates remarking to one of the teachers that Jordan was retiring. I remember Jordan being the most popular athlete alive when I attended Woodland Forrest Elementary in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, from 1995-98, the final three years of the Bulls’ dynasty. I remember the Looney Tunes movie “Space Jam” that featured Jordan.

But while the documentary’s main focus is the 1997-98 season — it features footage from a film crew that followed the Bulls around that season — it’s really a story about the Bulls dynasty as a whole. The 1991, ’92 and ’93 championships were the first three-peat and featured Jordan, Pippen and Jackson, while the three titles from 1996-98 also included Rodman. Each episode thus far has focused on the four of them individually, with Jordan’s backstory being explored in the first episode, followed by Pippin in episode two, Rodman in episode three and Jackson in the fourth episode. 

What makes the documentary must-watch TV for any sports fan isn’t just the fact that there aren’t any other sports to watch right now (last week’s NFL Draft aside). This would be essential viewing if everything was normal in the world of sports. I’ve lived through a fair number of sports dynasties in my 32 1/2 years of life — the late ’90s Yankees, the Kobe-Bryant-and-Shaquille-O’Neal-and-later Kobe-and-Pau Gasol Lakers, the UConn women’s basketball team, the Nick Saban Alabama football team, the Golden State Warriors and the New England Patriots — but you’d be hard-pressed to find any as riveting as the Jordan Bulls, and that’s due to the characters that made up that run.

There are so many storylines that have been presented in just the first four episodes, and while each one could probably carry its own miniseries, the documentary has done a good job balancing those stories and contextualizing them within the 1997-98 season. A few highlights:

•Jordan seemingly growing up in his older brother’s shadows and using it to drive him to win, obsessively. Said the late James R. Jordan, Michael’s father: “If you want to bring out the best in Michael, tell him he can’t do something or he can’t do it as good as somebody else. 

•Pippen joining the Central Arkansas basketball team as a walk-on and blossoming into a standout player before the Bulls discovered and drafted him. From a walk-on at a small school to a six-time NBA champion and hall-of-fame basketball player, Pippen is an inspiring story for any athlete who has ever been told they aren’t good enough. It was also interesting to find out how Pippen’s injury at the start of the 1997-98 season affected the team’s dynamics and how he was grossly underpaid at the time, which led to drama between him and the Bulls’ front office off the court.

•Rodman was already known as one of the most interesting personalities in NBA history, and this documentary offers a glimpse as to why. The off-the-court antics and the deep dive into what motivated them are obviously riveting, but it was also neat to learn something as simple as how he trained himself to anticipate ball trajectory off the backboard and rim, which made him into one of the game’s all-time great rebounders.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the infamous Vegas trip, when Rodman expressed to Jackson that he wanted to go to Las Vegas for 48 hours because he “needed a vacation.” Of course, Rodman didn’t return in 48 hours, so Jordan went to Vegas “to go get Dennis.” Listening to Carmen Electra, who Rodman was dating at the time, tell how she hid from Jordan behind a couch underneath a blanket when Jordan showed up to Rodman’s hotel room was everything I wanted in a Dennis Rodman-centric episode.

•The Bulls vs. the Detroit Pistons — You can’t talk about the Bulls dynasty without mentioning the Bad Boy Pistons. Known for their rough style of play, the Pistons beat the Bulls in the 1989 and 1990 Eastern Conference Finals en route to back-to-back NBA championships, defeats that helped mold Jordan and the rest of the Bulls into the powerhouse they became from 1991-93. The interviews with the Bulls players made it clear that they absolutely despised those Pistons teams, and even now Jordan is still salty about many of the Pistons players walking off the court without shaking the Bulls’ hands when the Bulls swept them in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. 

One of my best friends is a huge Jordan fan, and though he hadn’t seen the third and fourth episodes when I spoke to him Monday, he offered these thoughts on the documentary so far: “I think that it offers up an unfiltered, unapologetic (view) of Michael Jordan, and I can’t help but want more at this point. I really feel like if he committed himself to it, he could make a lot of money just selling his own broadcasting rights. As a Jordan fan, I have a bit of a bias obviously, but it’s the ultimate experience for Jordan fans.”

Unfiltered is right. He’s going to love the part where Jordan says, “There’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an a-hole.” That line is uncensored, by the way, as is the whole documentary, where F bombs abound. It’s raw, but it’s real, and if you’re a basketball fan in particular or just a sports fan in general, do yourself a favor and watch “The Last Dance.” If the rest of the episodes are like the first four, it won’t disappoint.

Drew Kerekes is the sports editor at The Meridian Star. He can be reached at dkerekes@themeridianstar.com.

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