Michael Jordan’s ‘Last Dance’ documentary: Phil Jackson’s beef with Jerry Krause highlights first episode

The anticipation for “The Last Dance” documentary chronicling Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls through the 1997-98 season (with plenty of flashbacks and backstory) was already nearing peak levels when it was originally set to debut in June during the off days of the NBA Finals. 

But now that everyone is stuck at home without any sports to watch? People were drooling for this thing. The launch of the 10-part series was pushed to Sunday night, and the collective excitement and nostalgia was through the roof as the communal viewing experience re-entered the sports world’s consciousness. 

Twitter was ablaze as the first two episodes set the table for what is shaping up to be a remarkably unvarnished look at maybe the single-most fascinating athlete, and by extension team, in sports history. Below are six major things we learned from the first episode. 

1. ‘The Last Dance’ almost never happened

Early on in Episode 1, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf detailed why — on the heels of winning the 1997 NBA championship, their fifth in seven years — he and his staff were really considering getting out of the immediate championship-chasing business to turn their attention to the future. 

“After the fifth championship, which was 96-97, we were looking at this team and we realized, other than Michael [Jordan], the rest of the guys were probably at the end of their high productive years,” Reinsdorf said. “We had to decide whether to keep the team together or not. And we realized maybe this was the time to do a rebuild and maybe not try to win a sixth championship.”

Jordan was set to be 35 years old during the 97-98 season. Scottie Pippen was going to be 32. Dennis Rodman, 37. Ron Harper, 34. Toni Kukoc was just shy of 30. But remember, the league was collectively older back then and these guys had just won a championship. Jordan, recounting his feelings from the time, was obviously not happy about the idea of a Chicago rebuild being floated. 

“We had just finished winning our fifth title,” Jordan said. “There was a lot of uncertainty. Management started talking about the franchise is going to change or we’re going to rebuild. I thought it was unfair. I would never let someone who’s not putting on a uniform and playing each and every day dictate what we do on a basketball court.”

When Jordan says he would never let “someone” who not putting on a uniform dictate his basketball destiny, it is no secret who he’s talking about. Which brings us to point No. 2 …

2. Jerry Krause looks even worse in hindsight

Krause, who was the Bulls’ general manager at the time, has become one of the more unpopular sports executives and was duly loathed in Chicago as something of an adversary against his own team and star player. But time has a way of smoothing out our memories. The documentary resurfaced all the bumps of what was, frankly, a destructively rocky team-GM relationship. 

For starters, Krause was itching to get rid of coach Phil Jackson. Can you imagine? The guy had just won five championships in seven years. The first two episode didn’t do a whole lot to explain why Krause had it out for Jackson, but the portrayal of Krause is one of a highly insecure man so desperate for his slice of the credit that he wanted to, in effect, tear down an empire to prove he could rebuild it with different pieces. 

“Jerry had the little man problem,” Mark Vancil, author of Rare Air, said during the doc. “He grew up a little, fat kid. Not a lot of money. He was always the underdog. And he just couldn’t control that part of him that needed credit.”

Reinsdorf recounts how he hired Krause in the first place, and notes that Krause’s reputation in the sports world, as Reinsdorf conducted his due diligence, wasn’t exactly sparkling. 

“Jerry Krause was a scout for the White Sox,” Reinsdorf said. “He was there when I bought the White Sox in 1981. After I bought the Bulls, he came to see me. He said he’d like to be the general manager of the Bulls. I asked around the league, and everybody I talked to said ‘don’t touch the guy’. He had a way of alienating people.”

One story is recalled about Krause’s open courting of then-Iowa State head coach Tim Floyd to replace Jackson. In the summer following Chicago’s fifth championship basically the entire Bulls’ organization, along with Floyd, was invited to his stepdaughter’s wedding. Jackson was the notable exception. When you are the GM of a team that has won five of the last seven championships and you invite everyone but the head coach of that team to an event, that is not by accident.

“I recall that,” Reinsdorf said of the wedding incident. “And I think that was bad form on Jerry’s part. … It was sad that there was such an acrimonious relationship because Jerry Krause started Phil Jackson’s NBA coaching career. Jerry Krause brought [Jackson] to Chicago as an assistant coach. If that hadn’t happened, you never would’ve heard of Phil Jackson.”

Reinsdorf, to be fair, defends Krause as much as he acknowledges his, shall we say, interpersonal shortcomings, calling him “one of the nicest, kindest, sweetest men I’ve ever known.” But sometimes he would love people who didn’t really love him back. And it would disappoint him.

The people who clearly didn’t like Krause were the biggest names in the franchise. Jordan famously picked on him, mocking his weight in public. There was no way Krause could ever get rid of Jordan, but Jackson, he felt, was another story. This is amazing. Jackson might have been the biggest jerk in the world, who knows, but when you have a dynasty going, your job as the GM is to swallow your pride and let the stars shine. 

If you’re Krause and you don’t like the way you’re being treated or portrayed, leave. That’s your decision. You don’t break up a dynasty so you can feel better about yourself. Jackson was clearly the right coach for the team, end of story. Jordan even went so far as to say: “I said from Day 1, if Phil’s not coaching, I’m not going to be a part of rebuilding.” 

After the 1997 championship, still in his uniform, Jordan said: “Phil should be the head coach, and I shouldn’t be put in a position to have to make a choice to play for another coach other than Phil Jackson. … Sadly as it may be, I have choices. And I will not choose to play for another coach.”

This is Michel Jordan! He’s saying he will not play for another coach, and you’re thinking about … bringing in another coach? This is madness. Still, Krause was so adamant he could not work with Jackson anymore that even after Reinsdorf stepped in and got a one-year, $6 million deal done with Jackson, Krause just had to let everyone know that the 1997-98 season would indeed be the last one Jackson would spend on the Chicago sideline. 

“Jerry called me in his office and said this is going to be your last year, I don’t care if you win 82 games in a row,” Jackson recalled during the documentary. “So I said ‘fine’ and I walked out of the room. And that was the only words that were exchanged.”

To say this, even in private, to a coach who has led your franchise to five championships and whose team has shown absolutely no indication of falling off is crazy. But to then say it in public?

“Phil is the coach, Jerry’s the owner. Those two needed to talk,” Krause told reporters. “And we got [the contract] done and we’re very happy to have it done. This will be Phil’s last year as the coach of the Bulls. At the conclusion of the year, we’ll look toward the future.”

A future, as it turned out, without Michael Jordan, who retired the next summer only to return three years later for two final seasons with the Washington Wizards. Nice call, Jerry. 

3. Olajuwon, the Olympics, and the importance of size in 1984

Given the opportunity, Rod Thorn, who was the general manager of the Bulls in 1984, admits he would’ve taken Akeem Olajuwon (now Hakeem) over Jordan had the Bulls had the No. 1 pick. 

“Olajuwon would’ve been first by anybody who picked, including me,” Thorn said. 

In 1984, Olajuwon was indeed considered the best player in the draft, and make no mistake: The Rockets hit aces on their pick. “There was no one alive, not [North Carolina] coach [Dean] Smith, not Rod Thorn who drafted him, no one, none of the experts thought [Jordan] would become what he became.”

On the other hand, Olajuwon was a can’t-miss prospect who wound up delivering the Rockets two championships (both coming in the years Jordan went on his baseball sojourn). Hindsight is 20-20, but at the time Olajuwon was, at the very least, an extremely defensible pick, and probably the right pick. 

Now, the Blazers taking Sam Bowie, a seven-footer out of Kentucky with a severe injury history? That was probably a bad call at the time, and over the years it’s come to look even worse. Portland had Clyde Drexler, who played the same position as Jordan, and back then the NBA didn’t play the same position-less style that’s played today, which not only encourages but in many ways necessitates having multiple wings with Drexler and Jordan’s size and skill. 

In 1984, it was a big man’s game. It was no coincidence the first two players drafted were seven-foot centers. Even after Jordan was drafted, Rod Thorn quipped to the media: “We wish he was 7-1, but he isn’t.” The footage of former Knicks star Walt Frazier questioning Jordan’s ability to be a franchise player is telling. 

“Michael’s got to realize he’s not seven foot, so he’s not going to carry a team in the NBA,” Frazier said at the time. 

Again, it was a big-man’s game. Even when Magic Johnson took the league by storm in leading the Lakers to a title in his rookie season of 1979-80, he played the Finals as a center. He was 6-foot-9, as was Larry Bird. Jordan, meanwhile, was listed at less than 6-foot-6. 

Still, none of that may not have mattered had the draft been held just a few months later, after the 1984 Olympics, in which Jordan led the U.S. to a gold medal while putting on a show worthy of U.S. coach Bob Knight calling him “the best basketball player that I’ve ever seen play.”

“The reality is, we were lucky the draft was before the Olympics,” Thorn said in the documentary. “Michael became the most popular amateur basketball player in the world because of the Olympics.”

The Bulls got him a few months before everyone found that out. 

4. The North Carolina years

One of my favorite stretches of the first episode was when it skimmed through Jordan’s North Carolina years. At one point, Jordan’s mother, Deloris, reads a note Michael wrote to her during his freshman year at UNC in which he asks for money because he only has $20 in his account. 

This is a particularly telling lens to look back through as the idea of the paying college athletes, who generate millions of dollars for their coaches and tens of millions for their universities and hundreds of millions for the NCAA, for their services has become an increasingly controversial topic. 

But Jordan wasn’t worried about that at the time. What he was worried about was becoming the best player to ever play at North Carolina. From current UNC coach Roy Williams:

“Michael Jordan tells me one day he wants to be the best player to ever play [at North Carolina]. I said, ‘well you’ve got to work harder than you did in high school.’ He said ‘I worked as hard as everybody else,’ and I said “oh, excuse me, I thought you just told me you wanted to be the best player to ever play here, and he said ‘I’m gonna show you, nobody will ever work as hard as I work. … Michael Jordan is the only player that could turn it on and off, and he never frickin’ turned it off.”

The footage of Dean Smith talking about how Jordan not only took every drill seriously, but then had the ability to take what he learned and apply it, is the truest measurement of potential. Working hard is always romanticized, but it doesn’t matter if that work doesn’t yield results. Stephen Curry and Ben Simmons can work on their jump shot the same amount of time, with the same kind of dogged persistence, and the bottom line is Curry has the natural shooting talent to turn that work into results. 

Jordan had every God-given basketball talent imaginable, but it was his drive to be the best that ultimately separated him from the small handful of players who had, perhaps, somewhat similar talent. 

“After about 2 1/1 hours of hard practice, I’m walking off the floor like drenched-sweat tired, and here comes Michael pushing me back on the floor wanting to play a little one-on-one, wanting to see where his game was,” James Worthy, Jordan’s teammate at North Carolina, recalled. 

“I was better than he was, for about two weeks. … He wanted to learn, he wanted to grow quickly. Month to month, game to game, he was soaking up information. Once he got something, and added it to the raw talent he already had, it was really explosive to see. By the time we got to the National Championship Game, he was a great player.”

5. The shot that turned ‘Mike’ into Michael Jordan

Speaking of that National Championship Game, you had to love Jordan recalling the story of Dean Smith, with the Tar Heels trailing 62-61 with 32 seconds to play, having the confidence in a freshman — when freshman were not typically trusted like that back in those days, and certainly not by an experienced, fundamental coach like Smith — to hand him the potential game-winning shot. 

“[Coach Smith] was drawing up a play for James [Worthy] and he says [to James]: ‘When you get the ball, swing it back, swing it around, Michael should have a shot.’ He looked at me and said, ‘If you get the shot, take the shot. He gave me the green light.”

“I got it in total rhythm,” Jordan said. “They had no clue that I was going to take that shot. … That [shot] turned my name from Mike to Michael Jordan. It gave me the confidence I needed to start to excel at the game of basketball.”

6. Jordan details drug, party atmosphere of 1980s NBA

Jordan was 21 years old when he got drafted. He was a relatively small-town kid, having grown up in Wilmington, North Carolina and stayed near home for college. There was no social media — meaning not only were young people more sheltered by nature, but also high-profile people could get away with doing things that today would land them in a PR storm. 

“Whatever somebody else might’ve been doing off the court, whether it was partying or whatever, that wasn’t part of what he was doing,” JOrdan’s former Bulls teammate Rod Higgins said. “Orange juice and seven up, that was his go-to [drink].”

Jordan recounted one story where he was introduced the hard-partying ways of the 1980s NBA. 

“I had one event, preseason, I think we were in Peoria,” Jordan recalled. “It was in a hotel, so I’m trying to find my teammates. So I start knocking on doors. I get to this one door, and I knock on the door, and I can hear someone says, ‘shhh, someone’s outside.’ And then you hear this deep voice, someone says, ‘who is it?’ I says ‘MJ.’ 

“… So they open up the door. I walk in, and practically the whole team was in there. And it was like, things I’ve never seen in my life as a young kid. You got your lines [of cocaine] over here, you got your weed smokers over here, you got your women over here. So the first thing I said, ‘Look man, I’m out.’ Because all I could think about was if they come and raid this place, right about now, I’m just as guilty as everybody else that’s in this room. And from that point on, I was more or less on my own.”

Another contributor to the documentary noted Jordan’s unassuming, “regular” townhouse, in which Jordan says he was usually “just hanging out, playing cards, watching movies.”

“I wasn’t going to the clubs, I don’t smoke, I don’t do [cocaine] lines, I didn’t drink at the time,” Jordan said. “I was looking to just get some rest, get up and go play.”

There’s obviously a lesson to be learned here for young athletes with the world, seemingly, at their fingertips. For the first time in many of their lives, they have a lot of money and fame and endless opportunities to take advantage of both. It’s not to suggest young athletes can’t, you know, be young and have fun and enjoy the opportunities their talent has afforded them, but put the reason for those opportunities first. 

Jordan, even as a youngster, put basketball first on his priority list, and he kept it there throughout his Hall of Fame career, even as we know he became a guy who, shall we say, liked to gamble and play golf and enjoy a cocktail here or there. Nothing ever never compromised the basketball — not just because he was an otherworldly talent, but because his worth ethic and competitiveness and drive to improve and be the best never changed with success. 

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