Episodes 3 and 4 of ESPN’s The Last Dance are now out and being discussed and we’re going to add to that a bit, starting with this stupidity from Jason McIntyre and Dan Shaughnessy: Jordan wasn’t worth a 10-part documentary series.
First of all while Jordan is the focus, it’s not just about Jordan. It’s about the Bulls and their championship run.
Shaughnessy goes on to say that he would take Wilt Chamberlain and LeBron James before he’d take Jordan. Here he’s partly right and partly wrong.
First, he’s correct about talent. Wilt Chamberlain was the most stunning talent in the history of the league and it’s not close. He was a surreal 7-1 sathlete with a vertical that might be the highest in the game today, and without the benefit of modern training. He competed in track and field and gymnastics at Kansas and left basketball to play volleyball. He outran Jim Brown in everyday shoes.
No one can touch Chamberlain’s talent.
James is a phenomenal talent as well. When he came out of high school, he was called The Natural and Anointed and stuff like that (King James too, which stuck).
Everyone understood he was a brilliant prospect and a freak athlete. He could have just as easily have been in the NFL and on his way to the Hall of Fame in Canton instead of Springfield.
But here’s the thing about both of those guys. As great as they were and are, in the case of James, they never stood alone, not really.
Chamberlain was constantly outwitted and outplayed by Boston’s Bill Russell, who was smaller and less gifted but like Jordan, ruthlessly competitive. He used to take Chamberlain to dinner before their teams played to soften him up and blunt his competitive desire. Chamberlain apparently never caught on.
As Russell piled up titles, Chamberlain talked about his expansive interests and argued that he wasn’t going to limit himself to basketball.
That’s fine, but Russell won two NCAA titles, one Olympic title and 11 NBA titles.
His Kansas team lost to UNC in the NCAA finals in 1957. Then he won one title with the 76ers and one with the Lakers.
That’s it. For the greatest talent in NBA history? That should have never happened.
And in a similar vein, James has won championships, but, well, they’re not really the same as what Jordan did. The Bulls built a team; James sort of leases them. And when you get down to it, at times, rather than stepping up, James has deferred. He hasn’t done it as much lately, but he certainly has. That and moving around to find teams that can get him to the finals is antithetical to what Jordan did. Jordan would never have sought to join James’ team. He would have wanted to beat it. And we’re pretty sure he would have.
We take Shaughnessy’s point about Chamberlain and James but we’d start our team with Jordan and Russell. Both guys were ultimate competitors and when they got into a Game 7, their teams almost always won. If you could somehow put them on the same team, they would have pushed each other to ridiculous heights.
And for those who say different eras, remember first that Russell consistently controlled the greatest talent in NBA history, sending Chamberlain home to bloviate about his outside interests nearly every time they met in the playoffs. He played center at 6-9, but today he might be more analogous to Dennis Rodman, who focused on defense and rebounding.
He also had one of the best outlet passes in the game and Jordan would have been a main target for that. Just for fun, imagine Christian Laettner as part of that group. Those three would have pushed each other to incredible levels.
Keep in mind too that Russell (and Chamberlain) played under relatively primitive conditions. Both guys were immensely talented and would have benefited from the advances in training, nutrition and equipment, not to mention analytics. You have to think Russell would have devoured the whole concept since he essentially did it manually anyway.
There were some great stories on Sunday’s episodes too. The whole Rodman-goes-to-Vegas story was suitably bizarre, not least of all Carmen Electra hiding nude when Jordan showed up to retrieve Rodman.
We seem to remember that Phil Jackson sent Steve Kerr alone with Rodman to essentially babysit him but that wasn’t mentioned.
And while Rodman’s bizarre personality invited ridicule, this series has made a strong argument for his better traits. No one outworked him and his intelligence for the game was profound. Because of his antics he never really got his due but Rodman was, in his own way, incredibly valuable to the Bulls. Jordan was on a different level with Scottie Pippen not far behind, but no one else could have brought what Rodman did.
The other stories revolved around the Pistons and how Chicago ultimately overcame them. It was funny to listen to Jordan call Isaiah Thomas an asshole and say that nothing could change his mind on that and it was kind of amazing to hear him say that beating the Pistons in some ways meant more to him than winning the Finals.
The really cool thing though was listening to his teammates who, to that point, had only seen the angry and fiery sides of Jordan, say they had never seen the emotions he showed after winning his first title.
That was kind of stunning actually.
The story of Jackson meeting Rodman at Jerry Krause’s house was revealing with Jackson saying he told Rodman to stand up, take his hat off and greet him like a man.
What the show didn't say was that Jackson insisted that Rodman apologize to Pippen for the cheap shot in the series that the Bulls won, supplanting the Pistons in the East.
This is a tremendous series and the subject, even from this remove, is still fascinating.
In general, though, the suggestion that this isn’t worth 10 episodes may be true.
We wouldn’t mind 20. So far, it has the feel of a brilliant achievement.