SALT LAKE CITY — “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s long-awaited 10-part documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty, kicked off on Sunday night with Episodes 1 and 2. 

These two episode set the stage for the entire series, showing some early dysfunction during the Bulls’ ’97-’98 season that nearly derailed their quest for a sixth NBA title. Mostly, though, these two episodes focus on Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen’s respective upbringings, their very dissimilar college careers, their first Bulls seasons, and their early qualms with Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause.

We don’t want to give it all away — “The Last Dance” is a fascinating documentary, and well worth your time — but we would like to whet your appetite. From now until the final episodes air on May 17, Deseret News reporters Jody Genessy (sports) and Court Mann (entertainment) will be discussing their favorite moments and key takeaways from the episodes after they air. Let’s get to it.

Favorite behind-the-scenes moment

Court Mann: This is tough to choose — there are so many incredible moments in these first two episodes. The one that really got me, though, was on the Bulls bench right after their ’97-’98 preseason exhibition game in Paris. Bulls player Scott Burrell is seated between teammates Ron Harper and Michael Jordan, and Burrell is super excited they won the game. Burrell hugs Harper, then Burrell looks at Jordan and says, “Can I get a hug too?” Jordan gives him the coldest cold shoulder I’ve seen. Doesn’t even look Burrell in the eye, just shakes his head and says “It don’t count.” Shoot, I withered in my seat just watching that exchange! I can’t imagine how Burrell felt.

Yes, it was obviously super funny, but it also spoke volumes about Jordan’s laser-focus on the basketball court. He would not suffer fools — not even in the preseason.

Jody Genessy: That cracked me up. Jordan kind of laughed it off in the locker room, congratulating his teammates who’d never won a championship. But it was a good anecdote to show how MJ was never satisfied. He always wanted to win more. So yeah, winning an exhibition game against a French team was fun, but it paled in comparison to what he had in mind — a sixth NBA championship. That set the tone in a way for that grand finale — or “The Last Dance,” as Phil Jackson called the 1997-98 season.

One of my favorite moments was when his mom, Deloris Jordan, read a letter Michael wrote to her during his freshman year at North Carolina. He let her know that he loved her, but also that he needed money and stamps. He only had $20 in his account, so apparently the Tar Heels didn’t pay as well as some elite college teams. I was also intrigued by the footage of the Bulls practices, early on when Jordan was trying to prove himself, to later on in his career when he harped on anybody and everybody who didn’t do what he thought they should. He forced his teammates to play at a higher level with some salty language and tough love. (By the way, there were multiple f-bombs in the unedited version on ESPN, but ESPN2 is concurrently airing a more family-friendly version.)

Favorite in-game highlight

Genessy: First off, man, was it good to see some basketball on TV. It’s been too long. No offense to ESPN and/or Mike Conley, Jr., but HORSE didn’t scratch the itch. Just watching a few highlights from MJ’s rookie season and college days made me want to go back and binge watch hoops from the 1980s and ’90s. The beginning of the 1986 first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics was epic. That 63-point outburst in Game 2 included so many of his patented clutch, floating, off-balanced, athletic and graceful moves, it’s hard to pick a favorite. Larry Bird couldn’t believe what he’d seen, even comparing MJ to basketball deity. Funny that Danny Ainge went golfing the day before Game 2 with Jordan and jokingly lamented talking trash and taking a few bucks off of him. “That might have been a mistake,” Ainge admitted.

I really enjoyed getting a peek into his North Carolina career — from the time he hit his head on the backboard while soaring to make a sensational play to his championship-winning shot in the NCAA title game in 1982 versus Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown team. That was a pinnacle moment — when the boy turned into a man. “That turned my name from Mike to Michael Jordan,” he recalled. “It gave me the confidence that I needed to start to excel at the game of basketball.” That was great news for MJ and his many fans, but bad news for anybody that got in his way over the next decade and a half.

Mann: For years I’d seen highlights of his 63-piece against the Celtics, but I never knew the context until these episodes. And the context was fascinating. Of course he scored 63 — he’d been on an incredibly strict minutes restriction until the playoffs started — and they almost missed the playoffs because of that restriction! If I was a young Jordan, and knew I was healthy, but was allowed to play only 14 minutes a game until the Celtics series, then yeah, I might drop 49 in Game 1 and 63 in Game 2.

And I agree, Jordan’s college highlights were fascinating. (Side note: Was shocked to see how athletic Ewing was as a young Hoya; no wonder the Knicks thought he’d bring them a title!) My favorite in-game highlight from Episodes 1 and 2 has to be Jordan hitting his head on the backboard after that block. His raw athleticism was just unparalleled. Honestly, it just seems like back then he was a different species than everyone else on the court.

Biggest big-picture takeaway

Mann: Obviously, Jordan is the main focus of “The Last Dance.” As he should be. But the stuff on Scottie Pippen captured my attention — and it put his own struggles on that Bulls team into proper perspective. I’m glad Episode 2 really focused on telling his life story. I knew Pippen was the youngest of 12 kids, and was born into poverty, but I had no idea his father had a stroke when Pippen was only 12 years old and never fully recovered from it, or that one of Pippen’s brothers was paralyzed in an accident. When you see that, and imagine how it would affect such a young person, and then see how much other stuff Pippen overcame to even make a college team, let alone the NBA, you start to understand how his whole life was about not just overcoming adversity, but also sadness and tragedy. In those clips of Pippen from the ’97-’98 season, you get the sense he kind of carried that sadness with him, and that feeling of being undervalued. To be as good as he was, and overcome what he overcame, yet still be the sixth highest-paid player on the Bulls roster(!), must have fed into his worst insecurities. Now I’m a little more willing to cut Pippen some slack for all the chaos and discord he fostered during that final championship season.

Genessy: Like you, some of my favorite parts weren’t necessarily about Michael Jordan. I was fascinated about the drama between MJ, Scottie Pippen and Jerry Krause. For as toxic as the players’ relationship with their GM seemed to be, it’s almost amazing they lasted so long and won so many championships together. Krause might be considered the Carole Baskin of this documentary so far. To be honest, I wasn’t impressed by the way MJ and Pippen took shots at him. Jordan liked to tease Krause about his diminutive stature, joking about the GM taking short pills and needing a lowered hoop if he were to take layups with the team. And Pippen was so disrespectful that Phil Jackson had to intervene.

Like Steve Kerr said, though, Krause seemed unable to get out of his own way. I can see why MJ would be upset by someone from the front office being quoted as saying “Organizations win titles, not players.” And how Pippen would be upset about feeling under-appreciated and underpaid. I’d also forgotten that Pippen asked to be traded that year. Can you imagine? My biggest takeaway is that I’d watch 10 consecutive hours of this documentary if ESPN released the whole series via Netflix. The first two episodes were fascinating — and not too painful for Jazz fans (yet).

CHICAGO - 1987: Charles Oakley #34, Michael Jordan #23 and Rory Sparrow #2 of the Chicago Bulls pose for a photo after winning an award circa 1987. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Charles Oakley, from left, Michael Jordan and Rory Sparrow of the Chicago Bulls pose for a photo in 1987. | NBAE via Getty Images
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Note: All episodes of “The Last Dance” will be available on the ESPN app with a subscription, or with a cable login, immediately following the broadcast. For viewers outside the U.S., new episodes will show up on Netflix internationally every Monday at 12:01 a.m. PDT.