SALT LAKE CITY — Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan: a match made in basketball heaven. Sort of.
Episodes 5 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” which aired on Sunday night along with Episode 6, showed the origin of Jordan’s and Bryant’s friendship, which seemed to begin in earnest at the 1998 NBA All-Star Game — Bryant’s first All-Star appearance, and Jordan’s last with the Chicago Bulls. The glimpse feels especially poignant, given Bryant’s recent death.
Among his fellow Eastern Conference All-Stars, Jordan roasts Bryant. And on the court, he takes the young Laker to school. But in private moments between the two, Jordan gives encouragement and support. And yes, all of it seems genuine. Jordan is a complex figure.
Episode 5 also details Jordan’s 1992 Finals series against the Portland Trail Blazers, the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” and the history behind Jordan’s Nike contract. Episode 6, meanwhile, explores Jordan’s battles with the New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns during the ’93 playoffs, as well as the intense scrutiny surrounding his gambling habits.
Deseret News reporters Jody Genessy (sports) and Court Mann (entertainment) continue their weekly post-episode discussion, and try answering a few questions about what viewers saw in these latest episodes.
Which episode did you like more, and why?
Court Mann: Episode 5 will get attention because of the Kobe appearance — and yeah, that part was pretty interesting — but Episode 6 just had a bunch of stuff I’d never seen before, felt way more gripping, and I think revealed more about Jordan’s psychology.
Episode 6 really sunk its teeth into that ’93 Conference Finals series against the Knicks, and the hoopla surrounding Jordan’s mid-series Atlantic City detour, his gambling habit, and the insane pressure he faced both on and off the court. David Aldridge really summed it up perfectly in this episode: “Michael could make things up to motivate himself. He didn’t have to make anything up here.” I grew up a Suns fan — Charles Barkley was my favorite player back then — so that ’93 Finals matchup was really special for me. The footage of Suns coach Paul Westphal just completely falling apart, yelling, “Michael is not beating us! Don’t let him catch! Double him! Make somebody else win the game!” I must say, VERY relatable.
Jody Genessy: That’s a tough question. You outlined reasons why I really liked the sixth episode, but I also really enjoyed Episode 5. I was ready to jump out of my seat and yell at the TV if Isiah Thomas had said he should’ve been on the Dream Team over John Stockton, which some people believe. I’d just come off my Latter-day Saint mission when the 1992 Olympics took place, so I didn’t fully understand the hatred between MJ and Zeke. You can tell both Hall of Famers still feel it. Wow. Intense stuff.
It was crazy how much Jordan was motivated by his despising of Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, too. Poor Toni Kukoc. He had no idea what was going on when Scottie Pippen and Jordan smothered him in their first Olympics meeting. I might have been the only kid in America who didn’t care if he had a pair of Air Jordans. My family was poor. I just didn’t care about fashion. (You’d never guess by my GQish appearance now. Kidding.) But that part about Jordan being kind of snubbed by Reebok, and Adidas not being able to make shoes for him when he wanted to sign with them, was bonkers. Nike then made $126 million in the first year of selling Air Jordan 1s — after only hoping to bring in $3 million in the first four years — shows you how huge of a sports and cultural icon MJ was at a very early stage in his career. My favorite line regarding that: “As a commodity, Michael Jordan is as hot as a Cabbage Patch doll right now.” Gotta love the ’80s.
Who had it worst: Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing or Charles Barkley?
Genessy: Clyde The Glide always seemed like such a classy player, so I did kind of feel bad that he incurred the wrath of MJ in the 1992 NBA Finals for no fault of his own. Jordan just didn’t want to be compared to him. It was interesting to see the backstory behind the famous MJ shrug. Five 3s in a half. That was insane. Jordan told Magic Johnson he was going to give it to Drexler, and man did he ever. Drexler has good company, though. Holy cow, Jordan beat Magic, Drexler and Charles Barkley in consecutive finals.
Knicks fans will never get over that Eastern Conference Finals meltdown. They were up 2-0 with wins in Chicago and still had a chance to go up 3-2 if Charles Smith hadn’t been blocked in succession by Horace Grant, Jordan and Pippen. That was wild. Part of me sports-hated Barkley back in the day, but seeing Phoenix up by four with 40ish seconds left in Game 6 brought back memories of the Jazz’s struggles, so I did sort of feel bad for the Suns. I agree with Barkley, though — there is no shame in losing to MJ. Utah Jazz fans should just repeat that to themselves over and over as we approach the painful episodes featuring Jordan’s wins over them.
Mann: Of those three guys, I think Drexler got the most demoralized in the moment — and, from what I’ve heard, really got harassed by MJ during the Olympics later that summer. But Drexler ended up winning a title in Houston, while Ewing and Barkley never got over the hump. So it’s tough to say. Ewing has always seemed like an Eeyore, so maybe I feel worst for him. Those Knicks fans had such high expectations for Ewing for so, so long. Chin up, Patrick. There’s no shame in losing to Jordan.
Does it still feel like a documentary about the ’97-’98 season, or no?
Mann: Honestly, not really? I know “The Last Dance” is working its way through the ’97-’98 season, and maybe in these episodes, during that part of the season, there wasn’t much to show. But it feels like these episodes were “The Last Dance” finally admitting to itself that it’s really about Michael Jordan’s entire Bulls career, and the ’97-’98 season is actually a sidebar. Now, if that is indeed the case, then maybe that’s fine. But I wonder if when the director/producers/etc. sifted through that 500-plus hours of footage from the ’97-’98 season, they realized it just wasn’t enough to feel completely gripping on its own. Whatever the case, you’ve got to give “The Last Dance” credit for capturing the sheer magnitude (and insanity) of Jordan’s fame. His life must have been so surreal back then.
Genessy: I think the story has more depth and flavor because it’s not just about the 1997-98 season. I love how they show a bit from that “Last Dance” season and then do flashbacks on Jordan and other key characters from that ’98 squad. To me, this makes it feel like they’re telling the whole story instead of just the ending. There has been criticism about this being a puff piece for MJ, but his true colors were shown in these two episodes — not just the “Be Like Mike” portrayal. But it also shows the tremendous amount of weight on his shoulders from the expectations of his fans, the media, his teammates and his sponsors. I think that makes it even more impressive that he was able to come back for a second three-peat, so I’m glad the producers of this documentary (or, let’s be real, the interns and scrubs) spent that time in the film room sifting through mounds of film. It’s been a fascinating six hours of TV so far.
Note: All episodes of “The Last Dance” will be available on the ESPN app with a subscription, or ESPN.com 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.