SALT LAKE CITY — In a who’s who of NBA legends, Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone and John Stockton would certainly be four names on just about any list, as would coaches Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan.
Rusty LaRue, now a restaurant executive from North Carolina and former NBA player, didn’t reach the 100-games-played mark during a career that spanned five NBA seasons, but he does hold this unique distinction: He was a teammate of all four players and played for both Jackson and Sloan.
As a 24-year-old rookie on the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 championship team that is the subject of the ESPN documentary “The Last Dance,” LaRue had a perfect view of the sequence of plays at the end of Game 6 that is still painful for Jazz fans everywhere. Then, less than four years later, he found himself playing for the same Utah franchise that the Bulls had dispatched in back-to-back Finals.
“I’ve been blessed through the game, and this whole experience of getting to kind of relive ‘The Last Dance’. (It) just kind of brings that home of what a blessed kind of career I had, and I’m grateful for it,” he said by phone last week.
A three-sport athlete at Wake Forest, LaRue played summer league ball with the Houston Rockets after graduation in 1996, then was invited to training camp by the Chicago Bulls. Eventually, he ended up playing in France and then the Connecticut Pride of the Continental Basketball Association.
As talk swirled that the 1997-98 season would be the last for the Bulls’ Hall of Fame nucleus, LaRue got another invite to Chicago’s training camp after playing for the team during the summer league (yes, he got the team manual with “The Last Dance” cover). He was waived, however, just a few hours before Chicago’s first preseason game and was selected in the CBA expansion draft by the Idaho Stampede.
Pulled some of the old memorabilia out! Been forever since I looked through this stuff. Pretty cool I kept The Last Dance team manual and the letter that came with my contract for the season. #TheLastDance pic.twitter.com/WnarVmcy7Q— Rusty LaRue (@Rusty_LaRue) April 26, 2020
The day before the Stampede’s first game, LaRue received a call from Chicago general manager Jerry Krause, who informed him that Steve Kerr had been injured and the Bulls might sign him. The next afternoon as LaRue prepared for his Idaho debut, his wife Tammy stayed at home to await a call from Krause that may not come.
While LaRue warmed up for the game, Tammy entered the arena and gave him the good news: Krause had called.
During #TheLastDance I was called up 2 weeks into the season. Was waiting on the phone call but had to go to 1st ever game for @IdahoStampede. So I left @tammywlarue at home waiting on the call with a “To do list if it’s a go”. She arrived just before game to give me the pic.twitter.com/iIRcfomYig— Rusty LaRue (@Rusty_LaRue) May 3, 2020
LaRue wound up being on Chicago’s active roster for 17 games from Nov. 15 through Jan. 30, playing in 14 of them. Although he spent the rest of the season on the injured list (back then, instead of declaring players “inactive” for games like they do now, extra players would be put on the injured list) and didn’t make the playoff roster, LaRue did spend the rest of the season with the team.
As such, he had a firsthand look at all of the happenings that viewers of the documentary are getting a glimpse of now, although he admits that he didn’t totally internalize at the time how unique his situation was.
Main two things I have been asked this week:— Rusty LaRue (@Rusty_LaRue) April 20, 2020
Q: Are you gonna watch The Last Dance?
Q: Do you think you will be in it much?
A: That all depends on how much practice footage they show!
“When you’re a rookie and you’re just trying to make your way into the world of pro athletics, you kind of just want to keep your head down and go to work and do the best you can and try not to get caught up in all the hoopla,” he said.
That notwithstanding, “looking back, it was just kind of crazy the amount of attention and everything that you got,” he said.
I really don’t remember who was who. I never used an alias but if I did, it would definitely have been either Inigo Montoya or Keyser Soze. #TheLastDance— Rusty LaRue (@Rusty_LaRue) May 3, 2020
Unlike many who have been featured in the documentary, LaRue said he never really caught Jordan’s ire. On the contrary, “he was always really good to me. Obviously I was on the injured list so I wasn’t necessarily in the heat of it all the time, but if you were a competitor, I think he respected that.”
As for head coach Phil Jackson, LaRue said the coach had the ability to customize how he treated different players but was able to bring them together in a way that made them successful.
For example, in LaRue’s second game, he recalled passing up an open shot late in the contest (“I’m a rookie and I’m on the court with Michael Jordan and those guys,” he said), and Jackson took him aside during a timeout a few minutes later and told him to shoot when he was open.
Episode 1 of @espn The Last Dance brought back some great @chicagobulls memories. @Suns game was my first ever NBA action! Went 3-5 with 7 points in 14 mins. @LAClippers 2OT win I played 31 mins going 4-6 with 8 points. #rookie #TheLastDance— Rusty LaRue (@Rusty_LaRue) April 24, 2020
“He knew that’s what I could bring to the table to make the team better and gave me the confidence going out as a rookie,” LaRue said.
Entering the 1998 Finals, with many observers believing the Jazz were the better team, LaRue remembers the Bulls being “confident” they would win. Utah took Game 1 before Chicago won the next three to take charge of the series. The Jazz held on to a late lead in Game 5 to win by two and stay alive.
Then there was Game 6, ultimately the moment the entire documentary has been leading up to; the moment that still stings Jazz fans even 22 years later. The Jazz led 86-85 with 23 seconds remaining when Karl Malone got the ball in the post. Almost immediately, Jordan snuck up behind him and swiped it away, right in front of the Bulls’ bench, where LaRue had a perfect view.
“I just remember him getting the ball and we had a timeout left, but it was like, ‘OK, here we go. This is it right here, right? We’re not calling timeout. The guy’s got the ball we want to have the ball,’” LaRue said.
Jordan crossed halfcourt with 16 seconds remaining and made his way toward the left sideline. With Bryon Russell guarding him, Jordan started moving to the free throw line with 10 seconds to go. At the eight-second mark, Russell went to the floor and a wide-open Jordan rose up for the 18-foot jump shot. He sank it, John Stockton missed a 3-point try at the buzzer, and Chicago won the championship.
As much as anything, LaRue remembers the emotion of the moment.
“Just seeing him hit the shot, everybody coming out of their seats and just the elation, realizing that he had hit the shot to win it,” he said.
At a team dinner shortly after the season ended, Jackson went around the room and had each player give a toast. LaRue said his toast was to the team “for basically ruining the rest of my career, because it was all downhill from there.”
Despite all the talk that it was going to be the last season with Jordan and Jackson and perhaps others, LaRue held out hope the team could stay together.
“When you’re in it, I think during the season there was part of you that said, ‘OK, it’s ‘The Last Dance,’ but surely if we win it, there’s a sliver of hope that we can get this group back together.’”
That, of course, did not happen. Tim Floyd was hired to replace Jackson, and only a few role players returned. LaRue figures the lockout that summer ruined whatever small chance there was of one more ride.
LaRue appeared in 43 of 50 games for the Bulls in the 1998-99 campaign and averaged 17 minutes per contest. They went just 13-37.
“It was definitely a different perspective. The fan hoopla’s not there and it’s just much more of a grind and tough when you’re used to winning,” he said. “It’s tough to lose.”
LaRue appeared in four games in the 1999-00 season and after no NBA opportunities arose before the 2000-01 campaign, he went to Russia to play for powerhouse CSKA Moscow, which opened the door for his next NBA opportunity.
Finding the Jazz’s radar
As fate would have it, one of LaRue’s teammates with CSKA was Andrei Kirilenko, whom the Jazz had selected with the 24th pick in the 1999 NBA draft. Kirilenko stayed in Russia for two seasons after getting drafted, and Utah team officials often traveled to see him play, and thus saw LaRue, too.
Did not get interviewed but definitely will be watching tonight with family. Pretty cool for my kids to get to experience the memories since they weren’t around. BTW pulled out some old scrapbooks and found these! https://t.co/E4axU4rkBK pic.twitter.com/S3DuUjQxZv— Rusty LaRue (@Rusty_LaRue) April 26, 2020
Whether it was because they saw that LaRue could play or because they thought he could help Kirilenko adjust to life in the NBA — or some combination of both — the Jazz invited LaRue to training camp in 2001. He was cut at the end of camp, but just as the Bulls had done a few years prior, Utah coaches told him to stay ready in case they needed him at some point that season.
LaRue started playing for the Asheville Altitude of the new National Basketball Development League, and when Jazz backup point guard John Crotty was hurt in January, LaRue got a call. He wound up playing in 33 games for Utah the rest of the season and averaged 5.8 points and 2.2 assists in 16.4 minutes per contest.
“Obviously my time with the Bulls was pretty amazing, but I know my wife and I look back on our time in Utah. We loved Utah. We loved Salt Lake City. We really enjoyed our time there, the people and the team and everything,” he said.
Just as he had done in Chicago with Jackson, Jordan and Scottie Pippen, LaRue got the chance with the Jazz to play for a Hall of Fame coach in Jerry Sloan and Hall of Fame players in Stockton and Malone.
“Jerry Sloan is about as exact opposite of Phil Jackson as you can imagine, but at the same time, an unbelievable coach in his own right and in his own way was able to do the same thing, get pro guys to buy in,” LaRue said. “You always knew where you stood with Jerry.”
Of Stockton and Malone, he said, “Karl and John kind of set the tone for that team. It was a hard hat and lunch pail team. No fluff. Just come in and get it done. Those guys were unbelievable competitors and athletes.”
After a brief time with the Golden State Warriors in the 2003-04 season, LaRue got into coaching and made several stops at the high school and collegiate levels, most notably as an assistant at Wake Forest. In 2018, he became the chief operating officer of Dairi-O, a restaurant with eight franchises in North Carolina.
LaRue’s oldest son Riley, who was a toddler during the championship season with Chicago, passed away in 2015, but LaRue has enjoyed watching “The Last Dance” with his wife and three other children.
Looking back at #thelastdance has brought back a lot of memories of Riley @rlarue2 who was 2 years old then. These pictures I found made me smile and cry. Miss this dude so much! #everyonehasangels pic.twitter.com/gBbXX11r66— Rusty LaRue (@Rusty_LaRue) May 12, 2020
“They have obviously seen the jerseys and their whole lives have heard I played with Michael Jordan and the Bulls, but I don’t think it had the same life it does now with them seeing all the hype it’s getting,” he said. “That’s been the coolest thing for me, just getting to kind of go through it with my family.”