The basic tenet in all of basketball, from the time you’re 8 or 9 years old, is winners keep playing. “Run it back” is understood in any language on the planet.
Don’t ever think Michael Jordan was ready to stop playing after the end of the 1998 season. He wasn’t. He wasn’t ready to become a general manager or an owner or sit back and start retirement. He didn’t want to rebuild or retool or concede a thing.
Believe Jordan when he says, as he did in episode 10 of The Last Dance, “We could have won seven. I really believe that.” Believe that Jordan, to this day, is agitated about Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, in whatever order, pulling the plug on a group of guys who had just won three straight championships. “Not to be able to try,” Jordan said as the documentary series ended, “that’s something that I just can’t accept. I just can’t accept that.”
Winners keep playing. If there’s anything to be learned from the 10-part series, it’s that Jordan’s will as an athlete, as a competitor, as a performer, is perhaps unmatched in the history of team sports. It certainly hasn’t been exceeded. He took out Hall of Famers, Dream Teamers, Young Turks, a string of teams that won 60 games and thought they could get past him into the NBA Finals. And when you do that, you keep playing.
The Last Dance, at the very least, should have been pushed a year. Either general manager Krause should have been fired or told to pipe down, and make it clear to coach Phil Jackson that he would be rewarded handsomely and was quite welcome to come back for another year. Yes, one championship is worth the price. Ask Karl Malone and John Stockton, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller and all the other truly great players of the NBA’s golden era how desperately they wanted to win just one championship.
Of course the Bulls could have won a seventh championship in that ensuing 1999 season. The conditions were ideal, relative to the state of the league. Remember, because the players were locked out, the ’99 season didn’t begin until the first week of February. Only 50 games were played in that regular season. After winning in June ’98, Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Jackson would have had seven full months to recharge, the kind of break that very well could have prevented burnout. Krause was worried that too many players on the roster were too old. More than half a year off might have worked wonders for Jordan, Pippen, Ron Harper, Dennis Rodman, Bill Wennington and Steve Kerr.
Of course, had Jordan been able to convince Jackson to come back for one more go (but first get Reinsdorf to call off Krause), that would have presumably led to keeping the gang together and more specifically prevented Kerr and Will Perdue from going to San Antonio, which would have weakened (OK, just a little bit) the Spurs, who reached the NBA Finals.
OK, the Spurs with a young Tim Duncan and a seasoned David Robinson were going to be a problem. Coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs won five titles of their own. But imagine Jordan’s motivation after hearing all season about how his Bulls would have no answer for the Twin Towers of Robinson and Duncan. Imagine how Jordan and Pippen, all rested and healthy, would have warmed to the notion of sprinting through a 50-game season.
The big issue would have been to pay Pippen or perhaps try to acquire a young wing who could have played with Jordan. Think Tracy McGrady, whom Krause coveted and might have been gettable since the Toronto Raptors never figured out what they had in the future Hall of Famer.
So, Jordan playing with a now-seasoned Toni Kukoc and McGrady as his wings couldn’t have gotten past Ewing and the New York Knicks a fifth time in the playoffs? Please. In Jordan’s sleep. The Knicks were a No. 8 seed that advanced in a fluke by beating the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs, and shocked the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals. The issue for the Bulls, if they didn’t have to even confront the Pacers for the second consecutive postseason, would have been the Spurs, which even without Kerr and Perdue providing depth, had Robinson, Duncan and an impressive ensemble of savvy veterans including Avery Johnson, Sean Elliott, Mario Elie, Jerome Kersey and Malik Rose. And Popovich leading them. No knuckleheads need to apply.
Even though Malone was the MVP, there’s no question the Bulls vs. Spurs would have been something of a welcome relief to seeing Bulls-Utah Jazz III. And the NBA would have benefited enormously from a matchup with increased international appeal. How about Old Man Rodman vs. newbie Duncan? And if you think the sporting public was tiring of Jordan, consider this:
Fortune magazine, in examining just how much Jordan meant to the NBA economically, quoted then-NBA Entertainment president Adam Silver as saying that if the international broadcasters were allowed in their 40-game satellite packages distributed to foreign markets to select the games, the packages would contain only Bulls games, “and the Bulls would be playing the Bulls.”
Though the Bulls may not have wanted to spend money to keep all of those championship players at their market value price, as we heard in the final episode of The Last Dance, the league would have profited handsomely. Jordan and Pippen, specifically, would have enhanced their reputations. And if Tom Brady is the NFL’s greatest of all time despite losing three Super Bowls, how much could it have hurt Jordan’s legacy to be 6-1 in NBA Finals? LeBron James, whom so many young’uns want to argue is greater than Jordan, is 3-6 in NBA Finals. Magic Johnson, who’d be my choice to start a team, if not Jordan, is 5-4 in NBA Finals.
And while the Spurs mopped the floor with a barely mediocre Knicks team, it would have been an entirely different matter to beat a Bulls team sprinting through an abbreviated regular season with Jordan barely having to go to his whip hand.
Perhaps a “Last Dance” was inevitable at some point, maybe at the end of the millennium. But after getting past a team as talented, as balanced, as deep as the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, and Utah a second time in the championship series, not moving heaven and earth to let the winners keep playing cheated not only Jordan, Pippen, Jackson and the rest of the Bulls, but cheated anyone who appreciates champions at work.