We all knew how this story would end. When it was time for the final episodes of “The Last Dance” Sunday night, everyone knew it was a march to victory, one that would conclude with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls winning their sixth NBA crown, a repeat three-peat. But no matter how well we thought we knew this team, no matter how well versed we were in the history, surprises abounded, and it was a joy to go behind the scenes and watch an utterly dominant athlete perform at his very best.
When the victory was sealed against the Utah Jazz in 1998, the Champagne and cigars came out immediately. Jordan, cigar clamped in his jaws, sprays Champagne on his teammates, who return the favor. The party continues to the team hotel—this series was won on the road in Utah, a mirror image of the year prior, which the Bulls also won in six games against the Jazz—and the cigars remain a part of the celebration.
“Is this the smoking floor?” Someone says as the Bulls pour out of the hotel elevator.
“It is now,” comes the answer.
We see Jordan in his hotel room, banging on a piano, cigar in mouth, smile stretching from ear to ear. He’s happy. But is he content?
The stunner from last night’s episodes was Jordan revealing that his famous “Flu Game,” Game Five in the 1997 championship against the Jazz where Jordan performs despite being tremendously sick, wasn’t a case of the flu after all. He had food poisoning.
The night before the game, Jordan is hungry. He’s in a hotel in Utah, and there’s no food service, at least not at such a late hour. His security team dials around, and finally finds a place that’s open, a pizzeria.
“I ate the pizza, all by myself,” says Jordan. “I wake up about 2:30, throwing up left and right…So it really wasn’t the flu game. It was food poisoning.”
He stayed in bed all day, couldn’t eat; had an IV. “He was in very bad shape,” says his teammate Scottie Pippin. “He has shown no matter how sick he was, he’s still the best player in the world.”
Jordan willed himself onto the court, put up 38 points (more than any other player that night) and played an impressive 44 minutes. “He’s like The Terminator—he went somewhere and he found that switch,” says ESPN reporter David Aldridge.
The show also spent time on Bulls’ role player Steve Kerr, who made the game-winning shot to conclude the 1997 NBA championship. Kerr shares tragedy with Jordan—his father was president of the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, and in 1984 he was shot and killed on campus. Kerr was in college at the time.
Just as Jordan grew emotional in the earlier episode where he spoke about his own father’s murder by a gun, we see Kerr get misty reflecting on his father, who loved basketball and would have marveled at seeing his son play in the NBA and become a champion.
The last minute of that 1998 NBA Final is all Jordan, showing his abilities on both offense and defense, and his will to win. While there were other players who rose to the occasion to seal the deal during those six Bulls championships—Kerr, John Paxson, others—everyone knew who would get the ball in the final seconds of that final game. It had to be Sir Michael.
With just 60 seconds on the clock, Jordan ties the game with two free throws. Utah’s John Stockton then drains a three-pointer, putting his team ahead. Jordan then takes the inbounds pass and drives to the basket, pulling the Bulls within one. There are 37 seconds left. Utah brings the ball down court, setting up Karl Malone in the paint—but Jordan comes from the weak side and swats the ball away, causing a turnover with less than 20 seconds left in the game. Jordan dribbles the ball all the way down the court, shakes off a defender above the key and sinks a jump shot to give his team the lead with five seconds left. Stockton misses his last-second shot, and the Bulls win.
The victory isn’t quite the end of the show. Jordan is happy—but is he content? He clearly wanted more than his six victories, and you can see how he wished to have one more shot with that same team. But management had made it clear at the start of the season that coach Phil Jackson would not be asked to return, that many of Jordan’s teammates would not be coming back. Jordan wanted more.
Yes, he was happy with six. But not content. “I felt like we could have won seven,” he says. “I just can’t accept it.”