Lessons learned from the MJ doc, ‘The Last Dance’
The spring of 2020 was a challenging one for basketball fans, players, and coaches. Both the men and women’s NCAA tournaments were canceled. The NBA season was halted and it is unclear whether it will resume. The WNBA draft was held virtually, but the start of this season has been delayed and questions remain as to when and if it will be played.
ESPN launched a 10-part documentary entitled “The Last Dance”, about the last championship season for the Chicago Bulls. As I watched these episodes I was able to recall many of the great games and rivalries. However, I was also able to find some great lessons that were taught for both players and coaches to learn from.
I have outlined some things that stood out for me from watching “The Last Dance.” I believe these have applications for players and coaches.
I believe that aside from his skill set, which made Michael Jordan the champion he was, is his competitive spirit. He did not want to lose at anything, whether it was basketball, golf, or flipping quarters. He always seemed to play with a chip on his shoulder and seemed to thrive when the pressure was at its greatest point. He went hard whether it was a practice game with the Dream Team that few people watched or a key game in the NBA Finals.
He pushed his teammates to be great too. I saw many great players that I followed as a kid in these documentaries such as Larry Bird, Charles Barkley Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas, and Karl Malone. All of these players were also great competitors. However, it seemed that Michael Jordan always reached his highest level as a competitor when he faced the best competition.
A Supporting Cast Who Embraced Their Roles
Early in his career, Michael Jordan scored a lot of points, particularly in playoff games, such as the 63-point game he had against the Boston Celtics. However, despite his high-point output, the Bulls did not advance in the playoffs. When the additional pieces were brought in, the team was able to thrive. They thrived because players knew and responded positively to their roles. There were players on that team who were great scorers in college such as John Paxon and Steve Kerr. However, as professionals, both knew their roles had changed and adapted to what the team needed. Dennis Rodman identified his two greatest attributes as rebounding and defense. He focused on and excelled in those areas.
A Coach Who Understands His Players
Phil Jackson replaced a coach who had success with the Bulls. While he implemented things that he believed in like the Triangle Offense, he did not try to change who his players were as people. He got to know each of them personally and understood their individual motivations. The players, in turn, related to and respected him. He understood when he needed to back off and give them a break. He also allowed the players to speak up and have ownership.
The offense that Phil Jackson implemented enabled more players to get involved. Jordan still scored a lot of points but now other key players were involved such as Paxon. I recall one segment in which Jackson pointed out to Jordan that Paxon would be open. While Jordan knew instinctively he could score at will, he got the ball to Paxon who repeatedly knocked down jump shots. This would deem beneficial later on as Paxon would hit the game-winning shot to clinch the series against the Phoenix Suns in The 1993 NBA Finals.
The Bulls always seemed to have rival teams, both on their rise to their first championship as well as during their championship years. The team they struggled to beat initially was the Detroit Pistons. Later on they had a great rivalry with the New York Knicks. Having these rivalries made the Bulls better as a team because they knew they had push harder and dig deeper because these rivals would always bring their best. This, in turn, brought out the best in the Bulls. They met these two rivals in the Eastern Conference Finals, knowing that they would have to beat them to become champions.
Defense Wins Championships
During the course of their careers, Michael Jordan (9 times), Scottie Pippen (8 times), and Dennis Rodman (7 times) were selected as First Team All-Defensive honorees. They embraced the challenge of playing defense and thrived on it. I remember the one clip from the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals in which Jordan, Pippen, and Horace Grant converged to prevent a game-winning layup by Charles Smith of the New York Knicks in a pivotal Game 5. During their time with the Dream Team, Jordan and Pippen also combined to limit Tony Kukoc in The Olympics. In fact Jordan told the fellow Dream Team members “Let Scottie and me take care of Kukoc.”
Emphasis on Strength and Conditioning
In order to ultimately defeat the Pistons in the playoffs, the Bulls knew they had to get stronger in the offseason. Consequently they committed as a team to strength training by staying together as a team in the offseason to train at team headquarters. Not only did they get stronger, but this regimen enabled them to avoid injuries and be able to prolong the careers of their veteran players.
Overcoming Adversity and Criticism
Throughout their title runs, the Bulls had to overcome adversity and criticism from the media. At the beginning of the 1997-98 season they were without Pippen and had to adapt until his return. In 1993 they lost Game 5 of the NBA Finals at home, meaning they would have to go on the road to win the championship. They dropped the first two games of the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals to the Knicks and rebounded by winning the next four games to close out the series. The media also had high expectations for the team and always had questions when the team faced struggles. However, the team never wavered from their mission and used the adversity and criticism to fuel their fire.
New Season/New Mission
Jackson recognized that each season was its own journey and the players mentioned that he had a theme for each year. He also communicated to his team that past success would not dictate future success and that they had to focus on the present moment in order to be successful.
Next Man Up
When Pippen was out for the beginning of the 1997-98 season, Rodman realized that he would have to step up and be more of an impact player. Jordan also had to challenge his teammates to step up more and make more of a contribution. Everyone realized that in order to repeat the level of effort would have to exceed what it had been previously.
The level of excellence achieved by the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s is well -regarded by sports fans in general, not just basketball fans. While there are players and coaches who perhaps don’t recall this era, or may not have been alive during it, “The Last Dance” provides a lot of great lessons. Though things advance in our society, sometimes the greatest teaching and learning can come by examining what has been successful in the previous time period.