‘The Last Dance’ Finale Recap: Black Jesus, Poisoned Pizza, and Pure Poetry
In the conclusion to ESPN’s 10-part docuseries, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls rally to fulfill their destiny with a second three-peat
En route to this 10-part docuseries’ foregone conclusion, the final two episodes cover some by now well-worn territory: Michael Jordan’s “innate personality is to win at all costs.” Michael Jordan holds grudges (see: his feelings on Utah’s Bryon Russell). Michael Jordan owns many cars, most of them red, with a seemingly unlimited supply of vanity plates (this week: a Porsche 911 Turbo S, license plate AIR). Michael Jordan has smoked so many cigars he should not be alive right now (but, of course, he is superhuman). Fans in 1990s Indiana and Utah were a little unhinged (someone please check on the wiry blonde woman who was screaming “IN YOUR FUCKING FACE!” at Chicago players from the second row during Game Three of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals in Indianapolis). Dennis Rodman is a wild and crazy guy. Phil Jackson knows how to get big, strong men to feel the feelings.
But there are revelations, too. Among them: The infamous flu that had Jordan puking for 12 straight hours before Game Five of the 1997 Finals in Utah wasn’t a flu at all, according to Jordan, but actually a case of intentional food poisoning perpetrated by a dastardly Salt Lake City pizzeria. Jordan’s favored pregame hype music was… the smooth R&B crooning of Kenny Lattimore? Next to Michael Jordan, Leonardo Di Caprio seems like a bit of a dork. And finally: Jordan, Jackson, and the Jerrys Reinsdorf and Krause never, even years later, discussed the hows and whys behind the disintegration of that second three-peat squad following their 1998 title. Jordan still believes the team had a shot at one more championship — and he did not go as gentle into the good night of his second retirement as we might have been led to believe.
“If you ask all those guys: We give you a one-year contract to go for seven. Do you think they would have signed? Yes. Would I? Yes. Would Phil? Yes,” Jordan fumes in the series’ final minutes. Asked if he was happy to exit the game at his peak, he doesn’t hesitate: “No. It’s maddening. I feel like we could’ve won seven. Not being able to try, that’s something I can’t accept. For whatever reason. I just can’t accept it.”
“Don’t Ever Talk Trash to Black Jesus”
If you consider trash talking an art form, The Last Dance to this point hadn’t exactly made Michael Jordan out to be its Da Vinci. His style seemed to be less clever wordplay, more mean-spirited stab to the jugular. But when a young Reggie Miller — himself one of the NBA’s legendary loudmouths — got to the league, MJ offered up a valuable lesson in taking his game (both the talking and the playing) to the next level. As Miller recalls it, in one of his first games against Jordan, he was doing everything possible to impress his iconic opponent. Through the game’s first half, he was locked in, while Jordan was having an off day. Emboldened, Miller looked at MJ and said: “You’re Michael Jordan, the guy who walks on water?” Bad idea. In the second half, Miller had “about two points,” he says, laughing; Jordan “had a lot more.” Walking off the court after the game, Jordan found Miller and underscored the point with a little bit of advice: “Don’t ever talk trash to Black Jesus.”
Another word to the wise: Don’t risk talking trash to Black Jesus even when he’s retired. As Episode Nine sets up Game One of the 1997 Finals between the Bulls and the Utah Jazz, Jordan flashes back to an exchange he had with Jazz forward Bryon Russell during Russell’s rookie season four years earlier. Jordan, in the midst of his foray into baseball, had paid a visit to Chicago’s United Center when the Jazz came to town to play the Bulls. Russell approached him and said, “Man, why you quit? You knew I could guard your ass.” Bad idea. “From that point on, he’s been on my list,” Jordan says of Russell, pointedly using the present tense. (Jordan even mentioned this incident in his Hall of Fame induction speech.) Cue the winning shot of Game One: Jordan sinking a pull-up jumper over Russell at the buzzer.
The famous Flu Game — arguably Jordan’s most legendary performance, where he was up vomiting all night before Game Five of the 1997 Finals versus the Jazz, but showed up and dropped 38 points in 44 minutes to help the Bulls to a 90-88 victory — has been conspicuously absent from the series, so you knew it was coming. But what we learn from The Last Dance is that Jordan wasn’t felled by some rogue cold. He was… poisoned! In Utah!
The night before the game, Jordan found himself hungry sometime after 10 PM. In a city dominated by conservative Mormon mores, finding a restaurant open at that hour was near impossible — even room service at the team’s Marriott had shut down. Jordan’s assistant, George Koehler, and his trainer, Tim Grover, finally discovered a pizzeria that was still open, and ordered a pie. A phalanx of five guys showed up to deliver it, straining to peer inside the suite as they handed it over. “I got a bad feeling about this,” Grover recalls thinking.
Jordan ate the whole pie by himself (easy to do when you burn about 4,000 calories a day), and four hours later called for help from his bathroom floor, where he was “curled up in a ball, shaking,” Grover says. Can we be positive the pizzeria poisoned him? No. But, based on the circumstantial evidence presented, this court stands ready to convict! The rest, of course, is history — Jordan arrives at the Delta Center the next day, is hooked up to an IV, finds some kind of fifth gear, and takes over the game.
It’s a perfect example of what Jordan might have called “nut-crunchin’ time,” a phrase he mutters in the locker room a couple hours before tip-off of Game Seven of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals versus the Pacers. But Jordan wasn’t the only Bull who could crunch nuts. The B-plot of Episodes Nine and Ten surrounds Steve Kerr, one of the most clutch role players of all time. In that nail-biter of a Game Seven, with Chicago trailing by two with six minutes to go, he hit a tide-shifting shot that brought the Bulls back from the brink of elimination. (“All of a sudden a bolt of electricity went through the building,” the Pacers’ Jalen Rose recalls. “It was like we were a ninth-grade JV team that had no shot.”)
It was a shot Kerr had the confidence to take thanks to a key moment from Game Six of the previous year’s finals. Kerr says he’d been struggling to perform in the playoffs, getting too much in his own head when the pressure was on. But approaching the final seconds of a tie game, with the title on the line, Jordan, expecting to draw a double-team, told him to be ready for a pass. The sequence transpired exactly as Jordan had predicted, Kerr draining a simple jump shot from the lane to win the game. (“Guess I [had] to bail Michael out again,” Kerr joked to the crowd at the team’s championship rally a few days later in Grant Park.) At the postgame press conference, a proud Jordan gave credit where it was due: “Tonight Steve Kerr earned his wings, and I’m very happy for Steve.”
“I Never Gave Up. I Never Gave Up.”
When the Bulls finally clinched their second three-peat, all that was left were the champagne showers, the cigars (many, many cigars), and the goodbyes. Going into the season, GM Jerry Krause had announced that Phil Jackson could go undefeated, but he still wouldn’t be the Bulls coach the following year. Michael Jordan had stated he wouldn’t play for anyone but Phil Jackson. So, that was that.
What we didn’t know was that the goodbyes involved a funereal ceremony around an old coffee can lit aflame in a dark room. But, where Phil Jackson walks, spiritual enlightenment follows. With Pearl Jam’s “Present Tense” soundtracking the story, we learn that in the wake of that 1998 victory, before the players gathered at the United Center to clean out their lockers, Jackson — after consulting an expert in dealing with grief — instructed everyone to write down what the team had meant to them; facing each other one last time, they would read their remembrances, and then burn the papers in a coffee can. Jordan shocked everyone by writing a poem. We don’t get to learn the lines (it was incinerated, after all), but Kerr and Jackson both testify to being stunned by the depth of emotion in Jordan’s words.
As The Last Dance winds down, Jordan says that the incredible legacy of the Nineties Bulls “started with hope.” This may be true, but the engine it ran on was something far more tangible. Celebrating the team’s 1998 title win on the court in Utah, confetti still drifting in the air and media jostling around them, an overjoyed Jackson embraces Jordan, exclaiming, “Oh my God, that was beautiful! What a finish! Can you believe it?!” Jordan answers breezily, “Yeah, I can! I never gave up. I never gave up.”