SEATTLE, WA - FEBRUARY 2: Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls defends against Gary Payton #20 of the Seattle Super Sonics at Key Arena on February 2, 1997 in Seattle, Washington. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Last night brought Episodes 7 and 8 of “The Last Dance” and they may have been the strongest installments of the documentary series yet. Sunday’s episodes explored a number of topics, but two of the main themes were Michael Jordan’s first retirement (and ensuing baseball stint followed by a return to the NBA) as well as his maniacal competitiveness and approach to leadership.
There was a lot to digest from the penultimate batch of episodes, so let’s pass the rock to Brad Botkin to provide his winners and losers from last night. Here are some of his selections:
  • Winner: Michael Jordan – Jordan has been pretty great throughout the entire documentary but Botkin says that Episode 7 was his “finest hour of the series so far.” It was probably the most humanizing hour for MJ, as he was got openly emotional while discussing his competitive drive, leadership tactics and how he’s perceived as a result of his intensity. He called for a “break” as he attempted to compose himself, which one can only assume was a measure to make sure he didn’t breed another Crying Jordan meme
  • Loser: Scottie Pippen – The series has been pretty kind to Scottie Pippen for the most part but one of the worst moments of Pippen’s career was highlighted this Sunday. During the 1994 playoffs, the Bulls possessed the ball with a few seconds left to go in a tie game against the Knicks. Instead of going to Pippen, Phil Jackson drew up a play for Toni Kukoc instead, which angered Pippen enough that he refused to go back in the game . Kukoc ended up drilling the game-winning shot and Bulls players were pissed at Pippen for quitting on them in a huge spot. Scottie eventually apologized to the team. During the documentary, Pippen said he wasn’t proud of it and wished it never happened but he also said he wouldn’t change it if he had a chance to go back, so that doesn’t make a ton of sense to me
  • Winner: Scott Burrell – Despite Burrell being a semi-obscure figure with the Bulls during the dynasty, he got plenty of shine on Sunday thanks to Jordan’s battles with Burrell during practice. Earlier in the series, we saw MJ tease Burrell on camera over his drinking habits during a team flight. This week, MJ was attempting to push Burrell’s buttons once again — this time on the practice court. Jordan would zero in on Burrell during practice in order to test his commitment and determination, elements MJ thought were lacking in the young player. In the end, Burrell never backed down from Jordan and was able to hold his own in order to earn Jordan’s respect
  • Winner: Toni Kukoc – Kukoc has come on quite strong in “The Last Dance.” He wasn’t seen or heard from much in the first handful of episodes but he’s working on a big few weeks. He got his own clutch shot montage on Sunday night, one which culminated in a stunning highlight that demonstrated how much Kukoc meant to the Jordan-less Bulls. After Pippen stayed on the bench in an act of defiance in ’94, Kukoc hit a contested turnaround mid-range jumper to give Chicago the win against New York and help the Bulls climb back in the series
  • Winner: Gary Payton – One of the most meme-able moments yesterday came when Jordan enjoyed a hearty laugh at Gary Payton’s suggestion that he got the better of Jordan once he started covering MJ during the 1996 Finals, but there’s reason to believe that Payton has a point. The former Sonics guard wasn’t tasked with covering Jordan until Game 4 (when Seattle was already down 3-0 in the series) but his Sonics won two of those games and MJ only shot 36 percent in Games 4-6. Jordan may have ultimately gotten the hardware, but him saying “I had no problem with the Glove” was a bit disingenuous
  • Loser: George Karl – Not only did Karl make the mistake of not putting Payton on Jordan through the first three games of the ’96 Finals, but he also threw fuel on Jordan’s fire by not saying hello to him at a restaurant during those Finals. As we well know by now, it’s always a bad idea to piss off Michael Jordan
Botkin also kept track of the 10 best quotes to come out of last night’s episodes and, man, there were some really good ones — from Reggie Miller saying he thought he was going to “retire Michael Jordan” to Terry Francona saying he thought Jordan could’ve made the big leagues.
For me, the most interesting part of last night’s airing was the stuff about Jordan’s leadership and how he was perceived as a teammate . That part of his legacy clearly means a lot to him, as evidenced by how emotional he got while framing his belief on leadership. While he attempted to motivate/elevate everyone around him, his intensity and the ways he approached pushing buttons sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. I think this quote sums it up quite nicely:
  • Will Perdue: “Let’s not get it wrong. He was an asshole. He was a jerk. He crossed the line numerous times. But as time goes on, and you think back about what he was actually trying to accomplish, you’re like, ‘yeah, he was a hell of a teammate.'”
A sad but necessary reminder that “The Last Dance” will air its final two installments next weekend. Although it has its imperfections, it’s been a very fun, entertaining and nostalgic ride so far, and the series has seemed to get stronger as it’s gone on. Hopefully there’s a strong finish in store, but I already feel pretty indebted for what it’s given us during this very weird, very slow time in sports.


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