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Netflix's 'The Last Dance': How Ego Championed the Chicago Bulls' Success By Clarisse Fullerton

Netflix's latest release of ESPN's The Last Dance has received a plethora of varying responses online. The miniseries follows America's Chicago Bulls during the 1997-98 basketball season alongside snapshots of star player Michael Jordan's career. After watching the ten-part documentary, I found myself noticing just how instrumental the role of ego was in the success of the Bulls, and the immediate effect that high self-confidence has had on the court.

Numerous ex-Bulls teammates, including Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, have criticised the show for its inaccuracies and Jordan-centric portrayal of the Chicago Bulls. It seems many were under the impression that the series would address the Bulls as a team and as a result the show is now under fire for shining the spotlight so heavily on Michael Jordan; with five out of the ten episodes dedicated to Jordan alone. These recent objections demonstrate the extent of players' pride; they're critiquing a show which overall presented the Bulls in a flattering light, but are resentful that it failed to fully recognise their personal contributions. Ironically, this further showcases that egotistical personality and competitiveness between teammates, which was also visible on the court as a result of this conflicting pride. When watching the show, I felt that this egotism often dictated how the Bulls played and ultimately, how it was instrumental in the team's success.

It is undeniable that the presence of Michael Jordan contributed notably to making the Chicago Bulls the powerhouse that it was. Before his arrival in 1984, the franchise held no winning titles to its name and had only made the playoffs twice. By the end of Jordan's basketball career in 2003, Chicago had won six championships and six Finals MVPs. It is therefore no wonder that their star player would be home to such an inflated ego and sense of self, as it seems Jordan was the sustaining factor throughout these achievements. Although Jordan's tenacity can be perceived as confidence, his reoccurring self-comparison to God and volatile reaction to trash talk on the court can be perceived as egotistic as any on-court conflicts seemed to revolve around him. This self-centred attitude is reiterated throughout The Last Dance as Jordan describes rivalry with opposing teams as something that he felt became "personal". For example, during the 1998 Eastern Conference finals, Indiana Pacer's Reggie Miller notoriously outscored Jordan in the first half and was subsequently thrashed, ending the game 37-12 (Jordan vs Miller).

"Don't ever trash talk to Black Jesus" - Michael Jordan in 1998 to Reggie Miller

This specific game shows how, more often than not, when others have questioned his abilities it has only motivated Jordan more; after all, it was his father's lack of belief in him as a child that spurred him to excel in basketball. This dismissal of Jordan's capabilities seems to be one of the main reasons why he became so combative on the court midway through a game.

It is therefore logical that the Bulls drafted an assortment of strong characters in an attempt to equalise team dynamics. This becomes even more apparent when looking at the 1993-94 team during Jordan's eighteenth-month retirement from basketball in which Scottie Pippen took the lead.

"It was the first time for me to be a clear cut star" - Scottie Pippen on the 1993-94 team

Arguably the second-best player on the Bulls team, Pippen was painfully underpaid throughout his career, ranking 122nd in NBA salary. After years of financial mistreatment a lack of recognition Pippen's ego had had enough.

The 1994 third game Bulls vs Knicks proved a turning point after team coach Phil Jackson decided for teammate, Tonic Kukoc, to take the last shot with only two seconds remaining. This visibly angered Pippen who sat out for the remainder of the game, calling the play an "insult" as he believed he was "the most dangerous guy on [the] team" (episode nine of The Last Dance). Although the Bulls won 104-102, Pippen's ego championed their success and called for a reassessment of team loyalties.

The Last Dance portrays the '93-'94 team as one which suffered in Jordan's absence; however they went on to win ten straight games and finished with a 55-win season, only two wins less than the previous year. This justifies Pippen's complaints as the team was only marginally less successful under Pippen's lead than when they were led by Jordan. Despite this, the Bulls were unable to win a fourth consecutive NBA championship and ultimately lost against the New York Knicks in 1994. Given that this was the same year the Bulls drafted players Steve Kerr and Tonic Kukoc, the Bulls were undergoing multiple major adjustments in Jordan's absence. Perhaps the '94 loss was not the singular result of Jordan's retirement, but a product of a shift in team dynamics which had yet to fully develop.

Although Jordan's winning mindset created one-on-one tensions on court, his prioritisation of his reputation was a beneficial factor in both his and the team's success. Contrarily, it appears that Pippen's ego somewhat sabotaged his progress, most notably at the end of the '96-'97 season when he delayed ankle surgery in order to renegotiate his contract. This sent the message to the rest of the team that personal monetary gain was more important than the progression of the Bulls. However, ex-teammate Dennis Rodman has recently come to the defence of Pippen in regard to comments made in the media criticising Pippen's career choices, describing the player as "underrated" and "underpaid". Contrastingly, Jordan has received backlash online after accusing Pippen of being "selfish" for "worrying about himself" when attempting to renegotiate his contract with the Bulls. This has not reflected well on Jordan considering their contrasting salaries, with Jordan making 33 million dollars compared to Pippen's meagre 5 million in their final season.

Despite justified complaints from ex-teammates about the show, the main concern arising seems to highlight the issue of reputation, proving that even off-court, personal ego is more important than the Bulls' accomplishments. Basketball player Kendrick Perkins has publicly denounced Jordan, claiming the show was "full of lies" and made "MJ look like a superhero". In this view, the docuseries as a whole aims to further stroke Jordan's ego at the expense of other players, who have in some cases refused to talk to each other since its release. Pippen has yet to directly release a statement, but has been reported as "beyond livid" at his portrayal according to an ESPN radio host.

While the success of the Chicago Bulls is irrefutably a result of physical skill, coaching and hard work, I feel that it is evident that in many cases players' egos controlled the court. Despite their steady and concrete rise to success, daily concern for reputation created volatile tendencies and consequently led to instability during games. A quote by Cy Wakeman feels appropriate when considering the history of the Chicago Bulls, she states: "Confidence will get you ahead, but the ego will only hold you back".

The first quote is from this article for NBC sports, and the second can be found here for CBS sports.

Credits:

Created with an image by Markus Spiske