"The Last Dance": The Flu Game, the Final Championship and MJ the Poet
The doc's final chapter wonders what might have been if the front office hadn't forced a rebuild
All good things must come to an end, and ESPN’s The Last Dance did just that on Sunday night, leaving us once again starved for sports content in quarantine. The final installments of the 10-part docuseries wrapped things up by reminding us what a once-in-a-lifetime talent Jordan truly was. (Seriously, can we finally put the debate over who is basketball’s Greatest of All Time to rest now?)
It was obvious heading into these final episodes that they’d focus on the ’97 and ’98 Finals — the final two championships that would complete the Bulls’ second three-peat — but The Last Dance still saved some pretty major revelations for us, including the fact that Jordan’s flu game was actually the result of foul play by a pizza place and a touching moment when he bid farewell to his team by reciting a poem. More on those stories and all the other highlights from Episodes 9 and 10 below.
Reggie Miller admits he “lightly” pushed off Jordan in ’98
Episode 9 of The Last Dance kicks off with the ’98 Eastern Conference Finals against Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers. Game 4 of that series ended in heartbreak for Bulls fans after Miller’s game-winning three-point shot, but there’s long been speculation that the Pacer should have been called for an offensive foul on the play. Now, decades later, he admits he may have pushed off Jordan: “I just went right to his chest and lightly, lightly, lightly shoved him a little bit to create that space,” he says in the episode. “And the rest is history.”
Naturally, the Pacers’ Twitter account jumped all over it:
The episode also highlighted the competitive relationship between Jordan and Miller, beginning with their infamous fight in 1993. The doc brings out an iPad to show Jordan footage of it, with a little smile on his face, MJ eggs the video on, saying, “Don’t hold him back. Let him go.”
You don’t wanna be on Michael Jordan’s list
If there’s one major takeaway from The Last Dance, it’s that Michael Jordan took every slight — real or imagined — to heart and used them as motivation to absolutely destroy his competition. In fact, it seems absolutely absurd that anyone in the NBA would be dumb enough to trash-talk him knowing the way grudges fuel his fire. And yet, they were. In the final installment of the docuseries, Jordan recalls a comment Bryon Russell made to him when he was still playing baseball, noting, “From that point on, he’s been on my list.” (Note the present tense he uses.)
The “Flu Game” was actually the “Food Poisoning Game”
If you follow basketball at all, you already know the legend of Michael Jordan’s Flu Game — Game 5 of the 1997 Finals — and the various conspiracy theories surrounding whether or not the Bulls star had really come down with the flu before dropping 38 points on the Jazz. But in the doc’s penultimate episode, Jordan and his trainer Tim Grover debunk the notion that he had influenza (or a hangover, as many speculated) and reveal that it was some tainted pizza that actually did him in.
The implication is that the one pizza place that was open in Salt Lake City at 10:30 p.m. when Jordan was hungry figured out that the meal they were preparing was probably for MJ and tampered with it in an attempt to help the Jazz win. Grover suspected something was up when five guys showed up to deliver the single pizza.
“They’re all trying to look in, and everybody knew it was Michael,” Grover recalls in the episode. “So I take the pizza, I pay them, and I put this pizza down and I say, ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this.’”
Apparently Jordan didn’t, because he housed the entire pie. “I ate the pizza,” he says. “All by myself. Nobody else eats the pizza. I wake up about 2:30 throwing up left and right. So it really wasn’t the flu game. It was food poisoning.”
Somehow the Poisoned Pizza Game doesn’t have the same ring to it. But if you’ve ever had food poisoning yourself, you know that the fact that Jordan was able to stand — let alone play 44 minutes and score 38 points — while in the throes of it remains remarkable.
Steve Kerr and Michael Jordan never discussed their fathers
As The Last Dance runs through the ’97 Finals, it of course turns its attention to Steve Kerr’s famous game-winning shot against the Jazz in Game 6 — and the trust that Jordan, who knew he’d be double-teamed, had to put the ball in his hands. But a significant chunk of Episode 9 is also devoted to Kerr’s backstory, including his father’s tragic assassination in Beirut in 1984.
“So, I received a phone call in the middle of the night from a family friend,” Kerr recalls in the doc. “My phone rang at my door at 3 o’clock in the morning, so I knew something was up and he just said ‘Steve, I have terrible news.’ So, yeah.”
To cope with his grief, Kerr threw himself into his sport. “Basketball was the one thing I could do to take my mind off what happened,” he says. “So I went to practice the next day. I didn’t know what else to do.”
But despite the fact that Kerr and Jordan both lost their fathers prematurely to senseless gun violence, the Golden State Warriors coach says they never spoke about it to each other.
“We never discussed that,” Kerr says. “I think it was probably too painful for each of us.”
Phil Jackson was offered a chance to come back
The Last Dance has frequently gone out of its way to remind us of Jerry Krause’s comment to Phil Jackson that he could go 82-0 and still wouldn’t be asked back, but in the final episode, Jerry Reinsdorf reveals that he offered the head coach a chance to return to the Bulls after they won their sixth title but the Zen Master refused to participate in a rebuild — or as Reinsdorf puts it, “he didn’t want to coach a bad team.”
Of course, why Reinsdorf and Krause were so insistent on a rebuild in the first place remains baffling, and Jordan insists in the doc that he and his teammates all would have been willing to take smaller deals in exchange for one more championship run. “If you asked all the guys who would have won in ’98, Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler, we gave you a one-year contract to try for the seventh,” he says. “Do you think they would have signed it? Yes, they would have signed it. Would I have signed for one year? Yes, I would have signed for one year. I had been signing one-year contracts up to then. Would Phil have done it? Yes.”
“It’s maddening because I felt like we could’ve won seven,” Jordan concludes. “But not to be able to try is something that I can’t accept.”
MJ wrote a poem for his teammates
We can sit here and speculate what would have happened if the Bulls front office hadn’t forced a rebuild and broken up the team after ’98 — “minimum eight-peat,” to quote Bill Swerski’s Super Fans — but the fact remains they did, and the team had no choice but to part ways. Before they did, however, Phil Jackson called one final meeting to get some closure. “My wife had gotten her Master’s in social work, and she was part of a group that went in to help people that were grieving,” Jackson explains towards the end of the doc’s final episode. “One of the things they did was a ritual where they kind of put things to rest.”
That ritual involved each Bull writing what the team meant to him on a piece of paper, reading it to his teammates and placing it in an empty coffee can, before Jackson ultimately set them all ablaze.
“He says, ‘This is it. This is the last dance. This is the last time we’re ever going to be together,’ ” Steve Kerr recalls. “He told everybody to bring in anything you want to write about what the team means to you. And every guy had emotional words to say, and I remember Michael [Jordan] actually wrote a poem.”
We don’t actually get to hear Jordan’s poem in The Last Dance, but by all accounts it was a stunning display of vulnerability that caused his coaches and teammates to see him in a new light. Jordan credited Jackson for inspiring him to participate in the exercise.
“Phil had the knack, no matter how big you are, no matter how big you think you are, to always draw you in to be part of the process,” he explains. “I’m not a poet, but I just spoke what I felt at the time. We’re always going to be bonded. Said thanks for the past, enjoy the moment, let’s make sure we end it right.”
“It was a depth of emotion you never thought he had,” Jackson says.
“We saw him as this bully sometimes,” Kerr admits. “But that day, he showed his compassion, his empathy for all of us. Then everybody put the paper in the can and at the end of the session, Phil turned out the lights and he lit the paper in the can. One of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen.”
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