Why Phil Jackson Needs ‘The Last Dance’

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When the Chicago Bulls were assembling a 72-10 season in 1995-96, Nick Nurse was a young Phil Jackson fan in England, earning roughly $20,000, along with housing and a car, as the new head coach of the Birmingham Bullets.

His favorite indulgence at the time, at the cost of 10 British pounds per week, was the weekly delivery of VHS tapes of Bulls games from a European distributor called PonTel. Whenever he could make time, sometimes in the company of his American players, Nurse voraciously studied Jackson’s triangle offense, his substitutions and everything else.

“There was nothing on TV but soccer and cricket, so I was watching every game I got 10, 12 times,” Nurse said. “Phil was my mentor, and he didn’t even know it.”

Nurse and Jackson didn’t meet until the summer of 2018, shortly after Nurse was hired as coach of the Toronto Raptors. Alex McKechnie, the Raptors’ vice president for player health and performance and an alumnus of Jackson’s staff with the Los Angeles Lakers, connected them. Soon after, Nurse was in Montana — summoned for what became a three-day coaching retreat with the Zen Master.

It was a hard-to-believe prelude to what became a fairy-tale rookie season on the Raptors’ bench with their run to an N.B.A. title.

“It was a big thrill for me,” Nurse said of his summit with Jackson.

When reached on Monday night, on the first day that “The Last Dance” documentaryabout the Bulls’ 1997-98 season had been distributed outside the United States by Netflix, Nurse was home with his family in Toronto, engrossed in the first two episodes like so many viewers had been on Sunday night.

Michael Jordan’s career and life are the overwhelming focus of the 10-part series, but Nurse was always drawn more to Jackson’s career arc — thanks to his rise from five coaching stops in a league far, far away from the N.B.A. galaxy in England, and through the N.B.A.’s developmental league, to the Raptors.

Not everyone watching will be as familiar as Nurse is with Jackson’s own improbable climb from the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association to securing Jordan’s undying loyalty. Yet that is what helps position Jackson to emerge as one of the big winners when “The Last Dance” completes its five-week run next month.

This documentary, with a title Jackson inspired, will highlight for viewers what a coaching colossus Jackson was before his unsuccessful detour into management at Madison Square Garden.

Jackson may be the ultimate winner among N.B.A. coaches, with 11 championship rings, but it has been a while since his copious success with the Bulls and the Lakers was the first thing people referenced about him. Such is the unyielding consistency of the James L. Dolan-owned Knicks in besmirching the reputation of seemingly every marquee name who has tried to steer the franchise back to respectability over the past two decades.

As a result, Jackson has heard far more in recent years about his front-office foibles than the bench excellence that preceded it. You wouldn’t think a coach who owns two more rings than Red Auerbach would have legacy concerns, but Jackson’s rocky three-year stint as the Knicks’ president of basketball operations cast that sort of shadow.

So it will be a huge boost for Jackson, at 74, for basketball fans of all ages to be reacquainted with (or introduced to) his lofty place in the hierarchy of a dynasty that ruled the N.B.A. six times in an eight-season span in the 1990s.

No one in “The Last Dance,” mind you, wins more than Jordan. Despite a woefully mediocre run as the owner of the Charlotte Hornets for the past 10 years, His Airness has broken away from his long-held reclusive tendencies — at just the right time to reclaim the rapt attention of the American sporting public that, thanks to Covid-19, was forced to quit its normal viewing habits cold turkey. The likely result: Irrespective of any criticism to come from the fact that he clearly had more control over the project than advertised, as explained here by my colleague Sopan Deb, so much fresh documentary buzz seems certain to help Jordan re-establish a gulf between him and LeBron James or anyone else you wish to nominate as basketball’s best player of all time.

Next up, though, it’s Scottie Pippen and Jackson who appear poised to land closest to Jordan when the documentary’s ultimate list of beneficiaries and villains is compiled.

“I never even felt like Phil got enough credit when it was happening because of Michael’s presence, or when he went to L.A. and having Kobe and Shaq there,” said Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, another key figure in the documentary after spending three and a half seasons as Jordan’s teammate under Jackson.

“I think people always underestimated Phil’s talent as a coach, but he was so brilliant and so unique in his style,” Kerr continued. “With all the fame and notoriety that surrounded the team and Michael in particular, Phil was just an incredible leader and coach. Very few, if any, people would have had the right skill set and temperament to keep a team like that together and moving forward. ”

None of this is meant to absolve Jackson’s mistakes with the Knicks. He took a job he clearly didn’t have the background for, after consciously staying out of personnel matters for much of his coaching career, and will always take the hit for Joakim Noah’s horrendous contract, his frayed relationships with Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis and his two questionable coaching hires (Derek Fisher and Jeff Hornacek) after Kerr spurned New York (and, yes, Phil) to take the Golden State job.

It’s likewise true that Jackson, so often branded as smug by rival coaches and critics in the news media and the source of occasionally caustic quotations (and tweets), was never going to generate much sympathy — even when we have heard or seen little from him since his exit from the Knicks nearly three years ago.

Yet it’s striking in the film to repeatedly see how devoted Jordan was to Jackson and hear so clearly that he was willing to play for no one else in Chicago. Ditto for the complexities Jackson faced in managing Pippen, Dennis Rodman and the two Jerrys — Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls’ owner, and Jerry Krause, the general manager — who indefensibly conspired to hasten the breakup of a dynasty rather than doing everything they could to hold it together.

It also turns out, as confirmed by his counsel to Nurse, that Phil does have a softer side. Nurse booked a three-day trip for their Montana meeting two summers ago unsure of what to expect.

“I figured if it was only for a cup of coffee, I’d just hang out for a couple days and regroup,” Nurse said. They ended up sharing meal after meal over the course of Nurse’s stay and spent so much time on various aspects of the craft that they never really got around to swapping Rodman stories — with Nurse having briefly coached a 44-year-old Rodman with the Brighton Bears in England in 2006.

“He was really gracious with his time,” Nurse said. “We talked a lot of basketball, we talked a lot of leadership, we talked a lot of basketball history and we talked a lot of just commanding the team.”

As he waits out a pandemic now like the rest of the N.B.A., unsure how soon the defending champion Raptors will be allowed to return to work in a league in which 29 other teams sit on the opposite side of the United States-Canada border, Nurse can’t help but hark back to his Birmingham Bullets days — back when the Friday drop-off of those Bulls tapes was the highlight of the week.

“I feel like I’m reliving my own life watching this,” Nurse said.

For Jackson, too, it must feel like a very welcome rewind.

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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)

Q: Here are a few possible ways to honor David Stern’s legacy:

  • The N.B.A.’s All-Star Weekend could be rebranded “David Stern All-Star Weekend.”

  • David’s signature could be etched on the hardwood of every team’s floor, like it used to appear on the league’s official ball.

Stein: Perhaps you’ll recall that we led off Corner Three last week with a question about the challenges of naming a major trophy after the league’s former commissioner Stern, who died on Jan. 1. The primary complication is that many of the N.B.A.’s major honors have already been dedicated to other giants of the game.

I admittedly struggled to propose immediate suggestions, but the longtime ESPN producer Bruce Bernstein — one of my dearest friends in the business — dutifully compiled this smart list.

Bernstein worked on various N.B.A. shows at ESPN for nearly 40 years and had an unenviable task for about 15 of them: coaching me to be functional on television. Bruce also has particular insight into working at close range with Stern after numerous N.B.A. drafts during which he was charged with ushering the commissioner on and off stage to announce first-round picks.

In typical fashion, Bernstein came up with multiple suggestions that merit further discussion. No matter where you stand on Stern, as an admirer or critic of his demanding (some would dictatorial) leadership style, it certainly makes sense for both the N.B.A. and the W.N.B.A. to pay tribute to him in grand fashion.

Q: Can’t believe so many people would have missed Kobe to watch that Warriors game. — @CookeFranklin1 from Twitter

Stein: This was a tweeted response to my recent fond recollections of the final night of the 2015-16 season, when Golden State claimed its record-breaking 73rd win while Kobe Bryant was scoring 60 points in his final N.B.A. game.

For a television viewer, as the tone of the tweet suggests, it made total sense that Kobe would be the draw for the masses. A player of such stature rumbling for 60 points in his farewell is a feat that will never be duplicated.

Yet the same can be said for the Warriors’ achievement. At least that’s my prediction: I don’t think another team will ever win 73 games in an 82-game season. Especially in the load-management era that the league swiftly entered after Golden State went 73-9.

So I am grateful to have been at Oracle Arena that night, even if it meant missing out on Bryant’s finale. I naturally wanted to see that as well, given that I had covered Kobe’s N.B.A. debut as a Lakers beat writer for The Los Angeles Daily News, but sadly (or thankfully depending on your perspective) there’s only one of me.

A work conflict created by the breaking news of Magic Johnson’s sudden resignation as the Lakers’ team president also caused me to miss Dirk Nowitzki’s last game three years later. Given how closely I covered both of their careers, especially Dirk’s, that was really tough to take. But in Kobe’s case, I didn’t exactly get shut out.

Q: Steiny Mo! Do you miss those media scrums in Chicago Stadium with Michael Jordan? — Jamaal Gonzalez-Artis

Stein: You guys know I’m a sucker for the nostalgia questions, huh? Sadly, I never made it to Chicago Stadium. My first season on the N.B.A. beat (1993-94) was the Bulls’ final season there, and I didn’t start covering the Clippers until February, months after they made their lone Chicago stop of the season.

Jordan had been out of the league for my first 13 months as a beat reporter by the time he returned to the Bulls in March 1995 — and things changed dramatically in terms of his relationship with the news media.

So many of my mentors in this business — from Sam Smith to Peter Vecsey to Jack McCallum to Jackie MacMullan to Michael Wilbon — can regale us with tales about what it was like to cover the open and accessible M.J. from 1984 through 1993. Yet when he returned from his dalliance with baseball, virtually all of that access vanished.

But that’s one of the factors making ESPN’s documentary “The Last Dance” so memorable. Sam and Jackie were on SportsCenter on Sunday night right after the first two episodes, explaining that the loose, candid Jordan we’re seeing now after years of near seclusion is the Jordan they knew for the first nine seasons of his career.

How many times have you heard you heard the legend of Jordan using even the smallest of slights as contrived fuel to motivate himself? Without wishing to spoil anything from the episodes I’ve seen for review purposes, I will share this much: Jordan will continue to confirm this and reveal as candidly as he ever has, through clip after interview clip, how his mind actually works.

Andy Thompson had four N.B.A. tryouts before joining N.B.A. Entertainment in 1987 and hatching the idea to travel with the Chicago Bulls throughout the 1997-98 season, which was the original spark for “The Last Dance” documentary. The brother of the two-time N.B.A. champion Mychal Thompson and the uncle of the Warriors’ Klay Thompson’, Andy Thompson was cut by the San Diego Clippers, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Seattle SuperSonics (twice) after playing at the University of Minnesota. Mychal Thompson was the No. 1 pick in the 1978 N.B.A. draft out of the same school. “I always tell Mychal he took all the talent and didn’t leave me with any,” Andy Thompson said.

Michael Jordan averaged 24.8 points per game as a junior in high school after failing to make the varsity at Laney High in Wilmington, N.C., as a sophomore. More gems like this, from throughout Jordan’s basketball career, can be found at the Jordan-dedicated page created by my pals at Basketball Reference to supplement your viewing of “The Last Dance.”

One criticism that the Jordan-led Bulls have faced in legacy debates is that they were never confronted with a truly great opponent in their six trips to the N.B.A. finals over a span of eight years. Jordan, though, did vanquish five teammates from the original “Dream Team,” which dominated the 1992 Olympics, as he built his 6-0 finals record: Magic Johnson (1991), Clyde Drexler (1992), Charles Barkley (1993) and the duo of Karl Malone and John Stockton (1997 and 1998). Seattle in 1996 was Jordan’s only finals opponent that placed no one on the Dream Team — although I must say that the Gary Payton/Shawn Kemp duo was a personal favorite.

On Aug. 20, 1994, Michael Jordan hit a home run for the Class AA Birmingham Barons. It was the third and final homer of Jordan’s lone season as a minor-league outfielder — nine days after Major League Baseball’s 1994 season was brought to an abrupt halt by a player strike.

Despite the N.B.A.’s reputation as a progressive league, diversity is undeniably an issue when it comes to front offices. The Bulls’ recent hiring of Arturas Karnisovas from Denver kept the number of teams with African-Americans as lead decision makers in basketball operations at five: Cleveland (Koby Altman), Philadelphia (Elton Brand), Phoenix (James Jones), San Antonio (Brian Wright) and Toronto (Masai Ujiri). Minnesota’s Gersson Rosas was born in Colombia and a year ago became the first Latino in league history to be named as a team’s top decision maker.