Throwback: 5 Lessons from The Last Dance, for the Last Month of the Year
Authour note: The NBA pre-season starts tomorrow. Some have likened the quick re-start to a distraction from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the continued fight for racial justice. But for me, and many other young Black men, the distraction is welcome. Basketball is a sport that provides solace in a society determined to strip us of our lives. It is particularly important in a year strife with Black pain and loss. In 2020, we lost heroes, felt the pain of injustice, and continue to deal with a virus that disproportionally impacts the health and livelihoods of our communities. We need this.
The last time we were this eager for reprieve was in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic when the 2019–2020 NBA season was brought to an abrupt halt, and followed by a relentless streak of police violence against unarmed Black people. Back then, ESPN and Netflix gave us our first welcome distraction in the form of the The Last Dance — a docuseries about Michael Jordan’s final seasons with the Chicago Bulls .
This piece is a tribute to my joy in June 1998 — the month I learned that greatness was achievable for people who looked like me; reprieve from my pain in May 2020 — the month George Floyd was murdered; and hope for December 2020 — a month filled with promises for a better tomorrow.
Ball is life. — Every kid in the 90's
I was only six when the Chicago Bulls, led by Michael Jordan, completed their three-peat-repeat. Three back-to-back NBA championships, twice. I don’t remember watching the games, but I do remember the feeling. I remember the excitement in the air as my family clamoured around the TV, the red bull on my older brother’s hat, the yelling, the screaming, the cheering. I remember basketball.
Nostalgia was in full force 22 years later as I, along with 23.8 million people (outside the US), tuned into Netflix to watch The Last Dance — a docuseries about Jordan’s final seasons with the Chicago Bulls. The series was both an opportunity to relive the excitement of 1998 and to learn more about the greatest basketball player of all time.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say The Last Dance is one of the greatest sports documentaries ever made. Many agree — it’s ranked 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and is the most watched documentry in ESPN’s history. Even non-sports fans love it (Read: The Last Dance is more than just a sports doc — it’s the perfect TV drama).
Reflecting, what makes The Last Dance special isn’t Jordan’s story — as dynamic as it is— it’s the supporting cast: Steve Kerr, Dennis Rodman, Scotty Pippen, Phil Jackson, and so many more. Jordan is the star of the show – he always is – but the journey and growth of his teammates provides a depth to the series that cannot be understated. There are a lot of life lessons in The Last Dance, lessons we should take with us into 2021, but not all of them came from Jordan. Here are five lessons from The Last Dance, for the last month of the year.
1. Steve Kerr — Hard work and humility go a long way
With the exception of a story that involved Jordan punching him in the face during practice; for the bulk of the first eight episodes in The Last Dance, Kerr’s roll on the Chicago Bulls was understated. However, Episode IX’s emotional back story and juxtaposition to Jordan’s personal life, presented a starkly different narrative.
While you can make an argument for Kukoč, Paxson, or Grant, being the fourth man in the Jordan, Pippen, Rodman trio – I believe the title belongs to Kerr. What Kerr lacked in performance he made up for with determination, hard work, and humility.
Throughout the series, there are endless stories of teammates and foes alike, challenging Jordan’s dominance – only to be annihilated in the next game or scrimmage. Each instance, a thinly veiled attempt to earn Jordan’s respect. Kerr too wanted Jordan’s respect. But he did not puff his chest, he put in the work. That hardwork paid off during game six of the the 1997 NBA Finals, when Jordan gave Kerr the last shot of the game — a career highlight.
Steve Kerr reminds us that hard work and humility go a long way. As 2020 comes to a close and we continue to fight COVID-19, we should resolve to stay motivated and to continue to put in the work now (wear a mask, social distance, limit gatherings) for the reward of a more free and safe tomorrow.
2. Dennis Rodman — Self-care is critical, even when it’s unconventional
Rodman is, well, a character. From his haircuts to his impromptu vacations — he was a handful for the Bulls but he was also a handful on the court. His performance trumped his personal behaviour. How he was able to play the way he did after weeks of partying is anyone’s guess, but I bet it has something to do with work-life balance.
While for most of us, a work-life balance might mean getting a full night’s sleep, a home cooked meal, or time with our family— for Rodman it was wrestling with Hulk Hogan. To each their own.
Rodman knew exactly what he needed off the court to perform on the court. Although unconventional it is also admirable. So many professionals struggle with self-care and burnout. In a normal year, these struggles might be associated with a toxic work environment, but in 2020 we’re all burnt out — professionally, financially, emotionally.
What’s admirable about Rodman is that he didn’t shy away from communicating what he needed. Luckily, he had a supportive coach and teammates.
Dennis Rodman reminds us to be honest and advocate for our self-care —what ever that means for you. Take a break — pause on the job applications, make a hearty meal, binge some Netflix. Do what you need to do for you, and be unapologetic about it.
3. Scotty Pippen — We can do, and be, better
Pippen was Jordan’s number two, so it makes sense that he got the second most screen time in the docuseries. Pippen’s journey is strife with overcoming injuries, conflict with the Bulls’ management, and balancing being a leader and being in Jordan’s shadow. Throughout, there is one theme that stands out — growth. At each juncture Pippen comes out stronger – a better player, a better leader, a better teammate.
When Pippen made the infamous decision to sit on the bench during the last seconds of the Bulls’ 1994 game against the New York Knicks, effectivley abandoning his team, it could have been a defining moment. While he did, and continues to, receive a lot of flack for that choice — it’s what comes after that stands out. After years of being undervalued, continuous conflict with Bulls’ management, and a stain on his record as a leader, Pippen got back up. He swallowed his pride and, with Jordan, led the Bulls to their second 3-peat.
Scotty Pippen reminds us, sometime we’re dealt a bad hand, and other times we make a bad choice, but either way, what happens next is always up to us. Whatever 2020 has dealt you, resolve to make something good of it, resolve to grow.
4. Phil Jackson — Empathetic leadership is effective leadership
Jackson is the unsung hero of the docuseries. Jordan, guided the Bulls to multiple championships, but Jackson led them there. If you have any doubt about the impact Jackson had on the team, consider that the entire premise of The Last Dance is based on the Bulls’ last season with Jackson as head coach.
What makes Jackson so special is his empathy. His ability to connect with the players on a personal level and earn their trust. Jackson’s empathy is what kept Rodman in check, it’s what encouraged Pippen to keep playing, and it’s what helped Jordan return to the game.
Phil Jackson reminds us that leading with empathy is the the most effective way to produce results. Whether it is racism, xenophobia, economics, health, or politics — 2020 has been polarizing. What we need now is to bridge divides and listen to each other, for real change to happen — that starts with empathy.
5. Michael Jordan – Be your own motivation
There is a lot you can say about Jordan. It’s almost impossible to pick one moment or lesson from his story to highlight. But, there is one recurring theme that stands out – it’s what makes him the greatest basketball player of all time – motivation.
What makes Jordan unique is his innate ability to self-motivate. While many of us may struggle to find the motivation to go for a run, or go to the gym – Jordan motivated himself to six NBA Championships. The slightest challenge, disrespect, or injustice fuelling his desire to catapult to new heights, and break new records. More than a competitive spirit – Jordan expresses an indescribable, insurmountable, amount of willpower.
Jordan reminds us that the only thing stopping us from achieving greatness is us — we can be our own motivation. What ever your goals are beyond this year, use the anguish of 2020 as fuel for your future.