Sunday was a lovely day in New York, and I went with my family to Concrete Plant Park, a narrow little strip of reclaimed industrial land squeezed between the Bronx River and some railroad tracks.
It was a perfect place for an afternoon outing, letting the kids run around and get some fresh air after another week of being cooped up inside, and, with so few people around, maintaining social distancing wasn’t a problem. There were geese ,ducks, flowers, trees, and the occasional 6 train rumbling in and out of the Whitlock Avenue station and over the Westchester Avenue trestle.
There also was a pollution-catching chain in the river, collecting all manner of debris that was floating its way, a reminder that one gleaming patch of goodness is not a fix for everything that’s a mess around it.
So, after we came home, and the kids went to bed, I turned on ESPN for The Last Dance, because one delightful afternoon in a quiet park does not change the fact that every day now brings a new and exciting way to feel awful.
I was a Knicks fan growing up. I guess I still am, although I don’t know what that means anymore beyond waiting for James Dolan to be stripped of the franchise by a resolution of the United Nations.
Michael Jordan dropped 33 points on the Knicks in the first basketball game I ever attended. Once both the Bulls and the Knicks got good in the 1990s, all that Jordan brought me was pain. I thought of the Knicks and Bulls as rivals, but to look back at it honestly, the Knicks were nothing but a nuisance that one swats away.
My whole heart was with the Knicks, and all it ever amounted to was being Michael Ginsberg in the elevator, left to stew in defeat after being told by Don Draper, “I don’t think about you at all.”
And this is a documentary about the 1997-98 Bulls, who really didn’t have to think about the Knicks at all, because the Indiana Pacers wiped the floor with them in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Four minutes in, Scottie Pippen is introduced, and the clip shown is him dunking on Patrick Ewing.
They didn’t think about the Knicks at all.
Eleven minutes in, Jordan alludes to general manager Jerry Krause being the biggest obstacle to the Bulls’ bid for a second three-peat in the Jordan era.
They didn’t think about anyone else at all.
They didn’t have to, and they knew it. They didn’t just have a big three with Jordan, Pippen, and Dennis Rodman. They had FIBA Hall of Famer Toni Kukoc. They had monstrously underrated defenders in Ron Harper and Luc Longley. And they had Steve Kerr, who still is the NBA’s all-time leader in three-point shooting percentage.
The 1997-98 season was the third straight year that the Bulls had all seven of those guys. They won 72 games and a title in 1995-96, and 69 games and a title in 1996-97. The only reason Krause would be a cause for concern was that he was the one person with the ability to mess it up, either by firing Phil Jackson or by making a stupid trade.
Oh, right, Jackson. The guy who was on the Knicks’ last championship team, eight years before I was born, then coached the Bulls past the Knicks throughout the 1990s, moved on to win five more rings with the Lakers, and then finally came back to run the Knicks… even further into the ground than they already were.
Jackson’s old Knicks teammate, Walt Frazier, pops up in an archival clip at the 40-minute mark of the first episode of The Last Dance, saying, “Michael’s gotta realize he’s not 7-foot, so he’s not gonna carry a team in the NBA.”
They even got Barack Obama to sit for this documentary, but they’ve got to go and unearth a clip of Clyde from 1984 saying something that was conventional wisdom at the time, and even was a question well into Jordan’s career. Before they started winning titles, the Bulls got dumped out of the playoffs three straight times by the Detroit Pistons and the Bad Boys roster that could throw out 7-footer James Edwards and the 6-11 Bill Laimbeer and John Salley, and the 6-10 Rick Mahorn, not to mention Rodman, who played a lot bigger than the 6-7 he stood.
I’d watch 10 hours about those Pistons, who hit their window perfectly and won by being the biggest bunch of dirtbags the NBA has ever seen. I’d watch 10 hours about the Knicks, who tried their damndest to follow that model, only to be thwarted by the Bulls time after time. I even did watch an hour-plus, on ESPN, about Reggie Miller crushing the Knicks (he shoved Greg Anthony and should’ve been called for an offensive foul) and 14-year-old me along with them.
But this? I don’t need 10 hours about how the 1997-98 Bulls had to overcome the incredible adversity of having a general manager who didn’t make any big changes after winning back-to-back titles, led by a star player whose obsession with being the best led him to basically be a sociopath, while also helping him to be the best. And just like I can appreciate that Jordan was the best, I can appreciate that this is a really well-done documentary that only serves to poke at the most painful scars of my Knicks fan experience, with the last bearable indignity being “PAT RILEY, LAKERS COACH 1981-90” on the screen.
Unlike the rest of the things that are bringing me down these days, I have a choice about this one, and just like I didn’t jump into the Bronx River, I’m not going to be diving into the rest of this. Last Dance? I’d rather sit this one out.