5 Biggest Takeaways from “The Last Dance”

By: Topher Scott

I grew up in Chicago in the 90’s.

The Bulls were a HUGE piece of my childhood.  I can remember exactly where I was when Jordan won his first title.  When he had the 3 point “shrug” game against Portland.  When Paxson hit the game-winner.  When Kerr hit the game-winner.  The sick…err…food poisoning game.  And that sweet, sweet, last shot to end it all against Utah.

I fell in love with sports in large part to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.  My neighbor a few doors down actually painted a Bulls logo on their driveway and we’d play basketball out there for hours.  We played with our tongues hanging out because we wanted to be just “Like Mike.”

The Last Dance brought back so many amazing memories.  But it also shed some incredible light into the inner workings of a dynasty and a glimpse into how Michael Jordan became the greatest athlete of all time.

I can’t believe it’s over.  The two hours on Sunday for the last five weeks had me on the edge of my seat laughing, dreaming, reminiscing, and reflecting upon my own career and life.

As many of you that read my stuff know, I love diving in and researching team and individual greatness.  This documentary was easily the best piece of work that I’ve seen on the subject.  It gave us such a window into what it takes to be the best…and I wanted to share the top 5 lessons I took from watching this series.  Here we go:

1. Michael Jordan

It all starts and ends with him.  Peeling back the onion on his journey as a basketball player was worth the price of admission all on its own.  And there were a couple things that really stood out in this series about the GOAT:

The Competitiveness.  We all know he’s quite possibly the greatest competitor that ever lived.  The competitiveness with others was insane.  The list he kept of people that doubted or wronged him and his undeniable quest to then destroy them was LEGENDARY.  It fueled his desire to improve and succeed.  But the competition he had with himself was even more powerful.  Every year he had to be better.  Every year he added something to his game.  Every great player really knows their “why” and MJ’s why was driven by his competitiveness to prove that he was the best.  Unreal.

The Mentors.  I’ve read a lot about Michael Jordan and for all of talk about individual greatness that gets written and talked about…this documentary showed that the guy put so much trust and loyalty into the people that helped him along the way.  First and foremost his Mom and Dad.  Those two relationships of love shined brightly throughout the series.  Then there were his coaches in Dean Smith and Phil Jackson.  They talked about how even with all the ego, Jordan was incredibly coachable and willing to do what it takes to improve.  There was also Tim Grover who Jordan trusted to take care of his strength and conditioning.  And finally, there was Gus, the security guard that Jordan looked to as a father-figure after his Dad passed away.

Hearing the stories of Jordan calling Gus at all hours of the night for support, paying for his medical bills, and the bond they shared was really inspiring.  I always thought that Jordan was a guy who became the greatest through his own drive and determination.  But this documentary made it clear that he was someone…like all of us…who needs good people and good mentors in their corner.

The Teammate.  In all the previews of the show, we were kind of lead to believe that Jordan wasn’t going to be likeable after watching the series because of how hard he was on his teammates.  In reality…I think it did the exact opposite.  I love him even more.  This clip encapsulates it all:

Did Jordan’s teammates say that he was hard on them? Yep. Did he step over the line? Yep.  Would they do it again in a second? Yep.

Here’s the difference between Jordan and a lot of people that try to be that hard on others:

Jordan EARNED that right.  He didn’t ask his teammates to do anything that he wasn’t willing to do himself.  He had a standard that he held himself to…and he became smart enough to recognize that he couldn’t do it all on his own.  So he held his teammates to that standard because he saw where it got himself to.  And if it got himself to stardom as an individual, it was going to get the team to stardom as well.  And did it ever.

Michael Jordan is the GOAT.  This series once again proved it to be so.

2. Phil Jackson

This dynasty doesn’t happen without Jackson at the helm.  You see the respect he had from Jordan…with Michael going as far as saying if Phil doesn’t come back to coach he’d rather retire than play for anybody else (thanks, Jerry Krause).

Jackson was a man ahead of his time.  While the conventional wisdom in coaching at the time was getting people to conform to a certain way of doing things through authoritarian leadership…Jackson allowed the players the freedom to be the best version of themselves.  He let Michael be Michael.  He let Scottie be Scottie.  He let Rodman be Rodman.  All huge personalities, but he was able to use the strengths of each of the individuals to harness the greater good of the team.

I’ve read Phil Jackson’s books (you should too…they’re unreal), and the biggest takeaway I got from them is his insistence and effort into making the players believe they’re a part of something greater than themselves.  He was an absolute master at that.

The principles of the triangle offense. The spirituality and Native American teachings.  Even coining the ’98 season “The Last Dance.”  All a part of making everything about THE TEAM.  That was Jackson’s greatest gift.  Harnessing individual ego (the good and the bad) and allowing them to flourish, authentically, within a team-first mindset.  That’s what coaching is all about…and Phil Jackson was the absolute best at it.

3. Being in the Moment

Being able to live in the moment is a virtue that is so hard to do consistently…but so important to living a healthy, happy, fulfilled life.  And not just in focusing on the present task at hand, but enjoying the journey for what it is.

The Last Dance Bulls may be the best team ever at accomplishing this mentality.  Because let’s be honest…this thing could have been an absolute trainwreck from the beginning.  Let’s consider the circumstances:

The GM tells the media that the coach can go 82-0 and he won’t be back.

The best player of all time says that if the coach doesn’t come back, he’s not coming back.

Dennis Rodman flies to wrestling events and misses practices during the playoffs.

Hundreds of media members HOUNDING the team at every team function.

I can go on and on…

Sounds like a recipe for disaster.  But Phil got the team rallied around the idea of enjoying the time they had together and making one more run at it.  And Jordan and his teammates totally bought in.

I also forget who said it in the final episode, but they said that Jordan’s greatest gift was his ability to be in the moment.  Of all the gifts that he had, being in the moment really allowed him to accomplish the things he did.

There was so much scrutiny and so much outside noise that if he allowed others to negatively affect him…there would be no Michael Jordan or Chicago Bulls dynasty.  His ability to put that aside and focus on the here and now was insane.  And it’s a lesson I think all of us can look to for our own development and growth in our lives.

4. Scottie Pippen & Steve Kerr

I wrote in a post a few weeks ago about the 10 Ingredients of Championship Teams.  In it, I wrote about the importance of secondary leadership.  The players who maybe weren’t wearing the letters on their jerseys but in my opinion are the most important players on a team.

If guys like Scottie Pippen or Steve Kerr didn’t buy into Phil Jackson’s different coaching style…or to Michael Jordan being hard on them as teammates…there would be no Chicago Bulls dynasty.  Michael Jordan would not have become the greatest player of all time.  And there would not have been a Last Dance for all of us to enjoy.

This whole thing worked because secondary leaders like Pippen and Kerr bought in and played their roles to perfection.  Imagine Scottie Pippen not wanting to be challenged by Jordan.  Imagine Kerr not sticking up for himself when Michael got on him.  Imagine either of them thinking Phil Jackson’s unusual coaching style as wonky and undercutting him away from the court.

THAT I think was the beauty of this documentary.  It was great to hear the story of the main character.  But ESPN wove the narratives of the group into the story so beautifully that it was a PhD into team building that we can all use with our own teams or organizations.

Because of the uniqueness of the Bulls dynasty with Jordan’s fame and Jackson’s unconventional coaching, the supporting cast meant everything to their success.  Without their buy in, mental toughness, and openness, all would have been for nothing.

5. Everyone has their own path

To end this post, the last takeaway I had from watching this documentary was that each of the players highlighted in the series had a unique path to the NBA.

Jackson: Son of Christian ministers who played college ball at North Dakota.  Started his coaching in the CBA and Puerto Rico.

Jordan: Cut from his HS basketball team as a sophomore and then became one of the most highly regarded recruits to the NCAA just two years later.

Pippen: One of 12 kids…became team manager and begged for a basketball scholarship at Central Arkansas.

Rodman: Threw out of the house by his single mom, homeless for a while before ending up at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.

Kerr: Son of an academic father who was assassinated in the Middle East…wasn’t heavily recruited to play college ball until Arizona took a flyer on him late in the process.

Four already in the Hall of Fame and one future Hall of Famer in Kerr as a coach.  All of their paths to the NBA were wildly different and came with a major degree of difficulty and hardship.

That’s such a valuable lesson for anyone involved in youth sports right now.  In our fast paced, recruitment oriented, and highly professionalized youth sports structure…what gets forgotten is that the struggle and the having-to-prove-yourself are necessary parts to the journey.  People weren’t telling these guys how great they were all the way up.  And they used that struggle, or that notion of being looked over, as motivation to be the best.

The other thing…Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman all talked about hitting growth spurts later in their physical development.  Our youth sports structure, because it has gotten so young, rewards the physically mature.  Later physical developers can get looked over because they’re early on in their journey.  But this is great evidence that if you stick to it and work hard at your game, your time will come eventually (although mine never did…still waiting for that growth spurt!).

So kids:

Everyone has their own path.  Don’t judge yourself based on someone else’s achievements because it’s not a one-size-fits-all journey to your dreams.  While it may seem that way at times, the marathon approach to accomplishing your goals far outweighs the sprint.  Having to fight adversity and learning how to manage the struggle are a huge part of the reason why.  Embrace it, and carve your own path.

I look at this documentary series, and especially at Michael Jordan, and I think about the necessary attributes to be great.  If I can boil it down to a few things, it would be these:

1. Ability to handle adversity and control what you can control.

2. Surround yourself with the right people.

3. Have passion for what you do.

In the Last Dance these three values exemplified both the Chicago Bulls team and the individual players within it.  They are values that define greatness, and I feel so lucky to have been able to witness this series  and to have watched the dynasty in my formative years as a kid growing up in Chicago.  What an amazing five weeks this has been on Sunday nights glued to my TV…but the lessons learned from the series I’ll take with me on my journey forever.  What a ride.

2 Responses
  1. John Luetkemeyer

    Nicely done, Topher. Your 5th point is perhaps most important for our amateur sports community. Four players with wildly successful pro sports careers…NONE of whom were particularly noteworthy until junior year of high school at the earliest.

    Let’s not worry about what team we make (or where that team ranks) at 10, 12, 14 or even 16. Enjoy the journey and can’t help but love the destination.