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Three Things Learned: The Last Dance, Episodes 1 and 2

I need a cigarette and one of those Bulls sweatshirts

1982 NCAA Final Four Championship Game Photo: Rich Clarkson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Deep breaths. Deeeeeep breaths.

After months of teasers, hints, video trailers, and multiple release dates, the world finally got the first two of 10(!) installments about the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. I mean, sure, ok, this is technically about that final Bulls title team. It’s also just a thinly veiled excuse to give us a 10 hour reminder of who Michael Jordan was, why he was who we was, and how he became who he was.

And, honestly, nobody is really mad about it. I felt like I needed a cigarette after it was over as I looked online for a 1997-98 Bulls sweatshirt made by Champion. Alas, no luck. (If anyone knows where I can find one, don’t be shy).

All of that aside, keeping with a long-standing feature of providing lessons learned after UNC basketball game, we’re doing the same for this series. So, what are three things we can all take away from episodes 1 and 2 of The Last Dance?

“He never freakin’ turned it off”

Let’s give some context. Roy Williams uttered that quote in the first hour of interviews. Williams has been an assistant or head coach at the college level for 42 years. He owns four national title rings; one as an assistant coach and three as a head coach. With over four decades of experience, he’s coached with and against a laundry list of the best players to ever lace them up on both the college and professional levels. That includes Michael Jordan when he was at UNC from 1981-1984.

The man, for all of his homespun folksy sayings and dadgums, knows basketball.

That’s why one of his quotes brought corners of the internet to its knees on Sunday night. First, he relayed a story in which Jordan promised that, “...No one will work as hard as I will.” You could almost see Jordan rising out of Williams’ body, as his old coach repeated that phrase. Check it out.

Roy then let loose with an original zinger. When talking about Michael Jordan’s competitive nature and willingness to push himself to get better, Williams said;

“Michael Jordan is the only player that could ever turn it on and off, and he never freakin’ turned it off.”

If you didn’t get goosebumps, chills, or slightly aroused from that quote, then you probably don’t have a soul.

“Depends on how bad the f****** headache is”

That determination carried over to his pro career. (Obviously). However, it wasn’t something that necessarily was cultivated over years of toiling and failure. Some players grow into a role, develop a toughness, or learn how to push their bodies to the brink.

Not Jordan. Thanks to his family, and specifically his brother Larry, that competitive nature was present before he entered the league.

His sophomore season in the NBA was interrupted by a broken ankle in the third game of the season on October 29th, 1985. He didn’t return to the professional court until March 15th, 1986. The Bulls were being extra cautious with their star player and did not want to bring him back to early and risk further injury.

Michael, as he makes clear, thought the team was trying to keep him off the court in an effort to miss the playoffs and earn a higher draft pick. Today we call that “tanking”, and it’s the worst kept secret in the league. To Jordan, purposefully not trying to win is the worst sin a person can commit. It was an unspoken 11th Commandment that Moses probably left on a third stone tablet atop Mount Sinai.

So, Michael secretly rehabbed in Chapel Hill and began playing pick-up games, unbeknownst to the Bulls, setting the stage for a tense negotiation when Jordan returned to Chicago. Jordan wanted to play, despite a 10% chance of ending his career. The Bulls pushed back. Finally, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf tells Michael, “If you have a really bad headache and there’s 10 pills, nine which will cure it and one that will kill you would you take a pill? “

Jordan responds,

“Depends on how bad the f****** headache is”.

In an era of “load management” and players clamoring for more rest or shorter seasons, Michael Jordan would have taken a bottle of pills and risked death in order to step on the court and try and make the playoffs.

The Bulls relented, with certain conditions in place, and the Bulls did, in fact, make the playoffs.

Introducing Dean Smith to a new generation

Dean Smith last roamed the sidelines 23 years ago. There are college players today who never watched him coach a game. There are college players today who weren’t born when Michael Jordan hit his iconic shot against the Utah Jazz.

Folks, time flies. As UNC fans, we are at a point in our lives where a large swath of sports fans don’t remember Dean, Gut, Vince, Stack, J.R., Jordan, or Worthy. Not as professionals, and certainly not in the college ranks. That’s why it was so reassuring to see Jordan acknowledge that Dean Smith encouraged him to leave college early and enter the NBA Draft, despite a crushing premature ending to the 1984 season.

At least one current star athlete recognized that act of unselfishness. Houston Texan, J.J. Watt was impressed by the gesture.

That may seem like an obvious decision in today’s generation, but it was uncommon in the 1980’s and much of the 1990’s. In that era, a two-time National Player of the Year could have just as easily been persuaded to return for a senior season. At the time, coaches pressuring players to return for an extra year was more often the norm than the exception.

Dean Smith’s philosophy was a major reason that culture changed. Smith’s tutelage was also a guiding force throughout Jordan’s career.

Does MJ embrace a team-first attitude if he doesn’t accept his role as a freshman? How many other coaches effectively design a play for a freshman, eschewing the National Player of the Year (James Worthy), in the national title game? Does Jordan walk out of that drug-filled hotel room during his rookie season without Smith’s disciplinarian ways?

Then, he allowed MJ to effectively hide out in Chapel Hill and rehab in 1985-86. Basketball alumni coming back to Chapel Hill is now a regular occurrence, but it isn’t a new development. The first episode low-key highlighted a culture that not only invites alumni back, but encourages them to return, for any reason at all, over the past 60 years.

Last night, a whole generation of athletes were introduced to Smith’s philosophies and coaching methods. Hopefully a few recruits connected the dots that Roy Williams is a direct descendant and disciple of that same philosophy.