NEARLY 22 YEARS have passed since Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf took one last shot at keeping the team together, but he remembers the meeting like it was yesterday.
“I remember the date,” Reinsdorf said. “It was July the 3rd in 1998.”
The Bulls had won their third straight NBA title and sixth in eight years less than a month earlier. All season long, the team had been playing with a sense of finality, knowing, as viewers saw in ESPN’s 10-part docuseries “The Last Dance,” that the 1997-98 season would almost certainly be their last together.
But Reinsdorf felt he had to try to resurrect things, for the team’s sake, as much as for history.
So a few days into what would become a protracted NBA lockout, he scheduled a meeting with Michael Jordan to pitch him on one more last dance.
“Don’t say anything now,” Reinsdorf told Jordan. “We’re in a lockout. We don’t know how long this lockout is going to go. Let’s get to the end, and maybe I can talk Phil [Jackson] back into it. Maybe after … maybe he’ll change his mind. So don’t say anything.”
Jordan reaffirmed that he wouldn’t play for anyone but Jackson, but he agreed to Reinsdorf’s request not to make any final decisions until the owner could make one last run at the coach.
It was a Hail Mary, but not as far-fetched a plan as it seemed. The season before, Reinsdorf had pulled off a similar resurrection — vetoing a trade that would’ve sent Scottie Pippen to the Boston Celtics for two draft picks (general manager Jerry Krause would’ve taken Ron Mercer and Tracy McGrady) and flying to Montana just before training camp to convince Jackson to sign a one-year deal.
Maybe the extra downtime created by the lockout would heal the wounds gashed open in the conflicts among Krause, Jackson and the players during the season.
Maybe Jordan could convince the perennially underpaid Pippen to come back on a one-year deal.
Maybe Jackson would like the idea of going for a four-peat, in a strike-shortened season.
It was certainly worth a try. But this time Jackson’s answer was different.
“I asked Phil to come back,” Reinsdorf said. “And he says, ‘No, it’s time.’ That was the expression he used, ‘It’s time.'”
Too much blood had been spilled in the war with Krause. Too many goodbyes had already been said. As we saw in the final episode of the docuseries, Jackson had even taken the team through a ritual he had learned from his wife, June, a hospice nurse, who told him how families she worked with would write down their final messages to each other, put them in a coffee can and burn them so those words would never be spoken again.
Jackson had moved on. The team had moved on. It was time.
In recent correspondence, Jackson politely declined to revisit the ending of the Bulls dynasty. The 1998 Bulls had become a family, he explained, and he would like to remember them as they were, without assigning blame for their breakup or playing out hypotheticals.
But it’s impossible not to wonder: Did it really have to be the last dance?
REINSDORF KNOWS THE question is coming. By now, he can sense when someone is going to ask him why the Bulls broke up or if he wishes he had done something different to stop it.
He has watched each episode of “The Last Dance” at least twice, wondering if something would reveal itself in retrospect.
But he always ends up back at the same place.
“The thing nobody wants to remember,” Reinsdorf said, “during lockout, Michael was screwing around with a cigar cutter, and he cut his finger. He couldn’t have played that year. He had to have surgery on the finger, so even if we could’ve brought everybody back, it wouldn’t have made any sense.”
Jordan contends that he wouldn’t have been messing around with the cigar cutter (at a golf tournament in January) if Reinsdorf had already secured a commitment from Jackson to come back.
But even so, Reinsdorf doesn’t think it would have made much difference.
“The fact is, it’s pretty obvious in 1998 that Michael carried this team,” he said. “These guys were gassed. He could not have come back because of the cut finger. But even if he could’ve come back, the other players [Steve Kerr, Luc Longley, Jud Buechler, Dennis Rodman] were going to get offers that were way in excess of what they were worth.
“I know in Episode 10, [Jordan] says, ‘They all would’ve come back for one year.’ But there’s not a chance in the world that Scottie Pippen would’ve come back on a one-year contract when he knew he could get a much bigger contract someplace else.”
Pippen ended up getting a five-year, $67.2 million offer from the Houston Rockets in January 1999 (consummated by a sign-and-trade with the Bulls).
Theoretically, the Bulls could have retained Pippen and their other free agents, as the NBA didn’t have a punitive luxury tax at the time. But Reinsdorf and Krause felt matching that contract for Pippen was simply out of the question for a player who already had suffered several major injuries during his time with the Bulls, and for a team that already had the highest payroll in the league, at $61.6 million, in 1998, when the salary cap was just $26.9 million.
Those are the factual reasons Reinsdorf felt, and still feels, like keeping that Bulls team together for another season was impossible.
But just as important, if not more so, are the spiritual reasons.
More than once, Reinsdorf said he went to Jackson and Krause and tried to get them to mend the rift that had developed between them and spread viciously throughout the team.
“I would tell Jerry, ‘Get over it, get over it already.'” Reinsdorf said. “But Jerry was a lover scorned. He was so proud of the fact that he had found Phil [in the Continental Basketball Association] and he turned out to be a brilliant coach. Then when he felt that Phil turned on him, he was not going to like Phil again.”
How had Jackson turned on Krause?
“He thought that Phil could’ve stopped Michael and Scottie from being so adversarial,” Reinsdorf said. “Phil could’ve stepped in, he could’ve stopped it, and it really bothered Jerry.”
Of course, Krause could have mended fences with Jordan and Pippen on his own. Or simply made an effort not to antagonize the situation by publicly acknowledging trade conversations involving Pippen and giving hostile comments about Jackson or the infamous “organizations win championships” line.
“When he made that comment, ‘Phil goes 82-0, he’s not coming back,'” Reinsdorf said he admonished Krause. “I told him that was ridiculous, he had no business saying it. He realized it. But he couldn’t walk it back.”
More like “wouldn’t” walk it back.
“I didn’t choose anybody,” Reinsdorf said. “I went to Phil and said, ‘This is a mismatch, you against Krause. Why don’t you back off? Why don’t you get the players to back off?’
“I told Krause, ‘Take Phil for what he is. We’re winning. We’re winning, so forget about it; the important thing is the winning. You don’t have to like each other.’
“I didn’t get through to either of them.”
That choice — not to make a choice between Krause and Jackson — is perhaps the only thing that could have changed the course of history, because the two men never reconciled.
“Years later, when Phil was coaching the Lakers and they were coming to Phoenix, I’d have lunch with him,” Reinsdorf said. “At one of those lunches, he said, ‘I’d really like to bury the hatchet with Jerry,’ and he asked me to be the middleman.”
Reinsdorf reached out to Krause, and, “Jerry said, no, he wouldn’t do it.”
IT IS STILL hard for everyone involved to digest why things ended as they did. But it usually goes that way when a good thing ends.
Only a few teams in NBA history have been able to weather the sustained pressure and intensity of consecutive championship runs, let alone the modern complication of the luxury tax, which was designed to level the playing field and break superteams apart.
The Golden State Warriors petered out after five straight trips to the NBA Finals, collapsing from a series of devastating injuries and collective exhaustion.
Jackson’s Lakers lost in five games to the Detroit Pistons in 2004 as they went for a fourth title in five years, and Los Angeles was swept in the conference semifinals by the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 as it went for a three-peat.
Perhaps Jackson was right when he turned down Reinsdorf’s offer of another last dance, saying, “It’s time.”
In his book “Eleven Rings,” Jackson wrote simply, “I took comfort in the knowledge that letting go is a necessary, if sometimes heart-wrenching, gateway to genuine transformation.”
Reinsdorf still wishes the Bulls could have gone for one more title, but he said he also is now at peace with how things ended. As he has watched and relived the glory years of the Bulls dynasty throughout the 10-episode series, the resounding emotion he has felt is appreciation, not regret.
“Can there be any doubt that Michael Jordan was the greatest player of all time?” he said. “I mean, I don’t want to hear anybody ever again ask about Michael versus LeBron.
“There has never ever been anybody even close to Michael Jordan.”