Rozner: 'The Last Dance' is a painful reminder that Bulls could have had 1 more season

  • Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson share a few words during a game in April 1996 against the Heat in Miami. Two years later their partnership and the Bulls' dynasty would end.

    Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson share a few words during a game in April 1996 against the Heat in Miami. Two years later their partnership and the Bulls' dynasty would end. Courtesy of Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE Via Getty Images

  • Phil Jackson celebrates in June 1998 after the Bulls won their sixth NBA championship.

    Phil Jackson celebrates in June 1998 after the Bulls won their sixth NBA championship. Daily Herald File Photo

 
 
Updated 4/17/2020 3:55 PM

The grand contradiction of "The Last Dance" is so very simple and yet maddeningly elusive to all but a few who were right in the middle of it.

The truth is that it didn't have to end when it did.

 

What is almost certain to be ESPN's best production ever -- and so desperately needed as it begins Sunday night -- will probably include certain revisions of history.

That won't make it any less compelling. When the greatest athlete of all time -- yeah, greatest basketball player is a hopelessly insufficient title -- is on the screen, there can't be enough of it.

It will be extraordinary.

But with the lockout of 1998-99 shortening the season to 50 games, it would have been the perfect rest for a Bulls team that was on fumes when Michael Jordan finished off the Jazz in Utah in June 1998.

There was one more title in that group if only Phil Jackson had allowed it to happen. Naturally, the blame will all be dropped on the late Jerry Krause, convenient since he's no longer here to defend himself.

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Not that he was any good at it when he was alive.

A victim of bullying and anti-Semitism for much of his childhood and into his professional life, Krause's ego and insecurities -- and lust for credit -- often got in the way when he spoke, even when he was trying to say the right thing.

But it was Jackson who declared that the 1997-98 season would be his last coaching the Bulls, knowing that Jordan had said he would never play for another coach.

Jackson gave 23 no way out.

When signing his last deal, he told the Bulls that would be the end, which the Bulls and Krause then announced. Jackson was not as certain as that final season played out, offering up the possibility that circumstances might allow a return.

As late as April of that year, Jackson waffled in an ESPN interview, to which Jordan cracked the door, saying, "I'm pretty sure there's been some burned bridges this season. ... We'll have to see what happens when people are in a more jovial mood."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

There was flipping and flopping all season.

Then in July 1998 -- yes, July -- and a week after hiring Tim Floyd as the next head coach, while sitting at breakfast Krause told me for a Daily Herald column, "We haven't given up on the idea (of signing Jackson for another year) just because of what was said (in the past).

"Time is not an enemy here and in time people sometimes change their minds. Time changes things and you never know what might happen."

Krause thought the door remained open for Jerry Reinsdorf to make another trip to Montana with another personal plea to Jackson, especially since the league was shut down and there would be no NBA for a while.

"We're not sure how we'll go about it or when, or whether he'll say 'yes' or 'no,' but we will talk to him," Krause said. "Time is not a problem here, but as far as the timing goes, we want to make sure it's the right time.

"Tim (Floyd) has to go about his job as head coach of the Bulls, but what most people don't realize is that it was Tim's idea to offer Phil the job again because he wants what's best for the organization and what's best for Michael Jordan.

"He cares about those things a lot. He hopes Michael and Phil return, but until then someone has to get ready for next year."

Despite repeated attempts by Jerrys Reinsdorf and Krause to get Jackson to reconsider, he obviously refused.

It was an exhausting and daily grind those last few years for anyone working for or around the Bulls, the sniping and griping a constant, not one of them without blame and all acting frequently like children.

No one was ever satisfied. Thirsty egos could not desire enough and suffering followed.

In the process, they robbed Chicago -- and each other -- of an opportunity to extend the dynasty.

It's something to keep in mind, though no less reason to bask in the glory of the "The Last Dance," which begins Sunday night at 8 p.m. with two parts, and offers two episodes every Sunday for five weeks.

The lens through which you view it is less important than the opportunity to visit with the GOAT.

There may never be another quite like it.

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