Editor’s note: This as-told-to, from Phil Jackson, on Chicago’s historic 1998 playoff run and the end of the Bulls’ dynasty, was originally published in the May 18, June 1 and July 13, 1998, issues of ESPN The Magazine. Watch Episodes 9 & 10 of “The Last Dance” on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Phil Jackson has been collecting his thoughts and analyzing the events surrounding what appears to be the final season of the Bulls’ 1990s run for The Magazine. This second installment of his diary assesses Chicago’s playoff opponents, the Johnson-Mourning fight in New York and his own future. -R.T.
WE JUST FINISHED beating the Charlotte Hornets for our first win of the second round, our fourth straight win in the playoffs. We were able to overcome a rather poor start — we were down 30-15 at one point, which I thought might be disastrous. I don’t think we are overconfident, but even when we were so far down, I could tell our players still knew that they were going to win.
I’m sitting in my office outside the United Center floor. It’s quiet and I’m thinking about what lies ahead. We saw how the Sonics and the Jazz came back from big deficits to advance, and we saw the energy the Knicks had when they beat the Heat.
And we know about the fight, but I did not talk about it with the team. I want our team to play with full effort, but not thoughtlessly. Dennis Rodman got tangled up with Vlade Divac, but I know Dennis will not throw a punch. No way. He knows what is at stake.
IT’S NOT A secret that I will be gone from the Bulls at the end of the playoffs. But I’m not looking to go anywhere. If I come back, it will be after at least a year off. What will I do? I don’t know. I’ve got some things planned until the fall, then it’s up in the air.
The Bulls as a team are sort of floating like that. But we can deal with it, we can live for today. That’s basically the Zen philosophy. When hungry, eat. When thirsty, drink. This is life. Fortunately, we have the responsibility of having to work in our immediate jobs. And we play well under that pressure.
We were the only team to sweep in the first round, and I think that is kind of amazing. But there is a reason for it. Our toughest game against New Jersey was the first. We had a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter and they caught us and pushed us to overtime. It was a wake-up call to get ourselves together, to get playoff-ready.
One of my biggest worries at the start of that series was our bench, which scored seven points in Game 1. It was my fault as much as anyone’s. We fell behind, and I let the first unit stay in too long. We got the lead back, but it put the bench players at a disadvantage because they didn’t get a feel for the game early. So I got them in earlier in Games 2 and 3, before they could get stiff, and that helped. Plus, we tried to get some shots for them. It’s important that our shooters like Scott Burrell and Steve Kerr are on, because we have penetrators like Michael and Scottie and Ron Harper, and we need some perimeter shooters to complement them.
I felt very confident going into Game 3 because I think we are a very good road-playoff team. At home, there is the stress of family, of people flying in to see the players, ticket requests. On the road, there are fewer distractions. It’s just the team and our mission to win. And on the road, there’s the reality of it being do-or-die.
Michael has a real good road attitude. He is just ready. He gets on the players a little, and the team follows his lead. At the morning shootaround, he let guys know that we don’t want to take risks, with injuries or anything else. You can’t let up in a short series because too many things can go wrong. We need the rest and preparation for the next round. The playoffs become an endurance test. They are very fatiguing, not so much physically as mentally and emotionally.
So Michael was getting guys sharp at the shootaround. A couple of guys made mistakes in the offensive formations and some of the special plays we were running. Michael was real tough with Scott Burrell, and Burrell said, “Mike, I’m trying to do my best.” But Michael continued to stay on Scott and got him ready, and in that game, Burrell had 23 points.
Michael had his rhythm in that game. He came down the court early and I said, “Hit Steve!” because Kerr was wide open for a three-pointer. But Michael fired up his own three and it went in. During the next timeout, he said, “I heard you, but I really felt good.” And that’s the way to feel. Believe it. You feel like you can’t miss? Then shoot. Michael gets like that sometimes. Remember the first game of the championship series against Portland, when he hit six of his first seven three-pointers? I’ll never forget it.
Scottie Pippen was having a real nice floor game in Game 3, but he got tripped up in the first half and hurt his lower back, where he’s had surgery. He never got his offensive game going because of that, but his total game-rebounds, assists and defense-kept us going. Scott Burrell hit nine consecutive shots after an opening miss, and that was the difference.
AS I WRITE this, I’m thinking there were things written in the first installment of this diary (The Magazine, May 4) that were misconstrued and out of character. I am doing this diary more as a remembrance of the season than as a way to discuss my job future or other coaches. The comments have caused a lot of second-guessing, hurt feelings and rebuttals. I need to set some of the record straight.
My comments about the Lakers and Del Harris, for instance. I was not in any way lobbying for a job. I believe in the triangle-or triple post-offense, and I sometimes look at other teams and ponder how they might do under its principles. In fact, I think Del Harris handled the angry situation I referred to rather well. He didn’t get intimidated, and he didn’t intimidate Shaq or berate him. Charlotte has players who would fill out a triangle offense also, with good shooters and good post-up passers. They have Glen Rice and Dell Curry, guys who can shoot well without having to dribble to create a shot. And they have Anthony Mason and Vlade Divac, guys who can hold the block and make passes to open players.
As a coach, you look at things like that. Denver, for example, had a disastrous year, but they have Bryant Stith, who can shoot, and LaPhonso Ellis, who can hold the block and is a pretty good post-up player. The sideline triangle offense needs mature, selfless players and the NBA is short on them.
Another point of clarification: The timing of the coaching interviews I wrote of with Seattle and New York was misconstrued. I was referring to the way I got back into coaching. I talked to Seattle when Lenny Wilkens was the GM there, way back in 1986. I talked to the Knicks in 1987 about an assistant’s job when Rick Pitino was head coach.
This spring, there was some speculation about me going to Detroit to coach, and because of that, I looked at their personnel. Any coach would do that. I feel they have players who would fit very well into our system of offense. But they made their choice; they have a coach, Alvin Gentry, they’re set, and that’s that.
More on “The Last Dance”
THE NBA HAS to be really pleased with the competitiveness of the first-round series, especially in the West, where Seattle and Utah, the first- and second-seeded teams, were pushed to the limit. However, the Miami-New York series took on a physical attitude similar to last year’s, particularly the fight that came with 1.4 seconds left in Game 4. It’s kind of a shame for the league. Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson got into it because of a little bit of history they have going back to when they were teammates in Charlotte. That’s a real black mark. I watched Pat Riley walking off court with Mourning, his most valuable player, knowing Mourning was gone for Game 5. Pat was questioning what Alonzo was doing. There’s really no excuse for it. The goal is the overall one — winning. The prize, that’s the important thing, not your petty personal rivalries or insults.
I noticed that the Pacers and the Hornets all shaved their heads as a show of solidarity in the other series. But I wish the white guys would use that instant tanning stuff for their heads. Smits, Divac, Mullin — they look like turned — on lightbulbs out on the court. That will never happen with us. We started the black shoes in the playoffs back in the ’80s, and that’s about as far as we’ll go with that.
We wear black socks with the black shoes. But the NBA polices equipment! The latest problem was that the white ankle tape showed, so players had to have black tape to be in code. Every variation — wrist bands, socks, compression tights, headbands — requires no logos and complete uniformity.
We will try and let our play show our unity.
This is the third installment of Phil Jackson’s diary of what he believes is his last season as coach of the Bulls. -R.T.
Tuesday, May 5: We swept the Nets and beat the Hornets in Game 1 of the conference semis, and now people are saying we’ll sweep the playoffs. That isn’t how we see ourselves. We aren’t that dominant anymore, or as deep, and we’re sure not young. Still, we feel confident against Charlotte. We beat them Sunday, 83-70, but we didn’t look good. We’ve grown accustomed to shooting poorly in the United Center because it’s so vast. That’s why we have Dennis Rodman-to clean up our misses.
Wednesday, May 6: My day began poorly — I had to perform my morning meditation in a chair instead of my usual position on the floor because my knee hurt so much. And the day ended up poorly, with Dell Curry and our old teammate, B.J. Armstrong, beating us in the fourth quarter. B.J. made the winning jumper with less than 20 seconds to go, then pumped his fist as he passed our bench. We didn’t like being embarrassed by a former Bull.
Thursday, May 7: In a video session before practice, I showed the first three quarters so the players could see how we kept letting the Hornets come back. Michael said, “I’m going to start guarding the point guards, and Harp’s going to take Bobby Phills.” We never talked specifically about B.J. beating us, we just observed it. That was enough.
Friday, May 8: What a day of turmoil! We’re in Charlotte, and on the bus ride to our shootaround, assistant GM Jim Stack tells me Jerry Reinsdorf just gave an extensive interview about the club’s future, and not to be surprised if the media are all over me. They were-five deep, asking, “Are you really the one responsible for the breakup of the Bulls?” I deflected them, saying, “We have a very important game tonight, and if we don’t win the championship, everything is moot.” Yes, it’s time for me to take some time off. The only thing management could have said that would have changed things is, “Stay on until Michael is finished, so we can be sure we have him back until he retires.” But it was never suggested. We won tonight, 103-89, to go up 2-1. But all I could think was, ‘Why do these upsetting stories happen just at our toughest moments? Is it so we can respond to the challenge?’
Saturday, May 9: We held practice at 9:30 a.m., and the trouble with that is it gives Michael too much time to play golf. I always tell the guys that MJ has a portable golf range in his basement, and that he hits balls all day so his golf motion will not be an unusual strain on his body. If left completely unmonitored, he’ll get in 45 or 54 holes in a day. It’s like his Zen, his moment to be away from it all. Our front office and coaching staff used to go together to dinner on Saturday night; now I go with one group, and Jerry Krause goes with another. Tex Winter is sort of the bridge between the two. We went out separately tonight, but both groups ended up at the Palm restaurant. We just had to grin at the situation. Krause offered to pick up our tab, but I declined because I wanted to take care of my waiter. My brother Joe, who’s a psychologist and was with me at dinner, told me later that there had to be a way to disarm the two encampments. “Your book was all about how to resolve conflict,” he said. Winning doesn’t resolve the split, so I’ll be looking for a creative way to break the spell. There’s got to be another way.
Monday, May 11: We lead the Hornets 3-1 after winning yesterday. I still worry about the way we perform at the United Center. Sometimes I think it’s the hour-and-a-half commute some of the guys have. They get to the game and they’re sleepwalking. It’s not a good excuse, but it’s about the only one I’ve got. Michael is in a better mood and has had some good laughs lately. He came to practice today — just a film session — wearing his golf pants and shirt under his jersey and practice shorts. It was funny, but I never made a comment. He sat there and I never said a word.
Friday, May 15: We finished Charlotte, 93-84, Wednesday and now we are thinking about Indiana. We all watched the Pacers beat the Knicks last Sunday when Reggie Miller‘s miraculous three-point shot went in and brought overtime. Now we know what our job is.
Sunday, May 17: It was Dennis’ birthday week. He has been partying, and that’s why he was late to practice this week. But that’s not why I made the decision not to start him today. We just wanted Dennis to focus on Antonio Davis, who has been such a key off the bench. It wasn’t punishment.
The Pacers have really stepped up their defense since Larry Bird and Dick Harter have come in. They jump you on the screen-and-rolls and make it almost impossible to drive the lane. We escaped the first one today, 85-79. We were fortunate. And the journey continues.
Phil Jackson sat in a quiet corner of a suburban Chicago bookstore looking happy and rested. He had just coached the Bulls to their sixth NBA title in eight years, and in a few days he would tell the world that he was resigning. Then he would depart for a vacation in Turkey with his wife, June, and friend and former teammate Bill Bradley and his wife, Ernestine. But first, he would conclude his playoff diary with The Magazine. — R.T.
IN THE LAST three years, we have won 205 regular-season games. Somebody told me that’s more than any other NBA team has won in three years. But the most important thing is what you do at the end, how far you travel in the playoffs. All we really wanted was our third championship in three years.
We got to the Delta Center for Game 1 of the Finals and the noise was astonishing. I wore earplugs that an audiologist sent to me last year when we also played Utah in the Finals. She said I should be worried about permanent ear damage, and I am. The noise really is beyond the realm of tolerance. Last year, I’d go back to my room and my ears would ring for hours. They’ve toned down the motorcycle sounds some, but the introduction is the worst — the bombs, the flares, the balloons bursting in sequence.
When we lost the game, a heart-breaker, 88-85, I was afraid we might have drained too much from our tank trying to win. But I kept emphasizing to our team that the Jazz weren’t playing as well as they did during the year. It was obvious to me. There was a lot of pressure on them, with a lot of it coming from the coaching staff.
Michael was unfazed. He had a piano in his room and Ahmad Rashad was trying to teach him how to play. Michael’s room was right above mine and I could hear that piano. So on the night between Games 1 and 2, my family came over and we played this board game called TABOO and yelled for a couple of hours just to get even. Michael just moved the piano to another room.
We stole Game 2 from the Jazz, 93-88, forcing Utah into 19 turnovers to our seven. Scottie Pippen played fabulous defense. He had missed two free throws at the end of a game against the Pacers in the previous series, free throws that might have won the game for us, but he had put that behind him. He was now as intense as I had ever seen him.
We started getting peppered with thrown coins on the bench in the second half. I told our trainer, Chip Schaefer, to tell the refs, and the P.A. announcer finally made a pretty weak announcement asking the crowd to stop because a Jazz player might be hit. I was worried because you don’t know where you could get hit. I got nailed pretty good in the back after Game 1. But by staying composed, we got a critical win.
I have seen Michael many times get on the bus or come to practice and say, “Fellows, we’re going to win tonight.” He was calm during this Jazz series and really enjoyed it. All series long, people kept asking us if I would be back next season, if Michael, Scottie and Dennis would be back. But those were unknowable things, and so we did not focus on them. We felt confident and at ease.
In Game 3 in Chicago, we beat the Jazz so badly that they had to be thinking, “Are we good enough?” No matter what they did, it went wrong.
Karl Malone did not have a great fourth quarter during the entire series, and I think he got tired like everybody else. But I also think he questioned his shooting ability. You have to remember, he was not a natural shooter when he came into the league. He was about a 55% free throw shooter. He made himself into a good shooter with hard work, but sometimes you doubt yourself under stress, and the insecure weaknesses from years ago can return to haunt you. The whole Jazz team had to be wondering after this 96-54 rout.
Our only distraction was Dennis Rodman. Earlier in the series, he went to Las Vegas to gamble and do whatever he does there, but now that we were at home, I wondered if he would come to Monday practice, which was scheduled for 11 a.m. I wrote on the locker room blackboard, “Will Dennis be late? When will he arrive?”
At 11:45, the phone rang at midcourt. “Do you want to talk to Dennis?” somebody asked, holding out the receiver. “What for? He’s not gonna be here,” I said. After a while, I came over and took the phone and said, “Dennis, what am I going to tell the press?” And he hung up on me.
That was the night he went to Detroit and wrestled with Hulk Hogan. The press really beat up on the whole team, but we survived because we know Dennis. People say I should be harsh with him, but they are ignorant. If people don’t know by now that Dennis is mentally handicapped, what can I say?
I have diagnosed him and I know he has a real problem with attention. I had 26 hours of graduate study in psychology and I know what I know. The harder you discipline him, the worse it gets. You just alienate a guy who has alienation problems already. What you have to have is patience. You have to accept him and say, “Give me the best that you’ve got.”
I actually think that Eddie Vedder, the Pearl Jam singer who’s always hanging around with Dennis, is helpful for him. He parties with Dennis and stays out late, but he has actually talked Dennis into coming back and playing a lot of times. He relates to Dennis because he’s a performer.
At a team meeting earlier in the playoffs, I said that we would get sponge-rubber boppers and have Dennis run through a gantlet of team members so we could symbolically work out our disappointment with him. But Dennis freaked out. He was so concerned about it, I cancelled the whole idea. It really bothered him.
Dennis needs to be in a corner to perform. He needs to be the bad boy. People think I was like him as a player, but I was not in any way similar. I was Action Jackson, but I wasn’t hyperactive.
Dennis was great in our Game 4 win (86-82), grabbing 14 rebounds and making 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch. All of a sudden, we were up 3-1, and we knew it was just a matter of time. There was no way we would lose three in a row.
Game 5 was the time to cap it all, since it was our last game in Chicago. And who knew where we’d scatter after the Finals? Tickets were going for as much as $6,000 apiece. Celebrities were everywhere. But all of us who drove to the game got stuck in traffic, the worst Friday traffic I’ve ever seen, and our minds were not focused. Even Michael got to the United Center late. We lost by a point, 87-86, with Michael missing that last shot.
I actually diagrammed the last play of the game for Toni Kukoc, who had shot 11-for-13 from the field. As much as I wanted Michael to have that crowning glory, I figured it was a wonderful time to use him as a decoy. And Michael wasn’t bothered by that. But the Jazz threw Greg Ostertag on Ron Harper when he inbounded, and Harp couldn’t see. I might have used Pippen, because he’s taller, but he had fouled out, and I had nobody else tall who was used to doing it. So Harper got the ball to Michael.
Michael had that off-balance three-point shot from the right corner to win it. Not a great shot, but a shot. Afterward, he talked about how much he enjoyed that. It was a Hail Mary shot, and he had a very Zen-like comment about it. He said the moment was “cute.” He was the mistress of the moment and he was fascinated by it. If that had been the winning shot, it would have been like cheating the Devil, or God. For him to go right on to another chapter, another critical game, was remarkable.
I talked to Michael in the locker room before Game 6 in Utah. He was the last one to get taped, and Scottie was lying on a table near him getting ice and electric stimulation for his bad back. Scottie had hurt himself taking so many charges from Malone and others. I said, “Mike, do you think you can go 48 tonight?”
He was very quiet, very serious. “I will if I have to,” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Whatever it takes,” he said. “Let’s do it tonight.
He wound up playing 44 minutes, and getting really tired at the end. With a couple of minutes to play, I called a timeout, and he said, “We’re gonna win this one.” And I said, “I know.” When Michael says that, it’s always a good sign.
Scottie was really hurting, so Michael became our offense. I told him to go to the hole because he didn’t have enough energy for his jump shot. The Jazz were just smacking him every time he drove, and he was making his free throws. When Stockton made that three to give the Jazz a three-point lead with 41 seconds to play, I called time and told the players we had a two-for-one situation: If we stopped them and scored twice, we’d win.
No matter how confident you are as a coach, you really don’t want to go into a seventh game on an opponent’s court. We’ve never played a Game 7 in the Finals, and there was no reason to start now.
Michael hit a layup to make it 86-85. And then he came from the backside and stole the ball from Malone. At that moment, I think we were of one mind. I was waving for him to go downcourt. I think he saw me out of the corner of his eye waving off a timeout. The flow was the right thing at the moment, so we didn’t want to stop.
We spread the floor and Michael waited until Bryon Russell reached for the ball, and then he went up for a jump shot near the free throw line. I was really surprised, because I thought he would take it to the hoop again, because his legs were gone. I didn’t know if he could do it, because he was so tired. But Michael always rises to the occasion. He cleared himself, and you can see in the video that he put extra stuff on the shot, and it was perfect.
We hugged at the end. Hard. I knew it was the end of a lot of things. “What an incredible finish,” I said to Michael. “What a miraculous story.”
Now I’m through. I’m thinking of taking a whole year off, of doing things I’ve never done. Like wintering in Hawaii, or going to a spiritual retreat out West for a long time, or writing some reflections. I don’t know where or when my next stop will be.
I said to Michael that I don’t know what better moment there would be for him to retire. His last game was like Babe Ruth hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth to win the World Series-which Babe never did. But it’s Michael’s decision.
Me? The rumor got started that I was leaving because I needed hip replacement surgery. My right calf is atrophied from a back injury I had with the Knicks, and my hip does hurt. But I will try a full year of yoga before I consider going under the knife.
I grew up in Montana and went to school in North Dakota, and Chicago has always seemed like the capital of the Midwest. I have friends here and my children have friends here, but my kids are grown now. It’s been wonderful in Chicago, but I don’t think there’s anything to hold me here.
I think back on the season past and I am aware of what a wonderful Last Dance it was. I used that expression “Last Dance” all year because I knew no matter what happened, we would never have this entire group together again. The journey was unique, a moment in time that can never be recaptured.
As I said, it’s over.
Rick Telander, a former senior writer for Sports Illustrated and contributing writer for ESPN, is now the senior sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-hosts, with Richard Roeper, the new podcast “Chicago Six-Times,” which breaks down each episode of “The Last Dance.”