Try to glean whatever information you can to help the Orlando Magic grow a championship team. The Last Dance proved there is only one Michael Jordan.
It told the story of how Jordan arrived in Chicago and changed the culture by the sheer force of his will. It told the story of how championship teams have to find an inner toughness and have to overcome their chief rival to take their place atop the mountain. It told the story of how teams are a reflection of their leaders that drive them to greater heights.
Each aspect of the Jordan story informed some lesson that every team can try to understand and take to heart as they build themselves.
The Orlando Magic have had their shot at this on several occasions. They found their star and went for their championship window. They had to overcome their own youth and face their adversity at various points in the franchise history. They had to look to their star player to guide them.
Other franchises can find their own examples of this in their own histories. Few can probably boast some or all of these lessons within the same 31-year period like the Magic can.
Orlando is one of the few franchises that could say it beat Chicago in a seven-game series.
That felt like something that would matter . . . until it did not. And it did not for the same reason the New York Knicks never climbed the mountain, or the Utah Jazz or the Indiana Pacers or every other team in the league — minus the Houston Rockets’ two-year reign.
They did not have Michael Jordan.
And if there is one final lesson The Last Dance gave us it is that the league revolved around Jordan. All those lessons that built up those Bulls all were lessons from Jordan and how he applied his will, game and leadership on to the team. And how he dominated a decade and still dominates the cultural imagination.
Jordan said it throughout the documentary. His drive and his focus were on winning and doing whatever it took to win. The final two episodes of The Last Dance put that on full display.
The final two episodes recounted the Bulls’ seven-game series with the Pacers and their two Finals series with the Jazz.
That 1998 Eastern Conference Finals was one of only two seven-game series the Bulls faced during their championship run. The way it tells the series, it came down to winning a jump ball between Michael Jordan and Rik Smits. Rik Smits tapped it directly to Scottie Pippen and Steve Kerr tied the game. Reggie Miller said the energy sucked out of the building.
Jordan found the will to win.
The 1997 Finals was famous for the “flu game” — Jordan claims it was food poisoning in the documentary — and how he willed himself to 45 points to break a 2-2 tie and head back to Chicago to close the series.
And then the 1998 Final. Battered physically and exhausted mentally, the Bulls found a way yet again to win in six. Michael Jordan put together the greatest 30-second sequence in NBA history, hitting a driving layup, stealing the ball from Karl Malone and hitting that shot over Bryon Russell.
At each turn, Jordan was willing his team forward. The center of the universe. “Black Jesus” as he told Miller. The guy that everyone had to pay attention to. The man who grew the league into an international behemoth.
To be sure, the world focused wholly on him. At all times and in every aspect. And every time Jordan rose to the challenge.
This seemingly scrawny 6-foot-6 guard kept getting up and kept going after defenses. He kept finishing with a flourish and finding impossible ways to beat anyone in front of him. In the final moments of every game, his victory was seemingly inevitable.
Jordan’s legend is well-earned.
Any time you thought you had one on Jordan, he would have the last laugh. Nobody could hold much over Jordan.
The Magic got their licks in on Jordan for sure. Probably as much as any team in the league outside the Detroit Pistons. Jordan had a target on his back when he faced every team, Orlando just seemed to get some high-profile wins over him even as Jordan put in some scorching appearances.
The first meeting between the two teams at the Orlando Arena saw Jordan drop 52 points. But the Magic stole the victory at the last second.
A few months later, Jordan returned only to find his jersey stolen after the team’s shootaround. Donning an unfamiliar No. 12, Jordan still poured in an incredible game, but in defeat.
A few years later, Jordan dropped his second-highest single-game point total, scoring 64 against the Magic. But Nick Anderson’s 3-pointer forced overtime and the young Shaquille O’Neal proved a tougher test. The star power and how the two future Hall of Famers warped defenses were apparent. This was a clash of the titans.
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A clash that became apparent as the past of the league met the future of the league in 1995. Jordan was still getting himself back into basketball shape but the world still expected the most of him. The Bulls were favored entering that second-round series.
So it was stunning — and still is stunning even knowing the result — watching the Bulls crumble late in that series. Jordan committed two turnovers — including Nick Anderson’s famous steal — in the final 30 seconds of Game 1. He let an eight-point lead with three minutes to play crumble in Game 6 at home to a 14-0 run. The Magic danced with Horace Grant on their shoulders, celebrating victory over his former team.
Orlando probably wanted no part of Jordan in a Game 7 of that series. Even with his physical limitations at the time.
Jordan never forgot it.
He rededicated himself and transformed his body back into a basketball machine and dominated the league for the next three years. He swept the Magic and ended any hint of their dynasty — sending Shaquille O’Neal to Los Angeles as the defeat and that follow-up 1996 season proved to expose every flaw in the young franchise.
Jordan had the last laugh. He always had the last laugh over everyone.
In 33 regular-season career games against Orlando, Jordan averaged 29.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. He went 23-10 in those games. The Bulls were 6-4 against the Magic in the Playoffs.
That should tell you how much the wins over Jordan stick out. Some of the Magic most memorable wins — including handing the 1996 Bulls their first loss of the season — are against the Bulls. But they were still few and far between.
Jordan always won in the end.
The Magic and their greatest team in history were a small footnote in The Last Dance. That revenge series in 1996 barely got a mention. Jordan was all-encompassing, swallowing the rest of the league.
If there is one great lesson the world will take away from this documentary it is simply this: There is only one Michael Jordan. Only one singular figure who dominated a decade and consumed the world’s imagination.
Even in documentary form, Jordan demanded and took everyone’s attention. And they were more than happy to go along for the ride with it, fascinated with his every word, action and reaction throughout the 10-part series.
Jordan was a singular figure. Whatever lessons we tried to learn about the team and winning and championships throughout last five weeks still comes back to one reality:
Michael Jordan was one of a kind.
He was the greatest and everyone still lives in his shadow.