ESPN originally planned to air "The Last Dance” — a documentary look at Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls — during the NBA Finals in June. But when it became apparent in March that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there would be no sports for the foreseeable future, the network decided to push the release date up to April 19.
When the first two parts of the 10-part series aired last Sunday night, they drew the interest not only of old-school basketball fans who actually remember the 1990s but also a new generation who know Jordan only as a shoe icon and team owner.
One interested party was former University of Connecticut standout and current Southern Connecticut State coach Scott Burrell, who was on that 1997-98 Bulls team, winning his lone NBA championship.
There’s a scene during Part 2 when Burrell jokingly tries to shake Jordan’s hand to celebrate the Bulls winning a six-team preseason tournament in Paris, and Jordan refuses to even acknowledge Burrell, who had been acquired just three weeks before the tournament.
Burrell, now 49, reflected on that one season with the Bulls, what he learned from Jordan, the dramatic atmosphere caused by general manager Jerry Krause announcing it was the final season of the team’s run, Scottie Pippen’s below-market contract, and the impending coaching change after the season.
“It was a fun time, that year,” he said. “I was 26 when I got traded there, and it was overwhelming at first.
"I was excited about the trade, but now you realize you’re playing for the best team, a team that’s won five of the last seven championships, you are playing with three of the top 10 players in the NBA. You’re playing for one of the best coaches in the NBA and you don’t want to hurt Michael in practice.”
Burrell played 80 games that season, averaging 5.2 points in 13.7 minutes. He was a key defender off the bench and often faced up against Jordan in practice, and, of course, was a primary victim of Jordan’s infamous trash talk.
His minutes increased when Pippen missed the first 2½ months of the season following foot surgery.
“People were expecting me to fill Scottie’s spot, to do something he did when he wasn’t there,” Burrell said. “That was impossible because Scottie was one of the best players to ever play.
"You still have to do your job, and it took some time to get comfortable and figure out how to play with that team.”
Burrell recalls his first practice, when Jordan approached him and called him by his full name.
According to Burrell, Jordan said, “Scott Burrell. The best part about this trade is that you don’t have to play against me four times a year. But now you have to play against me every day.”
For those of you who don’t remember or are too young, the Bulls of that time were the most popular and compelling team in professional sports, a traveling rock show without social media. Jordan was the closest thing to a legend as an active player could get, while Pippen had established himself as a future Hall of Famer and Dennis Rodman was, well, unusual and fascinating.
“The fans, the crowds, the hotels, everywhere you went, it was a dream for a player to play and live and win a championship after it,” Burrell said. “No matter where you played, who you played against, it was live. There was never a dull moment, never a dull atmosphere. It was amazing, absolutely awesome.”
Though Burrell had a stellar career at UConn and other strong moments in his NBA career, the things he is most often asked are about playing against Jordan in practice and with him on that 1997-98 team.
“He was a flawless, freak athlete, flawless all the time,” Burrell said. “Strong, athletic, huge hands.
"There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. He knew he was getting his shots up. But he just raises up or fades away or pump-fakes you, and he had the total game. Practice was worse than games. If you have to guard him, he’s shooting fadeaway jumpers over the backboard and knocking them down.
“He was so talented, but he worked on his craft every day. He never took practice for granted. His mind-set was to dominate every time he stepped on the court.”
Burrell didn’t mandate that his current players watch the documentary, but those who did were in awe.
“The guys that did text me and tell me they saw it, they were saying, ‘I didn’t know he was that intense,’ ” Burrell said. “Even in the interview, you feel how intense he is, watching the documentary. They realize it looks like a different person compared to LeBron [James].
“And when they see the next couple [episodes] and the Pistons beat him up, they’ll ask, 'Wow, how did he play through that?’ because they’ve never played basketball with the toughness and physicality that they’re about to see.”
Burrell was released by the Bulls in January 1999, right before the NBA lockout ended, and signed with the New Jersey Nets, part of the complete roster dismantling by Krause.
Still, Burrell has fond memories of that year, that team, and that title.
“I learned how to be a champion, what it takes to be a champion,” he said. “I played on some great teams with great players, but that team had one goal in mind. They had all the problems they had with management but their goal was to win a championship.”