CURCIO’S CORNER: ‘The Last Dance’ opens curtain behind legendary team, players

Published 10:18 am Saturday, May 2, 2020

Any type of new sports content on a streaming platform is absolute gold at this point in life with no sports being played right now.

So with the release of “The Last Dance” on ESPN, I was excited…to a degree.

I’m going to admit something fairly unpopular in his home state, but I was not a fan of Michael Jordan or the Bulls.

Having pulled for the Hornets since the team’s inception, and the Atlanta Hawks prior to and at the same time, I could appreciate what Michael meant to the league. But I was usually pulling against him when Chicago played either team.

Without being drawn into the bottomless vortex which basketball player is the G.O.A.T (Greatest Of All Time), I will admit no one was like Jordan with his ability, drive, determination or success.

Having said that, I can remember paying a scalper for the first (and only) time for a ticket to Game 3 (I think) of the Hornets’ second-round playoff series in May 1998 with the Bulls at the old (now demolished) Charlotte Coliseum, the original “Hive.”

I had never gotten to see Michael play in person so I wanted to be able to say later in life I had. It was interesting to say the least.

If my memory serves me, Ric Flair cut a promo, in wrestling parlance, on the Bulls while I can remember Scottie Pippen and M.J. had bemused looks on their faces. I don’t remember what Flair said, but it probably had “To be the team, you have to beat the team” and several instances of his favorite expression: “Wooo!”

I actually found the TNT broadcast of the game of YouTube and was able to look back at some of the highlights of the game.

It will be interesting to see when the remainder of the Bulls’ documentary is released and will (hopefully) show some of the backstage moments from that series. I would venture to say Jordan took the Game 2 loss personally and went out to show fans in his home state he still had it.

And as much as I would like to say otherwise, he delivered two losses in a row at the Hive. Though I will say in those games there was a six-inch invisible area around him in which fouls got called should anyone stray near it.

It was so obvious even the Hornets’ game production staff threw together a graphic and flashed it on the Jumbotron to start a specific chant: “Don’t Touch Mike.” He did not shoot a ton of free throws (9-of-10) in that game or the next, but at least twice in the fourth quarter the crowd picked up that chant.

As I watch this series, I can remember how big an NBA fan I was in that day, which included owning several NBA highlight and instructional videotapes I watched over and over again. (Children, gather ’round the computer and I’ll tell you about the initials VHS).

I have to admit, in the late ’80s I was mesmerized by what he could do: faking the Hawks’ Cliff Levingston so badly Cliff fell to the court, or splitting Cliff and Tree Rollins for a reverse layup.

One tape I recall had the story of one night Michael and Company were in Utah playing the Jazz. Jordan posted up Utah’s point guard (and future Team USA teammate) John Stockton in the low post. Michael turned as Stockton tried to come around Michael’s shoulder for the steal and dunked on him, prompting a fan to yell at Michael something to the tune of “Pick on someone your own size!”

Chicago came back to defend after the dunk and Stockton was fouled, hitting a pair of free throws (with Jazz announcer Hot Rod Hundley calling the Utah point guard “Little John”). On the ensuing play, the Jazz trapped the Bulls and the inbound pass went to Pippen, who found Jordan open in the front court. Michael had a 2-on-1 advantage on the 6-foot-11 Jazz center Mel Turpin, but M.J. did not need it. He dunked right on Turpin, turned to the Utah fan from earlier and asked, “Was he big enough?”

I saw what talent he had, but I was still a fan of other teams, including the Detroit Pistons, a.k.a. “Bad Boys” from the era as well. With the Jordan Rules in place, Detroit won back-to-back titles (including against a Portland Trail Blazers team my father liked) and set the stage for Michael’s dominance of the 1990s. The game fundamentally changed with the NBA trying to protect players like MJ from the rough house tactics of the Pistons (who weren’t the only ones doing that). If you don’t believe me, check out the hard fouls from the Lakers-Celtics 30 for 30 documentary. The clothesline foul on Kurt Rambis delivered by Kevin McHale is about the best clothesline shot this pro wrestling fan has ever seen.

So I guess my becoming less of a Jordan fan stemmed from the idea that the NBA in one sense may have overcorrected to reduce fights and physical contact. It’s not that I wanted to see people hurt at all, but basketball is not a non-contact sport, no matter what anyone says. A degree of tough defense includes some contact, especially playing in the low post. The modern NBA game has degraded because teams do not play defense and has turned many a regular-season game into the NBA All-Star Game, where defense is non-existent.

Hockey has tried to eliminate fighting and rough play for years, with a by-product of allowing players to get away with cheap shots without having to answer for it necessarily. The same could be said for the NBA, but I always believed the flagrant rules and such were more about the league trying to protect its overall image rather than player safety, though it was never said for the record.

I’m glad to be able to see this look back into the days of the NBA when I was a fan. But like the current WWE product as opposed to the last time I was a WWF fan (during the Attitude Era), I really don’t watch the current NBA because it just is missing something.

So I’m going to enjoy the rest of these episodes of “The Last Dance,” not because I’m a fan of the Bulls, but to remember when I was an active fan of the NBA.

Game on…sort of.

Contact sports editor Charles Curcio at 704-983-1361 or via Twitter (@charles_curcio).

About Charles Curcio

Charles Curcio was the sports editor of the Stanly News & Press from 1999-2001 and has currently served in the same capacity since 2008. He was awarded the NCHSAA Tim Stevens Media Representative of the Year and named CNHI Sports Editor of the Year in 2014. He has also been honored twice by the North Carolina Press Association.

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