The Chicago Bulls suspected the 1997-98 season would be their last run together.
That season is captured in "The Last Dance," a 10-part documentary series debuting Sunday (9 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN App). Heading into the premiere of Episodes 1 and 2, here's a quick guide with everything you need to know about that Bulls team before the final season for one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history.
The Bulls' many accomplishments
The first three-peat
The Bulls had failed to advance past the Detroit Pistons in three consecutive postseasons until a 1991 Eastern Conference finals sweep, made memorable when Isiah Thomas and several Pistons teammates walked off the floor before the final buzzer. The Bulls rolled through Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in five games to win the organization's first title.
After a rugged seven-game series against Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks in the 1992 Eastern Conference semifinals, the Bulls dismissed the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals and dropped the Portland Trail Blazers to win their second consecutive title.
The path to the '93 title was fairly smooth until Ewing and the Knicks appeared again in the Eastern Conference finals. After dropping the first two games at Madison Square Garden, Jordan and the Bulls stormed back to win the next four, highlighted by a 54-point outburst by MJ in Game 4. The Bulls advanced to win their third title, defeating Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns -- a series highlighted by a classic triple-overtime Suns win in Game 3, MJ's 55-point Game 4 effort and John Paxson's clutch triple to clinch the series in Game 6.
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The 72-win season
For 1995-96, the season after Jordan's return from his first retirement, the Bulls added Dennis Rodman despite his tumultuous stint in San Antonio. An energized Rodman -- who earned First Team All-Defensive honors while leading the league with a rebound rate of 26.6% -- helped the Bulls dominate the rest of the league en route to a then-record 72 regular-season wins.
The Bulls proceeded to roll in the postseason and earn a fourth title by beating Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and the Seattle SuperSonics in six games.
One more ring before the 1997-98 Last Dance
The Bulls followed up their historic season with 69 regular-season wins in 1996-97 while on their way to the Finals. Tied 2-2 against Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz, Jordan elevated his legacy with the immortal Flu Game -- dropping 38 points while battling food poisoning and dehydration. Two nights later, he sealed the series with 39 points to win a fifth title.
The legend of MJ and the Bulls
Jordan had already become arguably the world's most recognizable athlete by the Bulls' third title.
He had three league MVPs and two Finals MVPs before he and Pippen took the Bulls' popularity to international heights when they brought home gold medals as members of the USA "Dream Team" at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain.
But Jordan -- after adding another Finals MVP to his résumé in 1993 -- abruptly retired from basketball less than three months after his father's murder.
Jordan spent the 1994 baseball season playing for the Birmingham Barons, the Chicago White Sox's Double-A affiliate, also owned by Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Jordan started working out with the Bulls again in the early part of 1995, ultimately deciding to return to basketball on March 18, announcing it with a two-word fax: "I'm back."
Heading into the 1997-98 season, Jordan was well on his way to becoming the front-runner for the NBA's greatest player of all time -- as well as its most influential. When ESPN ranked the best basketball players ever in 2016, Jordan was a clear No. 1. He also took the top spot when ESPN ranked the most game-changing players in NBA history in 2018, with The Undefeated's Jesse Washington writing:
"Jordan transformed the style and substance of basketball, expanding the scope and meaning of athletic achievement. We still see his influence in ways big and small: kids wagging their tongues; the raging popularity of basketball in China; post-up players leaning backward into defenders before making their move.
"But for all his huge dunks, fresh kicks and clutch shots, Jordan's biggest impact came off the court as he empowered athletes -- especially African Americans -- to obtain full economic participation in the billions generated by their labor."
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The beginning of the end
The writing was all over the wall heading into that final season, with Jordan, Rodman and Jackson all on one-year deals.
In 1992, while Jordan and Pippen were excelling in the Olympics, another international star was an inadvertent source of turmoil. Chicago GM Jerry Krause had made known his interest in bringing Toni Kukoc to the Bulls from Croatia.
"Krause was recruiting this guy and talking about how great he was," Jordan said in the NBA TV documentary "The Dream Team."
"That's like a father who has all his kids and now he sees another kid that he loves more than he loves his own. So we weren't playing against Toni Kukoc. We were playing against Jerry Krause in a Croatia uniform."
It was one of many ways that the Bulls and coach Phil Jackson disdained Krause's approach. The tension between players, management and the coaching staff had only grown stronger heading into the 1997-98 season, starting with ...
The head coach had already made up his mind that the season would be his last in Chicago.
During a preseason exhibition trip to Paris -- with Rodman having not yet signed a contract and Pippen out following foot surgery -- Jackson spilled some of his frustration with Krause, saying:
"The only dark spot is the resonance of the words of [Krause], who said recently that coaches and players don't win championships, that organizations win championships. He would say that. Michael says he won't come back after this season to play for the Bulls unless I'm the coach, but I signed a one-year deal and the Bulls definitely have plans to hire another coach for next year. Probably Tim Floyd of Iowa State. This is what Michael said: 'It's a bad way to end an unbelievable run.'"
Jordan famously told Rick Telander that he wouldn't play for anyone but Jackson. "I love the city, but I still need to play for Phil," Jordan said. "I mean, I won't play unless it's for Phil." Jordan's potential retirement hung over the season, with Jordan pointing to conflict with ownership and the front office as a reason he wasn't interested in sticking around. He told Telander:
"One thing is for sure, money won't keep me in the game. Never. Just change ownership. And you know what I'd consider a change in ownership? Change the GM. Let Phil be general manager and coach. Krause? I don't want to start a war around here. I'll just say that sometimes it's tough working for an organization that doesn't show the same type of loyalty toward you as you show it."
Pippen, who never made more than $4 million per year during the dynastic run, was unhappy with his contract situation and remained frustrated with Krause for consistently having to deal with trade rumors.
During a 1995 interview with Craig Sager, Pippen said he hoped he'd be traded before the deadline, adding that he and Krause weren't communicating and that he didn't think there should be a relationship between the GM and a player.
The timing of Pippen's foot surgery just before the start of the 1997-98 season meant that he didn't make his first appearance on the court until January, leading to more frustration inside the team. But as had been the case so many times before, the Bulls didn't allow the hoopla to overwhelm them. They rose to the challenge and finished the season the same way they had so many times before -- as champions. One of the greatest dynasties in professional basketball finished off its last chapter in style and went out on top.