As Steve Kerr watched Bulls’ last dance, seeds for Warriors’ dynasty were planted

Mary Raleigh

We finally have a shared cultural sports moment during the coronavirus pandemic.

Not this week’s NFL draft, though that likely will be a ratings blockbuster. Even those with little interest in the proceedings might tune in to see something — anything — happen in real time. But the draft is about promise, about something that might happen, not a shared experience.

No, I’m talking about “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s phenomenal documentary on the final championship season of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. The first two parts of the 10-part series aired Sunday night and drew an impressive rating, averaging 6.1 million viewers, the most viewed ESPN documentary ever.

ESPN rushed the series, which was scheduled to air in June during the NBA Finals, instead releasing it in April to a shut-in audience craving sports content. The behind-the-scenes footage and the extensive interviews look back on the 1997-98 season, a moment in sports history that was unlike few others, that in many ways set the foundation for much of the modern sports world.

It’s a story with national appeal, to those of us who lived through it, to newer NBA fans and to anyone with an interest in sports history.


That is the presence of Steve Kerr, a key member on that Chicago team, both a witness and participant in the dynasty, teammate of one of the most complicated athletes to ever don a uniform, and a keen observer and chronicler of all that happened.

(I would vote for Kerr as best supporting actor of the production, though former Chronicle columnist Ray Ratto votes for Jordan’s half-full glass of scotch that is by his chair in modern-day interviews.)

Through “The Last Dance,” we get a detailed view of exactly why and how Kerr was the perfect person to lead the Warriors through their dynasty.

We’ve probably known that, intellectually. All you had to do was look at Kerr’s resume, count his championship rings (five as a player), and examine the different types of seasons he had.

But it’s another thing to witness it on film. There is Kerr in the background of several scenes, blond hair sticking up, looking about 12 years old (though really 32), watching and absorbing the raging drama unfolding around him.

“If I hadn’t been on those Bulls teams, none of the rest of my career would have happened,” Kerr said on ESPN’s “SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt” show Sunday night. “It paved the way for the rest of my career.”

Not just because he won rings. But because he learned what it took to win rings.

You can almost see him taking mental notes. Observe him preparing for two decades in the future, when he would have a roster of huge personalities and egos and be able to dive into his mental notebook and decide, “Yes, this is a good thing to do” or “No, this is a disastrous tactic.”

With the historical perspective of 22 years, clear lessons are provided. Like: Don’t announce before the season that it will be the final season for a beloved head coach. The show details the feud with general manager Jerry Krause, who announced before the season that Phil Jackson was coaching his last season.

And this: Don’t allow the second-best player on the team, one of the top five players in the league, to feel especially disrespected. Bulls ownership put principle over common sense, letting Scottie Pippen — voted one of the NBA’s 50 best players in history — wither as the 122nd-highest-paid player in the league when he had been so instrumental to the dynasty.

Kerr saw what a mess things could be between management and a winning team. He watched what his good friend Pippen had to endure in terms of feeling unappreciated. Kerr saw the pressure Jordan felt every minute of every day, the fury that fueled him. Kerr experienced the weariness, the wear and tear of excellence.

“You look back and just assume it was so easy,” Kerr said on ESPN. “It was not easy for (Jordan) or for anybody. … Your opponents are gunning for you year and after year. … You win two, three championships and it gets more and more difficult. It’s exhausting.”

So Kerr was prepared for the exhaustion the Warriors faced during five straight trips to the Finals, something even the Bulls didn’t accomplish. For the toll of a 73-win season; he was on the 1995-96 Bulls team that won 72 games. For the hurt feelings of a superstar: Pippen in 1997-98, Kevin Durant in 2018-19. For the biting criticism that came from a past generation of players; there is a clip of Walt Frazier saying one player can never carry a team, in regards to Jordan. (Amusing to those of us who remember Frazier diminishing Stephen Curry’s skills and saying Durant should have an asterisk for joining the Warriors.)

And Kerr understood the relentless pressure that comes with winning, the feeling that it’s never enough.

“When you’re a really good team, one loss feels like five,” Kerr told a mass of Chicago reporters.

Kerr learned how to lead as a coach from Jackson, and later from the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, with whom he won two of his rings.

“Part of Phil’s genius was understanding how to maintain authority and maintain the team’s momentum in the face of adversity,” Kerr said on a conference call last week. “Phil always found the right tone, the right message.”

There’s another local angle, in that the behind-the-scenes footage was shot by Andy Thompson, Klay Thompson’s uncle, Mychal’s brother and a longtime film producer with the NBA. According to the New York Times, Thompson suggested that his crew document the final season for historical purposes and was given access.

Everyone knew that was going to be the Bulls dynasty’s final season. The front office had made that clear. The Bulls were going to rebuild. Of course, that hasn’t really happened. In the 21 seasons since then, the Bulls have made it to one conference finals.

“That was one of the things that really drove us that year,” Kerr said on the conference call. “Full awareness that that was it. That was going to be our last dance.”

The Warriors’ own dance, their similar rise and fall, was rudely interrupted, by injury and pandemic. When it resumes, Kerr likely will understand the choreography. Because he’s seen it all before.

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