How Both 'The Last Dance' and 'The Jordan Rules' Kept the Chicago Bulls Hungry For Success, According to Book's Author

Throughout its first six episodes, The Last Dance has charted Michael Jordan's ascent to superstardom in the NBA and his quest for a first NBA title.

ESPN's 10-part documentary, which chronicles Jordan's final season with the Chicago Bulls, detailed how MJ's first six seasons in the league were repeatedly punctuated by early exits in the playoffs.

By 1991, the Bulls eventually held the Larry O'Brien Trophy for the first time, but five months later their world was rocked when a book entitled The Jordan Rules hit the shelves.

Written by then-Chicago Tribune veteran reporter Sam Smith, the book was originally intended as a behind-the-scenes diary of the Bulls' 1990-91 season but its contents meant it had explosive repercussions.

As Bryan Curtis put in The Ringer three years ago, The Jordan Rules was the "mother of all Woj-bombs"—Woj-bomb is the colloquial term reserved to the tell-all scoops made famous by ESPN's NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski.

While the book was widely seen as a potentially devastating for the newly-appointed NBA champion, Smith believes then Bulls-coach Phil Jackson used its contents to his advantage.

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Ironically, Jackson adopted a similar strategy seven years later, when he handed a booklet entitled The Last Dance to his players ahead of the 1997-98 season, which he knew would be his last with the Bulls. The name of the booklet has since become the title of ESPN's documentary.

"I never spoke with Phil [Jackson] about that, but I feel like he did just as he used The Last Dance as a bonding mechanism for the 1997-98 last title team," Smith explains to Newsweek.

"Phil was always looking for way to bond the team. He often quoted Kipling. 'For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.'

"Phil was a genius in finding the glue in every day events to apply to the scattered pieces of the group to bring it together."

It may seem strange to suggest now, but three decades ago there were genuine question marks over whether the Bulls will ever win a title, let alone develop into one of basketball's greatest dynasties.

Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson, Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan (L) holds the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy and former Chicago Bulls head coach Phil Jackson holds the NBA champions Larry O'Brien trophy after winning game six of the NBA Finals with the Utah Jazz at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah on June 14, 1998. The Bulls won the game 87-86 to take their sixth NBA championship. Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty

While Jordan had established himself as the league's brightest star, the NBA title remained frustratingly elusive. The Bulls had reached the playoffs in each of Jordan's first six seasons in the NBA, but had never made it to the NBA Finals.

A Chicago Tribune veteran, Smith took an advance of about $60,000 from Simon & Schuster to write the book but admits the project was a gamble as "there was almost no interest, because the Bulls always were flaming out in the playoffs and people prefer winners."

In the three seasons before Smith's book was published, the Bulls had developed a bitter feud with the Detroit Pistons, losing to the so-called "Bad Boys" in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 1988 and in the Eastern Conference Finals in the two following years.

Jordan had already one MVP crown to his name but, as he admitted in The Last Dance, he was developing the reputation of a man who couldn't get business done when it mattered most. The Pistons' bruising and confrontational defensive approach—which, incidentally, were nicknamed "The Jordan Rules", which then served as title for Smith's book—had stymied the progress of Phil Jackson's band.

In short, neither the Bulls nor Smith were guaranteed any kind of success.

"No one at the time expected it would be a winning, championship story—them or me," Smith recalls.

"And then the fireworks went off when we all expected a dud."

Nevermind fireworks, Smith had lit up a fuse that run into a warehouse full of explosives. The book lifted the lid on traits of Jordan's personality that had been expertly concealed to the public eye up until then.

The smiling, affable man that towered in billboards across the U.S. was a ferocious competitor, frustrated by how the mere mortals around him struggled to match the incredibly high standards he set himself.

Behind the star who dominated NBA courts night after night there was a man whose boundless will to win often led him into launching into verbal tirades to berate his teammates.

Jordan may have been lobbying verbal grenades at his teammates while trying to find a way to finally exorcise the Pistons, but as The Last Dance showed he was under pressure himself.

The Bulls were undergoing what in The Jordan Rules he described as a "De-Michaelization" process, with coach Phil Jackson eager to take the ball out of Jordan's hands in favor of adopting the Triangle Offense.

Both The Jordan Rules and The Last Dance laid bare Jordan's reluctance at having to curtail his individual instincts to share offensive duties. In-game footage featured in the documentary shows Jordan complain to Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong that "He [Jackson] is not going to let me win the scoring title."

Jordan had led the NBA in scoring for four consecutive seasons since 1987, but feared Jackson's second season could spell the end of his offensive domination.

Between the 1986-87 season and the end of the 1989-90 season—Jackson's first campaign as head coach—Jordan averaged 37.1, 35, 32.5 and 33.1 points per game. However, as the Pistons had shown in the previous three seasons, by stopping Jordan teams would almost neutralize the Bulls' offense and Jackson felt a change of register was need.

"Little understood now is how unlikely the NBA viewed Jordan and the Bulls as future champions," Smith explains.

"The narrative was Jordan scored too much individually and the way you succeeded was playing like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, even Isiah Thomas, unselfishly."

As he recalled in one of the first episodes of the documentary, Jordan eventually accepted Jackson's stance and firmly bought into his approach.

As it turned out, Jackson's desire to implement the Triangle Offense had more to do with relieving Jordan of the burden of carrying the team's offensive production entirely on his shoulders than with a deliberate plot to stop Jordan from scoring.

MJ led the league in scoring each seasons until his retirement in 1993 and then again between 1996 and 1998 as the Bulls completed their second three-peat.

The Triangle Offense led the Bulls to the promised land, as they eventually dethroned the Pistons in 1991, sweeping Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals en route to meeting the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.

The Lakers were making their ninth appearance in the NBA Finals in 12 seasons, a stretch which had delivered five titles, but were no match for the Bulls who triumphed in five games.

Once The Jordan Rules was released five months later, however, many believed the Bulls' first title would prove to be nothing more than a brilliant aberration.

"Some of the puerile, fraternity inside team behavior I described was taken as not only an indictment of Jordan but a message that the team never would win again because I'd 'exposed' and publicized their dirty laundry and internal divides," Smith recalls.

CUL_The Last Dance_03
Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls drives to basket against the Detroit Pistons during the 1989 season NBA game in Detroit, Michigan. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBA Photos

Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times, famously, suggested The Jordan Rules "might become one of the most damaging books ever written about a sports team."

His fears proved completely unfounded. Chicago went on to win defeat the Portland Trail Blazers and then the Phoenix Suns in the next two seasons to retain their title, before winning another three consecutive titles between 1996 and 1998 after Jordan had returned from an 18-month foray into baseball.

Even after the Bulls' second three-peat, The Jordan Rules continued to occupy the conversation and the narrative around the team. Some have suggested the Bulls triumphed in spite of it, while others have argued the book merely fuelled Jordan's insatiable desire to prove outsiders wrong.

For Smith, it was intended to be neither.

"I told the story—as this documentary is—not just of one season but the events that led up to the championships and the brilliance of Michael Jordan," he explains it..

"I didn't cause it. I merely chronicled it and was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

"But it does provide the foundation for the towering shadow Jordan cast on the sports world and the title upon title the Bulls piled up that transcended so much in American sports."

How Both 'The Last Dance' and 'The Jordan Rules' Kept the Chicago Bulls Hungry For Success, According to Book's Author | Sports