Like millions of others over the past few Sundays, I’ve been captivated by The Last Dance. As someone who grew up during the era in which Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships, it’s been fascinating to see how this ESPN docuseries has told the story of Jordan’s entire career while simultaneously telling the story of the pair’s final season together in the Windy City.
Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan had one of the most interesting player-coach relationships in sports history. And it would have to be unique, wouldn’t it? Never before had the NBA, or any sport for that matter, had a star as big as Jordan. But Jackson got it. He knew exactly how to handle the situation, which is why MJ said that he’d rather retire than play for another coach with the Bulls. And that’s exactly how it played out. Once the 1997-1998 season was over, both left the NBA.
But it was only a matter of time before each made his way back to the league. After a year off, Phil Jackson returned to the sidelines in 1999, this time with the Los Angeles Lakers, with whom he would win five more titles. Michael Jordan returned to the court in 2001 as a member of the Washington Wizards. So after winning six titles together, what happened in the four games in which the two were on opposite benches?
Phil Jackson won his first game against Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson opposed one another for the first time on February 12, 2002, when the Wizards visited Staples Center for their first matchup of the year with the defending champion Lakers.
Washington actually held a 48-35 lead at halftime but LA fought back with a 42-point effort in the third quarter to take a three-point lead into the final frame and outscored the Wizards 26-20 in the fourth to seal the 103-94 win. Jordan led Washington in scoring that night, shooting 8-for-20 from the floor for 22 points, but it wasn’t enough as Phil Jackson took a 1-0 lead against his former star. His newest star, Kobe Bryant, racked up a triple-double with 23 points, 15 assists, and 11 rebounds.
MJ left the second matchup with Phil with a season-ending injury
The Lakers and Wizards met again on April 2, 2002, but the second matchup between Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan took a disastrous turn. Jordan played just 12 minutes in Washington’s 113-93 loss and scored just two points before exiting the game with a knee injury that cost him the remainder of his first season in the nation’s capital. Shaquille O’Neal was the star of this game, scoring 22 points and pulling down 18 rebounds.
Jordan beat Jackson in matchup number three
Following the third three-peat of his career, Phil Jackson and the Lakers got off to a rocky start in the 2002-2003 season. LA took a 2-4 record into an early-season matchup with Michael Jordan and the Wizards and MJ finally picked up a victory over his former coach that night in Washington. Jordan was extremely efficient that night, shooting 9-for-14 from the floor for 25 points in 30 minutes off the bench. But it was Jerry Stackhouse that was the real hero that night, playing the Jordan role with a buzzer-beating dunk that gave the Wizards the 100-99 victory.
Kobe’s 55 gave Phil Jackson a 3-1 all-time record vs. Michael Jordan
On March 28, 2003, Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson squared off for the last time but it was Kobe Bryant that grabbed the headlines in this one. In his final game against the man he called a big brother, Kobe went off for 55 points, exactly eight years to the day after Jordan dropped a double-nickel on the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. In his final game against both Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan fittingly scored 23 points in the 108-94 loss.