The 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls will soon be the focus of the sports world as the highly-anticipated documentary, “The Last Dance”, is set to premiere on April 19 on ESPN. Originally scheduled for June, the 10-part documentary, which follows the Bulls’ sixth and final championship run of the 1990s, was moved up after fans pleaded for its release when the sports world was shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
It’s hard to know exactly how “The Last Dance” will play out. Obviously, we know that the 1997-1998 season ended with the Bulls beating the Utah Jazz for the NBA title but watching the journey will be incredible. With a unique cast of characters and so many storylines to sift through, it’s bound to be amazing. But in looking back on that season in preparation for next week’s premiere, I came across something I’d completely forgotten about, something that played into things on more than one occasion that season: the health of Scottie Pippen.
Scottie Pippen missed the first 35 games for the Chicago Bulls during ‘The Last Dance’ season of 1997-1998
It’s never easy to win back-to-back titles in any sport, let alone three in a row. But that’s what the Chicago Bulls were attempting to do for the second time in eight years when the 1997-1998 season began. However, what some might forget is that the Bulls began the year without Scottie Pippen.
Pippen injured the second toe on his left foot during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat the season prior and it never fully healed. Surgery was seen as a last resort, which is why it wasn’t done over the summer, and Pippen showed up to Bulls’ training camp but couldn’t participate in the majority of workouts. He finally did get the surgery done on October 6, 1997, but his teammates weren’t even told that it had happened until the day after as Pippen wanted to keep things private. He’d end up missing the first 35 games of the season.
The Bulls struggled a bit in his absence
Yes, the Chicago Bulls still had Michael Jordan but losing Scottie Pippen was a big deal. Phil Jackson tinkered with a number of different starting lineups in Pippen’s absence but the Bulls had a rough go of things in the early months of “The Last Dance” season.
Chicago lost its season opener to the Boston Celtics, 92-85, and hovered around the .500 mark for the first month of the season. At the end of November, the Bulls were an uncharacteristic 9-7. Just think about that. The 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls lost 10 games the entire season. By the end of November 1997, they had already lost seven and sat in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Michael Jordan was still doing his thing but others were struggling to step up.
But December brought better days. The Bulls reeled off 11 wins in 14 games to close out the calendar year, including a string of eight straight victories at one point. Scottie Pippen finally returned to the lineup on January 10 as the Bulls found themselves in a tight race for Eastern Conference supremacy with the Indiana Pacers. Pippen would miss a few more games down the stretch but still strung together a decent season, although he did have the lowest shooting percentage of his career that season, at least up to that point.
But the Chicago Bulls were whole again and lost just eight games with Pippen in the lineup, finishing with a 62-20 record, tied with the Utah Jazz for the best in the NBA. Michael Jordan won his fifth NBA MVP award and won the scoring title, averaging 28.7 points per game.
A back injury left Scottie Pippen in a ton of pain the last two games of the 1998 NBA Finals
After easing through the first two series of the 1998 NBA Playoffs, the Chicago Bulls found themselves in a fight with the Indiana Pacers for the right to go to the NBA Finals. Scottie Pippen struggled in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, scoring just four points, but Michael Jordan picked up the slack, scoring 31 in the Bulls’ 85-79 win. But Pippen found his stride and Chicago eventually won the series in seven games, setting up a Finals rematch with the Utah Jazz.
Jordan and Pippen scored 54 of the Bulls’ 85 points in the series opener with Utah but found themselves in a rare 0-1 hole. But they won the next three to take a 3-1 series lead. But Scottie Pippen was hurting. He had taken five charges in Game 3 and needed cortisone shots to fight through immense back pain. He still managed to play 45 minutes in Game 5 but shot just 2-for-16 from the floor in an 83-81 loss. But Chicago was still up 3-2 in the series.
In obvious pain during Game 6, Pippen was actually gone for a big portion of it. With five minutes left in the first quarter, he left the floor to undergo further treatment in the locker room and didn’t return until the second half. Michael Jordan was doing everything in his power to keep the Bulls in it, scoring 23 points in the first half but Chicago was still down four at the break.
When Pippen came back, he was more of a decoy but just his presence had to be respected. He only scored eight points that night but he opened up the floor for Jordan, who played all but four minutes of the game, scoring 45 points, including that famous final jumper, to give the Bulls an 87-86 victory and a sixth NBA title in eight years, a repeat three-peat.
That obviously did prove to be “The Last Dance” for the Chicago Bulls. Jordan retired. Pippen went to Houston. Rodman went to the Lakers, as did Phil Jackson after taking a year off. The Pippen injury drama was just one of many great stories during the 1997-1998 season and I’m sure we’re in for a whole lot more when “The Last Dance” premieres on Sunday.