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The Last Dance Brings Back Memories For Bulls Broadcasters

“They went out as champions, they were never beaten, there’s something special about that.”

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Over the last five weeks, I’ve been entertained to no end by The Last Dance on ESPN. The behind the scenes looks, the memories and the greatness of Michael Jordan have been right there on my TV screen for me to revisit and remember fondly. Thankfully, I was old enough to really appreciate these teams and MJ the player. 

The Last Dance' Michael Jordan & Chicago Bulls documentary debut ...

I was fortunate to cover bits and pieces of the final two championships, but was not around the team all the time. My seat was anything but front row, but there were a few people that had terrific seats for more than one of the titles. The broadcasters saw every game, every play and lived these moments at home and on the road. They were on the team planes and had access to the players. These guys lived it. 

Neil Funk who is retiring at the end of this season (if there is a resumption) after 28 years with the Bulls saw it all. Starting on the radio broadcast and eventually shifting to the television chair. He told NBC Sports Chicago’s Bulls Talk Podcast that he enjoyed the look back through the lens of “The Last Dance”. 

“First of all, I think it’s very well done and at times its riveting to watch it. Even though I went through that you know traveling with the team and being around them all the in that last year.”, he told NBCSC.  “The one thing about this documentary that it is kind of bringing all that stuff back to you as you sit here. Sometimes you forget about Michael’s greatness and the greatness of those teams.”

Wayne Larrivee worked Bulls television games on WGN-TV starting in 1991. He agreed that the documentary was an accurate portrayal of the actual events.

“I would say very much so. There were some things that they showed that we didn’t know. I thought they did a really good job with that,” he told me via phone. “There were some things they showed that I had forgotten about, like Rodman’s trip to Las Vegas in the middle of the season, I had kind of lost track of that over the years.” 

So, the season seemed to play out as depicted, but what wasn’t universally agreed upon was how the show portrayed the star, Michael Jordan. There were those thinking he looked tyrannical, some said they admired him more. The broadcasters had their thoughts. 

Funk was happy to see Jordan showing a different side of himself during the documentary. 

Chicago Bulls announcer Neil Funk retiring at end of season

“It was nice to see him sitting down and kind of opening up. You mention the fact he might have been concerned that people would perceive him in a way that maybe wasn’t flattering to him.”, Funk told NBC Sports Chicago. “That IS what made Michael different and what made Michael great. I don’t think he has to worry about that in the least, that’s part of what made him Michael Jordan.”

According to Larrivee the portrayal was fair because it was truthful.

“He was portrayed as he is. He’s a tough competitor and he is a great leader. He was portrayed as a leader. People don’t understand things about leaders sometimes,” Larrivee said. “I thought they portrayed Michael and Scottie very accurately. Michael was the tough cop and Scottie was the good cop, the nice guy. Michael would knock you down and Scottie would pick you up.”

You could tell there was a respect for Jordan among the broadcasters that were around him most often. Larrivee continued in a comparison of MJ and today’s players that tells an important story.

“I will say this about Michael as compared to today’s athletes. Michael had this belief, ‘Listen I show up and play every game. I don’t take vacations, I don’t take nights off, they pay to come see me play and for a lot of people it may be the only time they get to see me play in person,’” Larrivee told me. “Today you have this thing called “load management” that would never happen with Michael Jordan. If he’s healthy he’s going to play the game. He understood that aspect of the game.” 

Relationships with the players are key to being able to do your job. But, when one of the players is Michael Jordan how do you handle things? He’s arguably the greatest player of all-time and people are always wanting his time.

“I had learned early on, because when I was in Philadelphia I was with Julius Erving, so I had learned that if you didn’t bother them with kind of silly stuff, they were going to respect you and appreciate the fact you weren’t bothering them all the time,” Funk told NBC Sports Chicago. “Unless it was something where I absolutely had to go to him and say hey Michael would you do this interview or whatever it might have been…I tried to stay away from that unless it was unavoidable. When I did go to him, he was generally receptive because I didn’t bother him a lot.”  

Larrivee took that same approach to Michael, but seemed to have a leg up on the competition.

“The relationship I had with him (MJ) went back to before I was doing Bulls’ games. Tribune Company (then the owner of WGN-TV and Radio) had another division in it. They used to televise the City Championship game in Chicago. They paired Michael and me together one year,” said Larrivee.  “This is before the Bulls started to win championships, but Michael was still wildly popular. They snuck him into the UIC Pavilion. I’ll never forget our production meeting, with Michael sitting on a toilet seat, eating KFC and we were all talking about what we were going to do at the open of the game. During the National Anthem where they dimmed the lights, they snuck Michael in from the back to our seats, then the lights came on and people saw him and went wild.” 

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Even the broadcasters knew it was the end of the line as did the players in 1998. So, what else can you do but enjoy the ride right? I mean how many times can get that lucky to cover a team that annually wins championships? Larrivee wasn’t going to miss a single chance to soak it all in. 

“Tim Hallam (Bulls Senior Director of Public & Media Relations) and I would sit there at center court as the Bulls were warming up getting set to play the game and look at Michael Jordan and say ‘hey, let’s make sure we don’t take this for granted, because we’re never going to see the likes of this again’.”, Larrivee said.  “We would do that almost every 2, 3 games and sit back and say don’t take it for granted, it won’t be like this forever.  That’s kind of the way it was. We did savor it and it was a big deal that Last Dance, all the way through.”  

Funk was just impressed with what the team accomplished in that final championship season, comparing it to another of the titles.

He told NBC Sports Chicago, “I would go back to the third championship in the first three peat and use that as kind of a template for the last one. It seemed like they were running on fumes and Michael was running on fumes. We know how hard it is to win one, then to win two and then the near impossible task of trying to win three. I think the last one of the second three peat, was the hardest of all of them. They’re all hard. That third one especially with all that was swirling around them, the age of some of the players, injuries, that had to be the most difficult to accomplish.”

There are certain calls on the radio or television that take you back. These famous calls remind you where you were, what you were doing, who you were with and even what you were wearing at the time. Funk had one of the all-timers with his description of the last shot Jordan would ever take in a Bulls uniform.  

“Michael against Russell, 12 seconds, 11, 10 Jordan, Jordan a drive, hangs, fires, scores! He scores! The Bulls lead 87-86 with 5 and 2 tenths left, and now they’re one stop away. Oh my goodness!”

“That call, of all that I did, that one I’ll always remember only because it was the last one.”, Funk told the Bulls Talk Podcast.  “That was kind of the end. So, I’ll never forget that one.” 

Indeed, it was the end. The team was broken up the following year. Tim Floyd was brought in to coach a cast of no-name players in a shortened season. The Bulls were just a shadow, a small shadow of their former selves. But the broadcasts had to go on. 

For the professionals the Bulls had behind the mics, the play on the court changed nothing about how they got ready for games. Larrivee told me that the show must go on and he didn’t have any trouble gearing up for the 1999 Bulls. 

“It’s an NBA game, it’s a big-time game, it’s on a Superstation WGN-TV. Now the spotlight wasn’t as great on us at that time. You know you feel that. But it does not preclude the way you prepare for that game or the approach you take to the game going in.”, Larrivee told me.  “We are professionals, but we’re also people so yes, there is a little bit less to it when it’s not a big moment or a big game. At the same time, that doesn’t mean you take it any lighter. I prepared the same way that following year as I did during the Last Dance.”

Tom Dore, who also called Bulls basketball on television during the great runs of the 90’s, obviously knew that ’99 was going to be a lot different. He explained to Sports Illustrated the new challenges of that season.  

“How do we get people to say, ‘You should still come and see this? That you need to watch our games.’” Dore told SI.  “The key is just you’re looking for anything positive to talk about. And then Mike Tyson hit you with another one to the gut. And then Muhammad Ali hit you with a left to the temple. And then Joe Frazier hit you with an uppercut. That’s what it was like.”

As we take a final look back at the Last Dance, the last word belongs to Larrivee who had an interesting take on how things came to an end. 

“I think there’s a romantic quality to this. The Bulls win their third in a row. But it’s tradition that the champion gets to go out on his or her sword and when you break up a team like that after a championship they didn’t get out on their sword. They didn’t get a chance to be dethroned.

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“They went out as champions, they were never beaten, there’s something special about that. I know Michael to this day regrets that they didn’t get a chance to go for a fourth (in a row). He feels very strongly they would have won another one. I don’t know if they could have mustered it again, but they never got a chance to. Thus, here they are 22 years later we remember them as they were.”

A special group for sure. A special treat for all of us. Five Sunday nights of pleasure during this crazy pandemic. Whether you liked how it was done or didn’t, a tip of the hat to those responsible for bringing it to us. The Last Dance was one to remember. 

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