‘The Last Dance’ Episodes III & IV: Phil Jackson’s Natives influences

Kolby KickingWoman

#KickinWithKolby — Thoughts from a Native sports fan #Sportzball

By Kolby KickingWoman & Dalton Walker

Indian Country Today

Just as Michael Jordan did throughout his entire career, “The Last Dance” delivered again on Sunday night. Episodes III and IV highlighting head coach Phil Jackson, Dennis Rodman and the “Bad Boy” Pistons were awesome.

I am not over-exaggerating when I say I can’t get enough of this documentary. Don’t be surprised when I buy the box-set whenever it becomes available. Seriously, it’s that good.

Similar to how MJ didn’t start winning championships until he bought into Jackson’s equal-opportunity team system, I want to “share the rock,” in the same vein. Here at Indian Country Today, I am far from the only sports fan.

Being that much of the sports world is experiencing “The Last Dance” collectively, I wanted to collaborate with my colleague, Dalton Walker, on these columns featuring our takeaways from the documentary.

Like most of us, he’s hurtin’, as we move into day 50 without the NBA. So without further ado, I’ll let Mr. Walker share his thoughts on Sunday’s episodes.

Thank you, Kolby.

First, I love the NBA. I miss the NBA.

I’ve been a fan since the ‘90s and I’m a recovering Michael Jordan fanatic. I was one of those super fans who believed a near-40-year-old Jordan would lead the Washington Wizards to the 2002 title. He didn’t.

With the NBA on hold because of COVID-19, I needed a basketball fix. Enter ESPN’s “The Last Dance.” The 10-part documentary based on the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls season was basically made for Jordan lovers or those too young to have watched Jordan play live but are curious about his legacy. Through four episodes, I have learned little new information about Jordan and I’m fine with that. I was more curious about how other members of the famed Bulls team would be spotlighted.

Finally, I got my wish with episode IV. Legendary Bulls coach Phil Jackson, known for winning championships and for his unusual style of coaching, shared how he initially connected with power rebounder Dennis Rodman. Jackson, who has written multiple books, has roots in Montana and North Dakota and along his way developed a fascination with Native people, more specifically Lakota people, and used some of what he learned in his coaching style. The episode shared some of that perspective.

Jackson sat down for nearly six hours as part of this documentary so I knew something related to Native people was coming. Apparently, Rodman, who played college basketball in Oklahoma, received a necklace from a Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma citizen. That’s all the information we got about the necklace but that necklace connected Rodman and Jackson.

Jackson talked some about Native American culture and its impact on his coaching style. The episode shared little detail about specific tribes, which was disappointing considering Jackson had held multiple basketball camps in the past on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The documentary did show Native art Jackson had on display.

ESPN missed a great opportunity to show the eyes of the NBA world important details about Native people that are far too often overlooked. Thankfully we didn’t hear any stereotypical flute playing during this short segment. Unfortunately, ESPN included a running drill done by Bulls players that Jackson called “Indian drill.” Basically, it involves running in a line and the player in the back has to sprint in front of others and around the court to the head of the line.

Great stuff, Dalton!

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I couldn’t agree more about the missed opportunity to explore specific tribes’ teachings that really impacted Jackson. He even busted out a little Lakota language, albeit one word, when he talked about his breakthrough with Rodman.

After their shared moment with Rodman’s Ponca necklace, Jackson shared the following with his eccentric power forward.

“Well Dennis, in their tradition and the tradition that I knew, you would be a heyoka, a backward-walking person,” Jackson said. “They were people that were different and you’re a heyoka. So you’re this heyoka in this tribe.”

I wasn’t sure if the keyboard warriors were going to come out of the woodwork after this episode and call out Jackson but as far as I could see, they didn’t.

For what it’s worth, I believe Jackson is the real deal. As Dalton referred to, he’s held basketball camps on reservations over the years and he was even given a Lakota name, Wanbli Luzahan, which means Swift Eagle.

Indian Country Today archives: Williams: Phil Jackson demonstrates Lakota measure of greatness

Additionally, my parents can attest to, Jackson frequented the Arlee powwow which is usually held the Fourth of July weekend in Arlee, Montana. It’s well known he has a cabin on Flathead Lake which is less than an hour’s drive from Arlee.

Overall, I imagine Phil went more in depth on how he used Native teachings to connect and bring his team together. I know for a fact I’ve heard stories of him smudging in the locker room.

Makes me wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Even more reason to buy the box-set for deleted scenes and extended interviews!

There’s definitely more to these episodes than Jackson and his Native ties.

Even though he gets most of the blame for breaking up the Bulls’ dynasty, general manager Jerry Krause deserves credit for scouting players like Scottie Pippen and Rodman who didn’t play Division-I basketball.

Let alone the fact we are still a few episodes away from Toni Kukoč being introduced.

Additionally, we didn’t even talk about the intensity of the rivalry the Jordan Bulls had with the Detroit Pistons. Talk about bad blood!

But we’re a Native news organization and it only felt right to highlight and discuss Jackson and the influence Indignenous ways of knowing had on his career.

In 2016, ESPN had a shorter documentary mini-series, “O.J.: Made in America,” that won the Academy Award for “Best Documentary Feature” and set the bar for sports documentaries.

I’m here to say, “The Last Dance” is re-setting the bar!

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

Support Indian Country Today by becoming a member. Click here.

Dalton Walker contributed to this column.

Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit, public media enterprise. Reader support is critical. We do not charge for subscriptions and tribal media (or any media, for that matter) can use our content for free. Our goal is public service. Please join our cause and support independent journalism today. We have an audacious plan for 2020 and your donation will help us make it so. #MyICT


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