The Last Dance brought back a tremendous amount of 90’s nostalgia, as basketball fans were transported back to the era when Michael Jordan reigned over the league. It rekindled debates and discussions about Isiah Thomas being left off the Dream Team, Jordan’s first and second retirements, and a whole host of “what ifs.”
It also brought some of the central figures of the 90’s NBA back into focus, such as Ahmad Rashad, who was a regular in the documentary as someone that saw Jordan’s career through the most unique of lenses: a reporter for NBC but also as one of Jordan’s closest friends. Rashad has a perspective on Jordan’s career that’s all his own, and was able to offer some additional commentary on social media to add to the stories being told in The Last Dance.
This past Monday, Rashad hosted a livestream of Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals in a partnership with Gatorade, with guests Sue Bird, Zach LaVine, James Wiseman, and Ron Harper. Following that, Rashad spoke with DIME over the phone on behalf of Gatorade about what it was like reliving that game again, what it’s been like watching The Last Dance with Jordan each week, his role in Jordan’s pregame ritual, the Inside Stuff 90’s reunion, Inside Stuff‘s legacy, and what it was like being by Jordan’s side as he launched into superstardom.
I think The Last Dance was at its best when it was either showing the behind the scenes footage or giving us a glimpse into Michael Jordan the human, like the section in the finale on Gus Lett. As someone that knows that side of Mike, was that something you were glad the public got to see?
Yes. I thought one of the major things of all of that is you got to see Michael Jordan as a human being. You know, he’s a regular human being that deals with all the things us regular people deal with, but it was a great chance to see him outside of dunking and shooting and all those kinds of things, you really got to see it. It was like being a fly on the wall, and I think that was the greatest thing. Because everybody that had seen him play during that time, you never got to see that. You never knew that side of him, the human being side, and I thought that this was an excellent time for people to just see who was Michael Jordan.
What was watching this like for you as someone who saw a lot of those moments and more, getting to relive it again 20-plus years later?
Well, you know, we watch it together. So we would sit down and we would laugh at stuff. We would reminisce, it was almost like a high school reunion. We’d talk about certain things, we would watch a game and we’d talk about a certain player. “Remember that guy, he could do this and this?” “Aw yeah, I remember that shot.” “Hey remember that time we were almost late and we had to…”
You know, it was one of those kinds of things of looking back and kind of realizing all of it, and then it was all the action was around a game. So then watching the game and remembering all the things that happened over the course of the game. It was a lot of fun for us, and it was something we did every Sunday for the entire time. So it was a lot of laughing and a lot of joking around. It was one of those kinds of things, us reminding each other of stuff. So it was pretty cool.
You’ve taken to social media some to fill in gaps and elaborate on some stories told in the doc. How much fun have you had reflecting on all of this and having a chance to tell some of these stories to a generation that doesn’t know them?
You know, the most fun I had was when Gatorade and NBA got together to provide a way for fans to see this game all over again, and I got the chance to do it with Sue Bird and Zach LaVine and James Wiseman and Ron Harper. So, to get together with them and do it, I thought was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, because people could watch the game that maybe they’ve never seen it, but they got insight from us over the course of that game — almost like we were sitting in your living room and watching it with you, and that became a lot of fun. Where I could go to Harp and say, “Harp remember this?” Or I could go to Sue and say, “What would you have done in this situation?” Or James as a young man, “Who impresses you most?”
Just those things that, when you sit down and watch a game you’re never going to be able to have us in your living room, up to that point, but because of Gatorade, they put us all together and we had a chance to react to things going on. I thought that enhanced the viewership, it enhanced your knowledge of what’s going on, and hopefully it entertains you in a way that it would never happen again. It was a great idea, I mean, they came up with just a big, great idea just to do this and I just have never seen it before, but I certainly had fun.
Yeah, I was going to ask about that, because you had a wide age range. You have Zach LaVine who probably was real young when that happened, James Wiseman wasn’t even born yet. You have Sue Bird who was definitely watching as a teenager, and you have Ron Harper who was actually on the floor. How interesting was it to see them watch it and give their insight from all different perspectives?
Well it was fun, and it was fun to see some of the reaction that they had. James Wiseman is probably a lot older in his reality than his age, because he said some things that were pretty pertinent from what he was taking away from the game. The other stuff, like you just said, Sue Bird is one of the greatest players who ever played and then you had Ron Harper who was actually in the game. So I would say stuff to Harp because I remember talking to Harp during that time. We would talk during that entire time, so it was almost sort of a lead through. I would lead them through what was going to happen, and what did happen and Harp could say why it happened, and Sue could say what she would do in those situations, and James could say who impressed him most, and the same thing with Zach. I think it was a great group of people and it covered every aspect of that great game from every viewpoint.
We saw some a few times you shared some pregame moments with Mike, in the car on the way to, I believe, Game 2 of the Nets series and in the back of the locker room talking to him before Game 7 of the conference finals against the Pacers. What was it like being there and seeing his process of getting ready for big games and what was he like in those moments?
He was very businesslike, to a point. Because we had … there was a thing we would always do. I would get to the arena early and find a room, and then Michael and Phil Jackson would come to that room, and we would sort of be hiding out under the bleachers somewhere in this room in every arena that they played in. That was my job, to find a room we could be in. And we would talk about everything but basketball. We’d be joking, talking telling stories, just really having a great time, and then when we left there it was just a feel that now was time to get serious. So just that walk to the locker room, that whole jovial thing went away and it was serious. And I think any time you saw that I was in the locker room was usually after we went to that room where we laughed a lot, because it would’ve been very little laughing at that point you saw. There was a game to be played and it got a little bit serious at that point.
I don’t even know, even when I looked at that I was kept thinking, “How did I get in there?” You know? They don’t let anyone in that room, but I remember walking through the locker room all the time. Nobody ever said anything, and I look at it like, they don’t let press people go back in the training room, but that was like my spot. It was just a whole different thing. I felt like I knew all the guys on the team, so no one was ever surprised by it. It was just … and having been a professional athlete, I know what it’s about when you’re getting ready to go to battle. I know what it’s like. So the trick is to not get in the way. You can’t get in the way, they’re going to where they’re going just don’t get in the way.
You’ve told a few stories recently about other folks in the media being upset over that relationship you had. I saw the Jim Gray story you told and then talking about that ’93 sunglasses interview and people thinking you shouldn’t have been the one to do it.
How did you navigate that and just learn to deal with that part of it, where some of your peers in the media were jealous or upset you were able to do some of those things that aren’t offered to most?
Well, I didn’t pay any attention to it. I was just doing what I do. I can’t make any excuse for it, I mean, it’s not my fault that the player they all want to cover is one of my best friends. That’s fortunate for me, because I had that job and I had that access. But I had that same sort of access with Phil Jackson. It’s like when Phil told Jim Gray that, “Ahmad’s family, you’re media, so get the hell out.” I think that pretty much answered it. Like, no word was said after that and we kept on doing what we were doing.
It’s hard to fathom exactly how popular and how famous Michael was. The doc touched on the Be Like Mike campaign, which Gatorade recently rebooted, but what is it about Jordan that you think made fans connect with him in the way they did that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it like that with any other athlete?
Well, I had never seen it with any other athlete, either, but you almost have to take it to another level. It’s like a great — it’s like the Rolling Stones or somebody. They put on great concert after great concert after great concert, well that’s the way Michael played. He was great, great, great, greater, greater, greatest. Every night. It wasn’t one of those things where, I don’t think you’ll hear the story very often that they went to watch the Bulls play and Michael scored eight points.
If you went to see them play, he took it upon himself, because he told me one time, “You know what drives me? There’s somebody in those stands that’s never seen me play before. I don’t care where the game is, I don’t care where we play. There’s somebody in the stands that’s never seen me play.” And he felt like he owed them to show them who he was. And that was kind of cool, and I’m sure you have entertainers that feel that way too. Especially great entertainers where every show is a great show. And Michael was a great entertainer and every game was a great game.
The last thing on that. The other thing that I thought was, Chicago was the perfect town to have Michael Jordan. It’s one of the great sports towns in the country, if not the greatest. And it was just perfect. The Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan fit like a glove.
Absolutely. You just had the Inside Stuff 90’s reunion. How much fun was it having all those guys together, swapping stories and catching up? I mean, I can’t imagine there’s been a time where all 20, 25 of y’all have been able to do something like that.
[Laughs] That was so much fun. I felt so good that these guys did it for me, and I didn’t even have to ask twice, just once and they all showed up. It was so much fun. It was like having a whole group of guys over to my house, and we all thought you guys all come over, have a couple beers, talk about the old days and kick it back and forth. Well, good luck doing that, but once we had that there, that’s exactly what it turned into. There was more stories and guys cracking on each other and they hadn’t seen each other in a long time, either. It’s like, that might’ve been the first time — I talked to David Robinson and he said, “I hadn’t seen any of those guys in 15 years.”
So it was fun, that was another sort of like high school reunion. And I had stories of all of ’em, Karl Malone, John Stockton, all these guys there were more and more stories, and then once we just got started we just rolled with it and it was just a lot of fun. I think that’s worth doing again.
Yeah, it was a blast to watch. It kind of felt like we were watching a bunch of old friends catching up. And I think this was always kind of the beauty of Inside Stuff, and this was something I wanted to ask. It was never just, OK we’re going to do this formal, sit down interview. It always felt like those guys were so comfortable, and I know it’s something that’s influenced me when I have the opportunity if I have a chance to do something that’s not just sit down across from a player. Is that something you as a former athlete knew was a good formula to follow, and was it always the plan of, if we can get them out of the media room and into their element they’re going to be more open and more willing to show their personality?
Well it was my plan when I was executive producer of Inside Stuff was that every single interview I did, or we did, was not just a set interview, and it was a conversation where everyone can become comfortable and say whatever you want. It wasn’t just a flat out interview, it was a conversation so you would actually see what these guys are all about. You would learn so much more about who you’re interviewing by having a conversation as opposed to a quiz, and to show them doing things and being normal. What’s their normal side? What’s the side people can relate to? Because you can’t relate to them playing basketball, they can do that better than anybody you’ve ever seen. But you can relate to them going to the store. Like, who goes to the store? You ever been to the mall? You ever change a tire? So, stuff we all do, and it was fun having those guys deal with that. And it created an atmosphere of everybody being comfortable. It wasn’t just them being comfortable, but me being comfortable and also the viewers being comfortable.
And like you said, with all of those guys being willing to hop on that call kind of shows how important Inside Stuff was to that era and the growth of the NBA’s popularity. How proud are you of the legacy of the show and what y’all were able to do over 15 years?
It is something I’m very proud of. One of the greatest achievements of my life was to executive produce and managing edit that show. That was such a strong show and we were the first of that genre, and nobody could do anything like it. It was the only show like that, and we really hit a home run. We also were lucky that we’re on the cusp of the NBA going global, and Inside Stuff was on in, like, 200 countries, 180 countries, something like that. What helped also was it was in Michael’s era where Michael was blowing up all over the world. So, we were almost on that sort of sleigh and he was taking us a long, and the whole league, they had so many stars at that time and the music thing and the social dressing, and the NBA was on fire. And we were able to capture that.
I also remember we used to do a stay in school special every year during the All-Star, and we’d have everyone from Will Smith to everybody there to co-host the thing, and do all these things for the kids. Once we got their attention about basketball we could slip in some educational things once you get the attention. Everybody sort of looked forward to it. So it caught on every single element of that era. We were right at the top and we were riding the crest of that, and did it in such a great way that I think people felt — you know television is different. When you’re on television you’re coming into people’s homes. It’s different than going to the movies. When you go to the movies, there’s a distance between you, but when you come on every Saturday to somebody’s home, you become a part of their home. A day doesn’t go by for me, even now, that somebody doesn’t say, “I watched that show every Saturday.” That happens every day, so it just makes me feel good that it was really something that was done one time, it’s never really been done again, and it was done really well, too.
You mention this was when Michael and the league was going global, and you were there for some of those trips around the world — the trip to Paris in 1997, and then of course the Dream Team in 1992. What was it like seeing that in person and seeing the global explosion when you were with the Dream Team or with Michael overseas and just seeing him become this global superstar?
It was like Elvis [laughs]. But nobody remembers Elvis either, he’s too old, but it was overwhelming. Yeah, I remember being in Paris and we were going to get some cigars from a cigar shop, and we get in a van and there must’ve been four or five cop cars in front and behind, and by the time we got to the store there were people lined up for blocks just to get a glimpse of him coming out of the truck. It was just like that, and when the game came in they got a chance to see Michael Jordan. It’s like the whole world knew about him, but now you got a chance to see him in person and the excitement was over the top.
And then the Dream Team, it wasn’t only Michael, it was all those other guys, too. I mean, it was the Dream Team, led by Michael, but also the group that was with him were all great players too. It was just fascinating. Every time they’d go out and beat teams by 20, 30 points and, you know, everybody lived up to the billing. Sometimes in entertainment it’s hard to live up to the billing, where you get a billing that’s so big and you wait for it and then people get a little let down. Well this was past great, they really shattered whatever you were thinking, they went way over the top of that.
And even the guys on the opposing teams would lose by 30 and then go get autographs.
[Laughs] Yes, I remember that! I remember when guys would do that, the end of the game they didn’t care if they lost by 50 they just wanted an autograph and a picture.
I mean, I can’t blame them.
The thought of them winning was probably not a thought.
To close, and I know this is probably an impossible question, but do you have a favorite Michael Jordan story or just a story that really encapsulates who he is?
You know what, it’s so many little ones that show … I mean he was really committed. I remember when he came back to New York [in his last game at the Garden in 1998] and he had on some old shoes that he wore years ago or something, and they were too small. At halftime, I had to interview him and his feet hurt so bad they were bleeding, they had swole up in his shoes so he couldn’t take them off. I said, “Why don’t you just take them off and put on another pair?” And he said, “I can’t take them off, I won’t be able to get my feet back in a shoe.” So he played the whole second half with his toes bleeding and every time he stopped he said it was like someone sticking knives in his toes, but it didn’t stop him. It didn’t stop him from continuing on out and playing. The guy was just committed, really committed.
But I think the one thing people need to understand, the attitude you saw him towards his teammates and trying to get everybody fired up and committed to playing, it’s not unlike — you think Larry Bird wasn’t like that? You think Magic Johnson wasn’t like that? Those guys were all like that. Those were guys that wanted to put their foot on your throat. They got everything they could get out of their teammates. Everything they could get out of their teammates. This was just the first time you saw inside a locker room, but it’s not the only time you see great players lead like that. You lead by performance and bringing guys along. I think that was something that you never would’ve seen had you not seen this Last Dance.