After watching ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance, it was impossible not to want to compare the Bulls’ dynasty of the 90s to the Patriots Reign of the 2000s. Throughout the series, I couldn’t help but notice so many parallels between the two. Let’s go through and examine some of the interesting similarities between them.
At the surface level, both teams won six titles and were led by one key player. Jordan for the Bulls, Brady for the Patriots. The two teams also won their titles in short spurts, with the Bulls three-peating twice, and the Pats winning three out of four and three out of five.
Then there’s the dynamic between General Manager and star player. Jerry Krause and Jordan clearly had their differences throughout their days in Chicago, and Brady and Belichick’s issues on contracts and personnel are well known. Despite the tension, the Patriots and Bulls were able to put their issues to the side for the greater good throughout their dominating runs.
In terms of coaching, both teams had a very similar state of affairs. During all six titles, they were led by the same head coach, Belichick for the Patriots, and Phil Jackson for the Bulls. In terms of winning, the Jordan/Jackson and Brady/Belichick combos were unmatched by any in sports history. The pair of duos had special relationships with each other, and while it wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows, they knew what it took to lay down their guns for the betterment of the team.
Another unique comparable is that each team had their own eccentric star player who marched to the beat of his own drum. For the Bulls, that was obviously the ever-flamboyant Dennis Rodman, and for New England that was Rob Gronkowski. Gronk never reached the level of distraction that Rodman did, however, he was one of the only players in the Belichick era who had his own rules. Whenever the 6’6″ behemoth was injured, the team would release joint statements with the Gronkowski family, something Belichick wouldn’t even consider doing with any other player. Similarly, Rodman was frequently MIA, most notably during the ’98 Finals where Rodman decided to film a WWE special instead of attending practice. I can’t imagine any other player would have the gall to pull that on Phil Jackson, but Rodman was a different cat. Despite the special treatment, both Rodman and Gronkowski were essential pieces to the championship puzzle and were irreplaceable on the playing stage.
The Patriots and Bulls General Managers also each had their own heartthrob that they presumably wanted to replace their star player with. Jimmy Garoppolo for Bill Belichick, and Tony Kukoć for Jerry Krause. For both teams, the fascination with a potential successor helped to deteriorate their relationship with their star player. Jordan famously went after Kukoć in the ’92 Olympics after he learned about Krause’s obsession with the Croatian sensation, and the drafting of Garoppolo was the flame that started the rift between Brady and Belichick. It also acted as motivation for the pair of stars, as Brady had a late-career renaissance after Garoppolo’s emergence, and Jordan proceeded to win three more rings as well, albeit with Kukoć playing a sizeable role alongside.
There’s also the mid-career absence for both star players. For Brady, his torn ACL in Week 1 of 2008 abruptly ended his season, and Jordan of course “retired” to play baseball for the White Sox in 1994. It’s a shame the two players missed those seasons, as Brady’s Patriots could have surely avenged their heartbreaking defeat in 2008, and Jordan’s Bulls had a shot to win four in a row if he hadn’t taken his year and a half sabbatical.
Each dynasty’s endings weren’t unique to each other either. The two franchises were coming off of a recent championship, (’18 for the Pats, ’98 for the Bulls), and their respective star players went off to play for another club. (Wizards for Jordan, Bucs for Brady). In both cases, the General Manager forced the exit for the star player. Belichick didn’t even offer Brady a contract this offseason, and Brady essentially knew that it would be his last year in New England at the start of the 2019 season. For the Bulls, Jerry Krause went as far as to publicly state that the ’98 season would be “The Last Dance” for the Bulls dynasty and that Phil Jackson wouldn’t return under any circumstances.
The thought that maybe they each could have won one more is something I will ponder forever. At the end of The Last Dance, we learned that Jordan truly did not want to retire after the ’98 season and that the rest of the team likely would have taken one-year deals to return in ’99. I’ll always believe that if Brady fully bought into the Patriots culture in 2020, and they brought in some more pass-catching talent, that they could still be a Super Bowl contender this year. Instead, Krause pushed Jordan out the door, and Belichick said sayonara to greatest of all time.
It’s a fascinating comparison to analyze these two storied franchises. Despite the differences in the sport, there are so many similarities between the two dynasties. For the Patriots and Bulls, each of their runs were unprecedented, and it’s likely we’ll never see anything close in our lifetimes.