Scott Burrell plays only a supporting role in the ESPN series “The Last Dance,” much like the role he played in his one season with the Bulls. He averaged 5.2 points and 13.7 minutes in 1997-98.
But his recurring part in the 10-episode series that premieres on Sunday night is crucial, because he serves as Exhibit A of Michael Jordan’s relentless, career-long effort to push lesser teammates to greatness.
Jordan had nothing to prove by then as a five-time NBA champion and Burrell was no kid, having been the 20th pick in the 1993 NBA Draft after starring at Connecticut, then spending four seasons in the pros.
But Jordan decided from Day One to treat him like a rookie, torturing him on and off the court to be the best version of himself.
It is both painful and entertaining to watch. Twenty-two years later, Burrell is none the worse for wear.
“It was just to make me better and to prepare me for helping that team win,” Burrell said on Tuesday from his home in Connecticut. “Everybody has a job. You better do your job to the best of your ability.
“If he was easy on me, I never would have gotten better mentally, physically, skill-wise. He pushed, which is what he’s supposed to do. There is no easy ride with the Bulls.”
Burrell is 49 now, the head coach at Southern Connecticut State and married to SNY reporter Jeane Coakley, with whom he has two young children.
The lessons and experiences from that “Last Dance” ride with Jordan and the Bulls still resonate. “He prepared me, I think, for life,” Burrell said.
In the series, which will run for two hours on five consecutive Sunday nights, Jordan is seen riding Burrell hard in practices and giving him grief off the court, too.
The morning after Super Bowl XXXII on Jan. 26, 1998, Jordan and Burrell are on a plane to Vancouver when Jordan launches into a biting monologue about Burrell’s alleged late-night drinking and socializing with women.
Finally, Jordan calls him “Dennis Rodman Jr.” as Burrell begs the cameraman to turn away, lest his parents get a look at the video and cringe.
Burrell was powerless to stop it. “It’s funny, because whatever he says, he’s going to do what he wants to do,” he said. “That’s who he is. There’s nothing you can really say.”
Were the allegations true? “He was just giving me crap,” Burrell said, laughing.
Late in the series, present-day Jordan talks about trying to push Burrell to be as good as his skill level suggested, then says, “I could never get him. He’s such a nice guy.”
To this day, when Jordan sees his old teammate, he says, “’Uh-oh, he’s still smiling!’” Burrell said, laughing.
“But you can smile and still work as hard as you can and be the best you can, and that’s what I tried to do. If you don’t smile, if you don’t enjoy what you do and you don’t smile, life is not joyful.”
Burrell hopes younger fans and players will find the series educational, including his own at Southern Connecticut, who know far more about Kobe Bryant and LeBron James than about Jordan.
“They don’t really know Michael, how great he was and competitive he was,” said Burrell, who lamented that it is difficult to push players of today the way he was pushed, from college to the NBA.
“There was no taking days off in practice, no taking days off of games,” Burrell said. “[Jordan] was a pit bull every day.”
Jordan wanted Burrell to be ready if needed, and, he was, scoring 23 points and shooting 9-for-11 in the clinching game of a first-round playoff series against the Nets — for whom he played the next two seasons.
“There are no hard feelings between me and Mike,” he said. “When I’m in Florida, we play golf. He’s one of my references on my resume. He’s a good person. He just accepts no free rides from anybody; you have to work for everything.”
Burrell has a ring to show for it all, and the experience of a lifetime.
“I hope people realize what it took to be Michael Jordan, what it took to play for the Bulls and be a champion and why they were great for so long,” he said. “It’s because we had a great leader who pushed people to be their best every day. I hope they don’t think he’s a bully. I hope they don’t think he was abusive.
“I just think he’s someone that was driven to win and compete. You could always quit if you didn’t like it. You could go ask for a trade if you didn’t like it. But if you wanted to be great, wanted to be part of a winning team, learn and get better.”