As part of “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part series about Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, viewers got a chance to check out behind-the-scenes footage from that season, starting with training camp (and a preseason trip to Paris) all the way to Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
One Baltimore native didn’t need any behind-the-scenes footage – because he lived it.
Former Maryland and Dunbar star Keith Booth was drafted by Chicago with the No. 28 overall pick of the 1997 Draft after the 6-foot-6 forward averaged 14.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game for the Terps from 1993-1997. He also helped lead Maryland to four NCAA Tournament appearances and two trips to the Sweet Sixteen. His best season came as a senior, when he averaged 19.5 points and 7.9 rebounds.
Booth joined Glenn Clark Radio May 21 to discuss the 1997-98 season, during which Jordan won his sixth championship in eight years.
Booth said the film crew that followed the Bulls around that season was led by Andrew Thompson, the brother of former Los Angeles Lakers big man Mychal Thompson (the No. 1 pick of the 1978 NBA Draft) and uncle of current Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (one of the best shooters ever).
Keith Booth: It was being filmed [not so much] as a documentary. You know how they put the things together in terms of looking back on the season? It was more so done like that. It just so happened that Andrew had pretty much unlimited access because he was like a member of the team. He’d go out to dinner with us. He’d have conversations with us individually on the bus, in the locker room, all that kind of stuff. So he was like another member of the team, so everybody felt comfortable filming what he did. From what I understand, Adam Silver, who’s now the commissioner, was in charge of NBA Entertainment when David Stern was commissioner. It was put on the shelf waiting for Michael’s approval for the NBA to use it however they wanted to.
Prior to 1997-98, Bulls general manager Jerry Krause said that the forthcoming season would be head coach Phil Jackson’s last with the team – even if Chicago went 82-0. Given that Jordan didn’t want to play for any coach other than Jackson, the head man since 1989, there was a sense that this could be the final season of the Bulls’ Jordan-led dynasty. “The Last Dance” also documents the icy relationship Jordan and fellow star Scottie Pippen had with Krause. Did Booth sense tension when he joined the team?
KB: It was real. The documentary pretty much stated the facts. It was based on all facts in terms of what actually took place, so for me there was nothing new in there that I didn’t know. It was just a matter of recalling a lot of memories. When I first got there, just imagine a rookie coming out of Maryland, you get drafted. Let’s say you grew up idolizing the Jordans, the Pippens and loving those teams and then you become a part of it all the sudden. I pretty much walked in and had no idea what the hell I was getting myself into from a standpoint of the turmoil or the history that had taken place between the front office and the team.
Booth said the Bulls drafted him with the hope that he’d spend the 1997-98 season developing his game overseas because Jackson didn’t normally play rookies. Booth opted to stay in the NBA, but he played a total of 17 minutes and scored 10 points that season. Booth said Jackson still did a solid job of keeping him involved and connecting with him.
KB: I love Phil Jackson to this day, one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever been around in terms of making everybody feel a part of that whole championship run. He took the time to meet with me, not only that first time but on a weekly basis to have conversations about life. He understood how important my role was. But I’ve got to keep it all the way 100 and real with you guys that you go through the part of being frustrated not playing the whole season and all that kind of stuff. But for me, I had a chance to be a practice player. Phil made a point to really make me feel a part of it because he knew how important my role was when it came to practice. I got a kick out of being Reggie Miller during the playoff series. You can imagine with the frustration being built up how many shots I was getting up in practice during the playoffs.
“The Last Dance” delves into two times Naismith Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman, one of the best defenders and rebounders ever, left the team during the 1997-98 season. One was a 48-hour trip to Las Vegas during the regular season that turned into more than 48 hours. Another came during the Finals when he wrestled with nWo during a WCW event in Michigan (he missed a practice). Booth has his own Rodman story, too, though he prefaces it by saying that Rodman was one of his favorite teammates ever because of how hard he worked.
KB: I remember during one of Dennis’ escapades – [he went to] Vegas during the playoffs. I was practicing great, still had a little bit of hope that maybe Phil would play me. I’ll never forget MJ vouching for me the time that Dennis was gone for a couple days. I practiced real well. MJ was vouching for me. “Phil, why don’t you effing play Booth, man? Give him a shot, man! He’s showing what he can do.” He looked at MJ and he looked at me and he rolled his eyes. MJ came to the locker room after practice was over with all the guys and he said, “Damn, Booth, I tried. I tried!” Everybody just busted out laughing.
Booth wasn’t shown much during “The Last Dance,” but toward the end of the series, he was shown air-balling a shot in practice. Booth said the shot was part of a ritual the Bulls did at practice – and he had an explanation for the air ball:
KB: At the end of every practice, we would shoot a shot. It was like 50 bucks per shot. We did it at the end of every practice on the road or at home. And at the end of the year, whoever made the most shots over the course of the year, you’d get all the money that was in the pot. Everybody participated. But for a rookie, I practiced and then I had to go work out with the trainer, I had to go lift weights and then I had to come shoot that shot. So I didn’t have a chance in hell to make that shot. You’re benching like 220. If you’ve ever lifted weight and gone to try to shoot a shot, you’re going to shoot an air ball. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.
Booth said he watched “The Last Dance” with his 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, both of whom were excited to see their father during his younger years. He says he still keeps in touch with his teammates from that season. Booth played for Chicago in 1998-99 as well, getting into 39 games and making four starts, before moving on to coaching.
KB: Great, great documentary overall and a great time in my life. Despite the fact that I didn’t play a lot, just that whole experience, it don’t get no better than that for a young kid from Baltimore idolizing Chicago Bulls teams and players at that time. Having an opportunity to become a part of that was something special that I’ll never forget.
For more from Booth, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics