Michael Jordan’s former teammate has loved the punchlines. Scott Burrell still enjoys them, even if they often came at his expense.
When Jordan chastised him frequently during the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 NBA season, Burrell either laughed or responded in a playful manner. When “The Last Dance” documentary aired some of those exchanges Sunday, Burrell and his family remained just as amused.
“I never took it as him being cruel or him being evil. People talk junk to each other playing basketball all the time,” Burrell told USA TODAY Sports. “He never physically touched me. So he said some words. Why should words hurt me? I’m an adult. I’m learning every time I step on the court. I’m being pushed like I’ve never been pushed before. I needed that.”
Jordan believed Burrell needed that treatment as well.
A defiant Jordan explained “my mentality was to go out and win at any cost.” So much that Jordan reasoned, “I’m going to ridicule you until you get on the same level with me.” Although Jordan gave all of his teammates that treatment, he targeted Burrell for a few reasons.
Burrell, whom the Bulls acquired from Golden State for Dickey Simpkins before the 1997-98 season, had not played on the Bulls’ other five NBA championship teams. Jordan observed that “what Scottie was lacking was a commitment, a determination and a seriousness.”
So, Jordan often challenged Burrell. During one practice, Jordan dismissed Burrell’s ability to guard him. At another practice, Jordan called out Burrell as his defensive assignment. After one morning shootaround, Jordan ridiculed Burrell’s free-throw shooting. After a game, Jordan teased Burrell for his 1-of-7 mark from the field.
Burrell and his family viewed those clips as if they were watching a sitcom. He added he accepted Jordan’s critiques “100 percent” because of his championship experience, talent and work ethic.
“They laugh when he rides me just like I do. They know deep down inside that MJ likes me,” Burrell said. “I know MJ likes me. They know he challenged me every day. Who doesn’t like challenges? Well, some people don’t. That’s their prerogative, but I do.”
Some people might not like a star teammate sharing details about their private life, either. Burrell did not care, though. During an earlier episode, Jordan sat with Burrell on the team plane and said in front of a nearby cameraman that Burrell “is an alcoholic” that often stays out late. Burrell jokingly pleaded for the cameraman to stop filming so his parents could not see the footage.
‘THE LAST DANCE’:Jordan’s retirement influenced by father’s murder, not gambling
‘THIS ONE’S FOR DADDY’:‘The Last Dance’ showcases Jordan’s human side in emotional title without father
No worries. Burrell said he forewarned his amused parents about eight years ago about the incident. Jeane Coakley, Burrell’s wife and a sports reporter for SNY, expressed her amusement on her Twitter account.
“Every story is like a fish tale. You catch a two-inch fish. But by the end of the story, it’s a shark,” Burrell said, laughing. “I was a young 27-year-old guy. I enjoyed life. But I never got in trouble and never partied too much. I had fun just like everybody else would do.”
Burrell also had fun with Jordan’s teasing, including when they once played one-on-one. Jordan won, 7-6, but Burrell contended he had beaten Jordan because “he fouled me and didn’t give me the ball back.” He also lamented that “Ron Harper backed him like he always did.”
So, Burrell challenged Jordan to a rematch. Jordan retorted, “Why? So you can tell everybody you beat Michael Jordan? What am I going to say? I beat Scott Burrell?” Burrell remained adamant he won the first game, but he relented after Jordan’s insult.
“You got to know when to stop with MJ,” Burrell said. “If you don’t stop, it’s going to go on to the bus and it’s going to go on to the plane. So you have to know when to stop with him. Or else it’s going to be relentless.”
Jordan admitted he teased Burrell relentlessly partly because “I try to get him to fight me a couple of times.” Former Bulls guard Steve Kerr did that once after Jordan insulted and committed a handful of hard fouls during a scrimmage. Despite hearing Jordan’s constant needling and insults, however, Burrell kept his composure. Therefore, Burrell joked, “that means I won the battle.”
He might have won in a difference sense. Burrell played a modest role in the regular season (5.2 points and 2.5 rebounds in 13.7 minutes) and the playoffs (3.8 points and 2.0 rebounds in 12.4 minutes). Yet, Burrell had 23 points on 9-of-11 shooting in the Bulls’ decisive Game 3 win over the New Jersey Nets in the first round of the playoffs. Burrell credited Jordan for his season-long improvement, as well as gigs as an assistant men’s basketball coach at Quinnipiac (2007-2015) and as a head coach at Southern Connecticut State (2015-present).
Once “The Last Dance” began airing about three weeks ago, Burrell jokingly texted Jordan, “thank you for the thousand interviews you got me doing now.” Jordan expressed amusement and replied, “good luck.”
“I just hope people don’t look at MJ as a tyrant and was too tough on people,” Burrell said. “The majority of people that played with MJ benefited from playing with MJ. Whether it’s new contracts or new deals as coaches, everyone has benefited somehow. I don’t know if I would be a head coach if I didn’t play with Michael.”
REGGIE MILLER:Pacers were better than Bulls in 1998
MJ IN THE MINORS:Revisiting Jordan’s baseball career with fresh eyes
Because of his current role, Burrell can share plenty of stories about Jordan to his players. They mostly just ask Burrell if Jordan is better than LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. Burrell often replies that Jordan would have averaged between 45 to 50 points had he played in the modern NBA, which places more importance on a faster pace, 3-point shooting and enforced hand-checking rules.
“MJ averaged 30 [points], got beat up and took a whooping on his body and taking a punishment on his body. So imagine when everybody is friends with each other and there’s no contact when they meet you at the rim,” Burrell said. “Nobody is trying to take your head off each day and you don’t have to play every night with load management? He would easily average 45 a night.”
Otherwise, Burrell lamented that few players ask him about Jordan because “history is not important to a lot of people.” Even during “The Last Dance” airings, Burrell has not asked his players to watch episodes because “I don’t want to put anything on my guys that aren’t hungry for it or don’t want to know about it.” In other words, Burrell hardly treats his players the way Jordan treated him.
“You can’t. You won’t have a job,” Burrell said. “You try to recruit self-motivated players that want to be great and want to be in the gym and push themselves.”
Occasionally, though, Burrell will receive inquires from his players about Jordan. Then he will regale them with stories about how Jordan challenged him with insults, jokes and constructive criticism.
“I had every right to ask for a trade if I thought it was too hard. I have every right to quit in life like some people would’ve done. But how does that make me a better person and a better player?” Burrell said. “I’ve loved seeing every time he speaks how precise he is and how direct he is with what fires him up. I love it. I told him I’m ready to play now.”
Jordan likely responded with another insult. That’s often when happened when he talked with Burrell.