🏀 'The Last Dance' Comes to Kansas

As the world battles the pandemic, on April 19 ESPN launched a 10-part series called The Last Dance which features Michael Jordan and gives an all-access look at the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls quest for a sixth NBA crown. Coming from another blue-blood program, Jordan, though brief, has a history with Kansas Basketball through former KU head coach Roy Williams. Two current KU staff members, Greg Gurley and Terry Nooner, played for Williams at KU in the 1990s remember their experiences with Jordan.

Jordan grew up in Wilmington, N.C., and was recruited out of high school by Williams, who at the time, was an assistant coach for former KU guard Dean Smith at North Carolina. Before his legendary NBA career, Jordan played three seasons at UNC, winning a national title in 1982, and like most student-athletes, he built a lifetime bond with his coaches and teammates. That loyalty and friendship between Jordan and Williams did not end after his UNC days.

Williams became Kansas’ seventh all-time coach in 1988. As a recruiting tool early in his KU career, Williams would have Jordan make appearances at KU camps and would welcome recruits to come visit when Jordan was in Lawrence. In 1990, a local sharp-shooting guard from nearby Leawood, Kansas, Greg Gurley was a top KU recruit. Gurley played four seasons for Williams and currently works in KU’s Williams Education Fund as an assistant athletics director for major gifts. He is also the analyst on the Jayhawk Radio Network. Gurley remembers his first encounter with Jordan.

Kansas Jayhawks

Gurley: “It was the summer before my senior year in high school. Coach Williams called me and said, ‘Can you come to Lawrence tomorrow at one o’clock, I have somebody I want you to meet.’ I don’t think he told me who it was. I had pretty much committed (to KU) even though I hadn’t signed officially. So, I went and go up to the basketball offices and there is Michael Jordan. I took a picture with him and talked with him for five minutes or so. He asked questions about me. I, of course, didn’t really have any questions for him, I was kind of in awe. He was just a regular guy. It was cool. That was really my first experience with a big-time icon celebrity, meeting him face-to-face. Being 16 or 17 years old, you just don’t have those type of experiences. We were in Coach Williams’ office, talked for five minutes and then he went out to the camp. Every day in camp, back in those days, the afternoon was some sort of clinic in Allen Fieldhouse and there would be a speaker. It would be a former player from Kansas, someone like Michael Jordan, Coach Williams and his staff going through stuff but that day it was Michael Jordan. He spoke to the 500 or however many campers, signed some autographs and did a little shooting drill. If I remember right, he wore a Kansas Basketball shirt, which he’s the most famous North Carolina Tar Heel ever, so it was kind of weird for him to do that. You could tell the relationship between him and Coach Williams is strong and being able to get the best player in the NBA to fly to Lawrence, Kansas, to speak to 500 kids at camp it pretty cool.”

In a preseason game during The Last Dance season, the Chicago Bulls played the Seattle Supersonics in Allen Fieldhouse on Oct. 12, 1997. Current KU women’s basketball assistant coach Terry Nooner, from Raytown, Missouri, was entering his sophomore year at KU in 1997-98. As a freshman in 1996-97 the Jayhawks were coming off one of the best seasons in school history going 34-2, winning the Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles, and ending ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. The 1997-98 KU squad consisted of future NBA players Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, Billy Thomas and Ryan Robertson but meeting Jordan was still something special.

Nooner: “We’ve got great players like Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz but we were excited to get the chance to see him in person. Coach Williams would always tell us stories about him, whether it was athletic stories or little funny stories about him off the court. That day, we were all sitting in the office because we knew we were going to meet him. We’ve got cameras, video cameras, everybody brought all this equipment and we looked like tourists. Coach Williams and Jordan have a relationship where Coach Williams doesn’t like to ask him for stuff. So, we sit and talked. He was telling funny stories and we were talking about watching the playoffs and Coach Williams was telling funny stories about Carolina. So, it was about to be done and he’s dressed all smooth. Going back, when we heard him coming in, we were all like nervous. You’re talking about KU players who sign a ton autographs a year and all of the sudden we were the fans. He sees that we have all these cameras, so at the end I remember him asking if we wanted to take pictures. We all got a chance to take a picture with him. It was just a cool experience because he was like everybody’s idol. He was so cool. He was dressed immaculately. I mean, this was for a preseason game in Lawrence, Kansas, and the way to do it was he was dressed up. They were playing the Seattle Supersonics so we were all excited to see Sean Kemp and Gary Payton. We got to see a good game. Allen Fieldhouse for our games are crazy, there is a lot of cheering but it’s not like a lot pictures and flashes. Any time Jordan would take a shot, the whole Fieldhouse would light up with people taking pictures. It was the craziest thing I had ever seen.”