Sunday nights, no matter where in the country they are, have turned into a ritual for the Utah State men’s basketball team.
Coach Craig Smith gathers his entire family into one room. Forward Justin Bean does the same, with ice cream and popcorn in tow. Center Neemias Queta and guard Marco Anthony are alone, while guard Brock Miller enjoys with his wife.
As sports across the United States continue the wait-and-see game due to COVID-19, one weekly event has seemed to unify fans over the past few weeks: “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary series about Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-98.
The series has certainly affected the Aggies. Smith said several of his players have expressed feeling inspired by it and is helping them grow by merely watching.
“These are some of our guys saying this, uninitiated, which is super exciting to hear as a coach,” Smith said.
Miller grew up a Jordan fan. He watched Jordan’s “Come Fly With Me” video often as a young boy, and owned all six of the NBA Finals series that he played in on video. Watching the series has solidified what Miller learned about Jordan all those years ago, he said.
Miller watches both episodes live every week but also records them so he can revisit anything he missed the first time around.
“I think that there’s a lot good things that can be learned from Michael and his example just of competitiveness on and off the court,” Miller said. “I don’t have that memory that I can remember every single detail. That’s why I record them — so I’m not missing out on anything that can be a game changer for me.”
Bean said his two older brothers were members of the Michael Jordan Fan Club when they were younger. They’d receive letters, basketball cards and posters, which are now all over his family home in Oklahoma, where he currently is. The documentary is “a big deal” in the Bean household, he said.
And Bean has gotten some validation as a result of the series. Episode 3 has a segment where Dennis Rodman explains how he essentially turned rebounding into a science by studying how certain players’ shots would spin or where the ball might go if one of his teammates shot from a certain spot on the floor.
Bean, an effective rebounder in his own right, didn’t go to Rodman’s extent when working on that facet of his own game. But there were times he’d be in the gym alone and shoot underhanded scoop shots toward the rim so he could learn where the ball went and retrieve it as quickly as possible.
“I always felt kind of dumb about it,” Bean said. “But then when I heard Rodman say that he studied specific guys and that that stuff really mattered as far as angles and things like that, I was like, ‘OK, I guess it’s not too crazy.’”
Queta doesn’t watch both episodes live like his other teammates. He watches the first live, then waits a few hours before watching the next one. He does that so he has time to process what he saw in the first one before moving on to the second.
“I don’t want to watch it like a movie,” Queta said. “I kind of break it down.”
Queta also related to Rodman’s comments on rebounding. But for him, one of the biggest takeaways of the series has been the behind-the-scenes looks at the business side of the NBA.
“Probably some of the stuff that’s been going on in that documentary still goes on today and you don’t have an[y] idea,” Queta said.
Next season, the Aggies will embark on a quest to a win a third consecutive Mountain West Conference Tournament championship and get to the NCAA Tournament for a third straight time in the process. With Queta’s recent announcement that he’ll return to USU for his junior season, the team feels confident it can get there.
With that goal in mind, Miller said the documentary has shown him what it would take for a team to win a third straight title, like the ’90s Bulls did on two separate occasions that decade.
“You have to find something each year to kind of motivate you to become even better and keep the standard high to come back in for next season looking to win a championship,” Miller said.
Queta noticed what bringing in Phil Jackson as coach did for the success of the Bulls during that era, changing the culture and making them “natural winners.” He said there’s a parallel between that team and the Aggies, who have had two successful seasons since Smith started coaching the team.
“Those years he’s done a great job,” Queta said of Smith.
There’s four episodes left in “The Last Dance.” And while it’s safe to say each of the Aggies will continue learning from it, Smith thinks it can also also have a wider-reaching effect.
“I think it’ll make our game better,” Smith said.