Michael Jordan Documentary Lands Sunday, Just in Time for ESPN

Michael Jordan is about to become the most famous basketball player in the world again.

Starting Sunday, ESPN will begin airing “The Last Dance,” an edgy documentary chronicling the Chicago Bulls’ tumultuous sixth and final championship run during the 1997-98 NBA season.

The 10-hour film, to be released over five weekends, is part glossy highlight reel, part gritty examination of the darker side of super-stardom. And it couldn’t come at a better time for ESPN, which has suffered from a dearth of new programming since the coronavirus effectively shut down sports in March.

Originally slated to premier in June during the NBA Finals, the network encouraged the project’s director, Jason Hehir, to wrap it up early as a way to give sports-starved viewers something original to binge on while quarantined.

It’s “ESPN’s most ambitious original-content project ever,” said Connor Schell, the network’s executive vice president of content. “We’re all missing sports, and missing the NBA dearly.”

There’s plenty of Air Jordan, his Zen master coach Phil Jackson and their merry band of misfit superstars (Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman) and journeymen (Bill Cartwright, Bill Wennington). Punishing dunks, turn-around jumpers and last-second baskets come by the dozens.

Punching Steve Kerr

It’s also a biography of everything Jordan, including the evolution of his Nike deal, his legendary gambling, the 1993 murder of his father, his 18-month hiatus playing minor league baseball, and how difficult a teammate he was to play with.

Loaded with never-before-seen practice and locker room footage, the film — with Jordan interviewed sitting next to a lit cigar and glass filled with what appears to be an amber-colored adult beverage — takes viewers through what it’s like to be perhaps the most hyper-competitive athlete the world has ever known.

In one episode featuring a practice during the 1995-96 season, Jordan explains how some of the team’s newer players were coasting on the Bulls’ championships in 1991, 1992 and 1993. At one point, he gives point guard Steve Kerr so much of an earful that Kerr punches Jordan in the chest. Jordan promptly punches Kerr in the eye and gets thrown out of practice.

“My mentality was to go out and win — at any cost,” Jordan said. “If you don’t want to live that regimented mentality, then you don’t need to be alongside me, because I’m going to ridicule you until you get on the same level with me. And if you don’t get on the same level, then it’s going to be hell for you.”

Full Access

Kerr, now the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, said on a conference call that it’s about time the footage came out.

“I’ve talked to several of my teammates and everybody is very excited about it,” Kerr said.

Getting the film made took decades. Ahead of the 1997 season, producer Andy Thompson and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who at the time was president of the league’s entertainment division, convinced Jordan and Jackson to allow cameras full access to the team.

Hehir signed on to tackle the documentary in 2018. There were more than 10,000 hours of footage to sift through. He sat down with Jordan three times — in June 2018, May 2019 and in December. Next came the mammoth task of assembling and editing — and then, the coronavirus pandemic.

“In early March, when all this started to accelerate in terms of Covid and the shelter-in-place orders, we were just heading around the corner to finish the rough cut for Episode 9 and were going to spend the next month beginning Episode 10,” Hehir said.

Race Against Time

ESPN asked if they could finish it sooner.

That turned “weeks of fine-tuning and finishing that usually happens in multimillion dollar rooms” into “Zoom meetings and text conversations and FaceTime conversations and email chains,” he said.

Viewers outside the U.S. can watch the film on Netflix, which produced the project with NBA Entertainment, Mandalay Sports Media and Jordan’s Jump 23 company. Getting all the stakeholders to agree was a constant struggle.

“You’re talking about four alpha companies that are all billion-dollar entities — Netflix, ESPN, the NBA and Jordan’s brand — sitting down and compromising,” said Hehir, who also directed ESPN’s “30 for 30” on Michigan’s Fab Five basketball team. “It’s damn near impossible.”

Most Beloved

“The Last Dance” will benefit from collective nostalgia. Fox Sports Radio host Colin Cowherd called Jordan’s Bulls the most beloved team of his lifetime.

“There will never be another team that relates to all three sections of the country,” he said on March 31. “They were like U2, except they were long, could jump, and slash and dunk.”

Bill Simmons, the founder of the Ringer media company and host of a popular NBA-centric podcast, said on Cowherd’s April 1 show that it’ll be one of the biggest documentaries ever: “Jordan was just more popular and more famous than LeBron, or Kobe, or anyone else you want to name, in every conceivable way.”

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