Michael Jordan Relives The Bulls' 'Last Dance'
For the past several weeks, ESPN has been filled with reruns (sorry, "encore presentations") of old baseball games, college football rivalries and golf tournaments. If you can somehow stand the intensity of live competition, there's also pro athletes playing video games or H-O-R-S-E.
Starting this weekend, the all-sports network will turn back the clock once again, but this retrospective could actually reverse ESPN's collapsing ratings. "The Last Dance," which premieres Sunday, is a 10-part documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls' 1998 season. And even if you think you know pretty much everything about the legendary shooting guard, you're bound to learn a lot.
With no live sports or highlights to broadcast, ESPN rushed "The Last Dance" onto its schedule, moving it up from a planned debut in early June. As an audience gambit, it makes sense: For all of his accomplishments (10 scoring titles, six championships, the highest NBA career scoring average, among many other distinctions), Jordan remains a fiercely polarizing and topical figure, and "The Last Dance" likely won't change that.
The series is built around 500 hours of behind-the-scenes footage the NBA (one of the series' producers) has been sitting on from the 1997-98 season, when the Bulls won the last of their six championships with Jordan, thanks to his famous winning shot against the Utah Jazz.
As the season begins, Chicago general manager Jerry Krause tells coach Phil Jackson, with whom he's feuding, that Jackson won't be rehired, even if the Bulls don't lose a game all year. Jordan, whose stratospheric game had improved even more under the coach's tutelage, vows that if Jackson is out, so is he. Jackson thus decides to call their final campaign, "The Last Dance."
The series is directed by ESPN Films' "30 for 30" alumnus Jason Hehir, who conducted more than 100 interviews. The documentary is as much an account of a sports dynasty and basketball's greatest player as it is a look at a business and its leaders.
The 1998 Bulls roster was filled with colorful and occasionally selfish players, especially Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen. "The Last Dance" is consequently interested in team dynamics and psychology, principally how the headstrong Jordan (who is interviewed at length in the documentary) both led by example and belittled those he found lacking.
Given the sometimes unedited assessment Jordan has of others — and others of him — ESPN is releasing two versions of "The Last Dance," one with all the swear words intact on ESPN, a cleaner version on ESPN2.
One of the executive producers of "The Last Dance" is Mike Tollin, whose credits include the sports movies "Radio," "Coach Carter" and "Varsity Blues." He said Jordan agreed to participate in the documentary in 2016, with ESPN and Netflix (which will release "The Last Dance" outside the U.S.) coming on board two years later.
YOU STILL MIGHT NOT LIKE HIM
With Jordan and his company, Jump 23, co-producing the series along with the NBA and Mandalay Sports Media, Tollin said there was a lot of input on editorial decisions. "While sometimes it was a struggle to reach a consensus, it was never about censoring content," Tollin said via email. He said Jordan was willing to discuss his gambling habit and his father's murder.
Tollin said he hopes "The Last Dance" reveals that Jordan, "beyond the image of the hyper-competitive, super-intense warrior," also has a sense of humor, and can be emotional and candid. At one point in the series, Jordan has to track down Rodman in Las Vegas during a mid-season bender, and Jordan has some choice words about Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas.
But even if you understand Jordan more by the end of the series, you still might not like him any more.
As Jordan himself says in "The Last Dance": "When people see this, they are going to say: 'Well, he wasn't really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.' Well, that's you — because you never won anything."
ESPN will air two episodes of "The Last Dance," every Sunday at 6 and 7 p.m. (PT) on five consecutive Sundays, beginning April 19.
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