Michael Jordan, who won six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls, is widely considered the best basketball player of all time.
The story of how Jordan, and his Bulls teammates, dominated in the 1990s is the subject of ESPN and Netflix’s ten-part documentary series The Last Dance, directed by Jason Hehir. The series launches on April 19 after the Disney-owned sports network and the streamer moved it up from its planned June premiere.
It is, surprisingly, the first time that Jordan has agreed to sit for a long-form documentary about his life and career.
Jordan and the NBA were already on board when Mandalay Sports Media’s Mike Tollin approached Hehir, who directed HBO’s Andre The Giant documentary and has helmed 30 for 30 docs including The Fab Five, to direct.
But Hehir posits that Jordan may have been persuaded to get involved after a few questions began to be asked about his GOAT status.
“It’s no small coincidence that around the time that he agreed to participate, the Golden State Warriors were in the midst of a 73-win season, which beat the Bulls 72-10 season by one game, LeBron James was in the midst of a championship season with the Cleveland Cavaliers and all of a sudden a discussion was starting to arise, ‘Is LeBron as good as Michael, is Michael the greatest, is there a conversation to be had now?’,” said Hehir.
The director says that Jordan is remarkably humble and reticent to discuss his own accomplishments. But, he adds, “From the little I do know of him from these interviews, he still has that inner fire, that competitive fire that still burns and I would be surprised if the discussion whether in fact the Bulls were in fact the greatest team ever or whether Michael was the greatest ever, didn’t have something to do with his agreement to participate.”
The series explores Jordan’s childhood roots, the Bulls’ dire circumstances before his arrival and how the team was built after drafting him in 1984, to the struggles that eventually led to the team’s first NBA championship. It also takes the audience through the Bulls’ first five championships.
However, the jewel in the crown is footage from the 1997/98 season, which has never been seen before publicly. In the fall of 1997, Jordan, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and head coach Phil Jackson agreed to let an NBA Entertainment film crew follow the team all season long.
“That footage was the driving force of the entire project,” said Hehir. “Without that footage, I’m not discussing this film. It’s such a mammoth story to tell that you need a lens with which to tell it. That footage provides the perfect lens.”
Hehir was surprised that, in over 20 years, it had never come out. “It’s a treasure trove, a time capsule. It’s beautifully shot. As the season progressed, the team started to develop a trust and a bond with this camera crew so they were privy to moments that I was shocked to see,” he added.
The director and his team clocked up over 100 interviews with subjects as varied as Jordan’s former teammates including Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman and coach Phil Jackson, rivals including Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson and even Kobe Bryant. There is a tear-jerking letter read by Jordan’s mother Delores, as well as a couple of cameos from Presidents Obama and Clinton.
“Some of the characters I could do some rudimentary research and just text them, some required the help of the NBA to locate and convince and then when you’re on a presidential level, that requires Michael Jordan-level assistance. People aren’t picking up the phone for Jason Hehir but they’re certainly picking up the phone on the first ring from Michael Jordan. He was very generous with his assistance,” said Hehir.
One of the ways that the creative team kept Jordan and others interested was to show them footage of teammates and rivals telling their side of the story.
“There was always a challenge to make this an interesting project for Michael because he’s been asked every question there is to be asked. There’s nothing that I could ask him, or thought to have asked him that he hasn’t been asked in some way in the past 30 years so you want this to be an entertaining and stimulating process for him because it can get monotonous to sit in a chair for hours at a time,” he said.
This style was borne out of talking to Dennis Rodman. “That technique came about by mistake because trying to interview Dennis Rodman is like trying to interview a feral cat. So, to keep his attention, we were starting to lose his focus, instead of me reciting what Michael told me about the vacation during that season, I thought maybe Dennis would want to watch Michael himself, so immediately he locked in and then we used that technique with Scottie and Phil. We were happy enough with the outcome, we thought we’d get an iPad and use that same technique with Michael.”
Jordan, himself, was integral to the production process, giving particularly useful notes. “It’s one thing to get a note from someone at the NBA, but when you have the person who is the star of the documentary saying, ‘you might want to include this because this is what was going through my head at the time’. In episode eight, we cover his comeback from baseball and went straight from the Indiana Pacers game to the famed Double Nickel game at Madison Square Garden. Those games were a week or two apart, Michael’s note was that there was a game in between those two games, where he hit a shot at the buzzer and he said ‘that’s when I knew I could be the old Michael Jordan’,” Hehir said (left, with Bill Clinton). “Turns out he’s the Michael Jordan of giving notes. He’s a much better director than I am basketball player.”
In a world without live sports, ESPN and Netflix, which will air The Last Dance outside of the U.S., decided to move up the series, airing it over five weeks from April 19 through May 17. This caused Hehir and his team to work day and night to finish them. “There’s a dearth of programming so people are clamouring for anything fresh and new, especially something long-form. I think we all had the same philosophy that we’re all in this together, so anything we can do to give people a diversion, as temporary as it is, to make people’s lives a little less bleak, all of us were very eager to accomplish that,” said Hehir.
Having directed a documentary series about one of the greatest athletes of all time, it will be tough to find interesting new subjects for Hehir. He is now looking to branch out and move into non-sports docs. “It’s definitely an aspiration and I think you’ll see that sooner rather than later,” he said. “I look forward to doing sports and non-sports projects in future. I’m sure I’ll come back to sports eventually.”