For The Last Dance, the ESPN documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, director Jason Hehir interviewed more than a hundred people, including two former presidents—Clinton and Obama—and a noted international diplomat. That would be Dennis Rodman, former star rebounder and occasional envoy to North Korea.
“It was harder to get Dennis Rodman in the chair than it was to get Obama in the chair, and it was harder to get him to pay attention than it was to get President Obama,” Hehir recalls. “Each [interviewee] brought different challenges in the booking process.”
The biggest “get” of all, though, was Jordan himself, without whom there would be no docuseries. Not only did he sit for eight hours of interviews, but it was up to him to allow access to a treasure trove of video shot behind the scenes during his team’s final run for an NBA title in 1987-88—“the last dance,” as coach Phil Jackson had dubbed it.
“This footage seeing the light of day and the documentary being made was contingent upon Michael’s cooperation,” Hehir notes. “From the time they started filming [23 years ago], they were allowed access into the locker room during that season with the stipulation that this would never see the light of day unless Michael agreed for the footage to be released.”
The 10-part story Hehir and his teammates crafted became a ratings mega-hit, averaging 5.6 million same day viewers, making The Last Dance ESPN’s most-watched documentary content ever. It just concluded an encore run on ESPN’s sister network, ABC. The series is now in contention for Emmy nominations, which will be announced July 28.
The series supplies all the documentary evidence needed to make the case for Jordan as the GOAT—the Greatest of All Time. But Hehir rejects any rumblings that it’s an exercise in hero worship.
“My goal with any documentary is always to de-iconize the subject and to demystify the subject and make them into relatable human beings,” the director insists. “And there may not be a more mystified or a deified figure, iconized figure than Michael Jordan.”
The Jordan who emerges in the docuseries is a ferocious competitor who turned a lackadaisical club into a dynasty. He did so by shouldering leadership of the squad and demanding excellence from his teammates.
“Jordan put people into a blast furnace,” notes one commentator in Episode 2. In that same episode, former Bulls center Bill Wennington says of playing with Jordan, “He’s not worrying about hurting your feelings. If he hurt your feelings, you can leave. He would gladly tell you you can get out.” Former Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong comments in Episode 7, “Was he a nice guy? He couldn’t be.”
“Winning has a price and leadership has a price,” Jordan told Hehir. “I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged.”
Whether it was his hyper-competitiveness or never forgetting a slight, the portrait of Jordan offered in The Last Dance isn’t universally flattering.
“Some [viewers] found him abrasive and some people thought less of him after seeing this, so if it was a hagiography, we failed,” Hehir observes. “I’m confident that we presented as full a picture as possible, and we told as comprehensive a story as we could.”
Jordan’s production company, Jump 23, did have an uncredited role on the series, alongside Mandalay Sports Media, NBA Entertainment, ESPN and Netflix. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in April, doc legend Ken Burns criticized the notion of a documentary subject occupying a producing function on a project about them, calling it, “Not the way you do good journalism.”
“I spoke with Ken Burns about it. He called me a couple of days after that quote was published,” Hehir tells Deadline. “He clarified that he was speaking through the lens of working with PBS. With public broadcasting, anyone who was going to be an underwriter of the project can have no connection whatsoever to the project that they are documenting.”
In the case of The Last Dance, Hehir says Jordan “was allowed to watch rough cuts and give his thoughts, as were ESPN, Netflix, and the NBA. We always have partners who give editorial notes and give their opinions, and oftentimes those opinions differ from mine, and we have it out. And sometimes I dig my heels in, and sometimes they dig their heels in.”
But he adds, “[Jordan] never once before, during, or after the filming of this doc said, ‘You cannot go in certain directions. You cannot ask me that question. You cannot approach these storylines.’ The people who say, ‘It’s a puff piece,’ well, tell me where we didn’t go? We didn’t steer away from the gambling accusations, we didn’t steer away from his father’s murder or the conspiracy theories that surrounded it—that Michael may have been responsible for it somehow…We didn’t steer away from the secret [NBA] suspension conspiracy theory rumors…We were never once told that we had to lose any frame of Michael’s behavior behind the scenes and him being a tough, demanding teammate on the practice court.”
Hehir emphasizes his series is not just about Jordan, but about the whole ensemble that took the Chicago Bulls to unprecedented heights, including Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Coach Jackson, team owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Jerry Krause.
“We were blessed with such a rich array of characters whose stories we told,” Hehir notes. “It’s a basketball story, of course, but we tried to make it about a family, a dysfunctional family, that came together to achieve extraordinary things.”
As for The Last Dance’s remarkable success, Hehir attributes it to several things. There’s the Jordan factor, naturally—at age 57 he remains one of the most popular sports figures on the planet and Nike’s Air Jordan shoes continue to be among the top selling in the world. Plus, the series aired on ESPN and then ABC at a time when live sports were MIA because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m a sports fan myself, and I know that I was starved for content,” Hehir admits. “There was a dearth of content out there, not just in games, but any new content in the sports universe.”
Hehir points to another factor as well—the glow that comes from reflecting on a time now more than 20 years past when Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls made so much history.
“I think that in such a scary time,” the director observes, “nostalgia is safe, it’s comfortable, it’s a warm place to go back to.”