Why Michael Jordan's The Last Dance is exactly what sports fans need right now
This weekend should be marking the beginning of the NBA playoffs, with the league's biggest stars battling for their place in history. Instead, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the league shut down more than a month ago, and hopes to restart in the coming months are exactly that — hopes. While the future of the 2019-2020 season remains up in the air, sports fans are getting a much-needed injection of content via the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls and the highly anticipated 10-hour docuseries The Last Dance, which was moved up almost two months to fill the void.
When the first teaser for the ESPN project dropped more than a year ago, the buzz was immediate, with basketball junkies clamoring to watch never-before-seen footage of the Bulls dynasty and interviews with everyone from Dennis Rodman to Charles Barkley to Barack Obama to Justin Timberlake to the man widely regarded as the greatest player ever to pick up a basketball: Michael Jordan.
At the heart of the Bulls' six championships in the '90s was Jordan, the five-time league MVP who became a global icon by conquering of the sneaker game, acting in the hit film Space Jam, and dominating the NBA through sheer force of will. In 1997, coming off back-to-back titles and knowing this could be the team's "last dance" together, Jordan and the Bulls allowed unprecedented access to a film crew, though the results have been locked away until now. So at a time when everyone is at home and in need of entertainment, especially sports fans who can only speculate about when their favorite teams will return, one of the most memorable groups of characters is back for one final run.
Ahead of The Last Dance's premiere on Sunday, EW spoke with director Jason Hehir about providing a dose of much-needed entertainment, being surprised by the openness of the usually stern and stoic Jordan, and speaking to Jordan's "little brother" Kobe Bryant before his tragic death in January.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There's been a yearlong buzz around Last Dance, and in recent weeks without sports, people on social media essentially demanded the immediate release of your project. Were you caught off guard at all about the level of anticipation?
JASON HEHIR: I wasn't shocked, because Michael is such an indelible icon in American pop culture — not just sports. He's pretty precious about what he will share and what he's willing to go in-depth about, so the idea that he's going to do a long-form documentary series and speak on all of the things that people want him to speak about and discuss topics that were previously not discussed, I can see why there was a clamor among sports fans and non-sports-fans to see that.
Considering the weird and difficult time we're in, is it a nice feeling to know you're going to be providing something that people so clearly and desperately want and need right now?
It's a great feeling. We really don't get a chance to have a sense that we're doing anything for society at large when we do these movies. It's entertainment and an escape and diversion from people's everyday stresses, and now people's everyday stresses have been exponentially increased, given the situation that the entire world is going through together. So the opportunity to give people even a small respite in this horrible time is certainly something that all of us are grateful for and feel a responsibility for.
You weren't involved with the recording of this footage over two decades ago, so how did you end up in this position of being the person to finally bring it to the public?
It came to me in the summer of 2016, when I was approached by Mike Tollin, who is an executive producer on the project, and he asked me if I'd be interested in directing a long-form series about Michael Jordan and the Bulls dynasty, utilizing hundreds of hours of footage that had never been seen before. In '98, I was a senior in college, so I watched all of those games, I vividly remember following that team throughout the '80s and '90s when I was a kid. But I had no idea that that footage ever existed; it was kind of an urban legend in sports production circles. And when Mike brought that to me, of course I was immediately interested in an opportunity to tell a story as significant as this, so I dove in and read as much as I could and researched as much as I could. I came back with a 14-page outline for what the series would be. And shortly after that I met with Michael's team, and then I met with the NBA, and it seemed like this was going to happen. And then it just lost steam, because with a project this big it's hard to get all of the parties to the table. Netflix, ESPN, the NBA, and the Jordan Brand, these are billion-dollar entities, so to get that many people who are used to being in charge to sit down and agree upon what this is going to be, it took so long that I actually had time to go and make another feature length documentary, HBO's Andre the Giant, while they were still negotiating the deal. By the time I finished Andre the Giant, they had just completed their deal, and we got to work in January 2018.
Did you get a sense from Michael about why, after so many years, this was the right time?
I didn't. Obviously, I asked him why he wanted to do this, and he said, "I don't." I said, "Why not?" And he said he was afraid that a lot of the footage taken out of context would portray him as overly intense and maniacally competitive. I think he had reservations about the caricature of him being the ultimate competitor being portrayed instead of the human side of him. I understood his reservations. So in that first conversation I had with him, which the cameras weren't present for, I told him that this is a great opportunity: We have 10 hours, so we can let you tell your side of the story. The context is up to you, because people want to hear the reasons why you acted how you did, and what made you the man you are and the player you are.
As far as why it took so long, I think there's a couple things at work. The idea of a 10-hour documentary didn't really exist back in the late '90s when this shot — unless you were Ken Burns. It was only recently that the proliferation of long-form documentary series has come into our pop culture, and that people have a ravenous appetite for these kinds of series. Made in America, the O.J. Simpson doc, broke down that door, and then you have everything up to Tiger King from a few weeks ago that people are willing to sit there and invest time in a story if it's well told. I also think it's no small coincidence that when Michael agreed to finally let this footage be used, we were coming off a 73-win season for the Golden State Warriors and people were openly wondering if that was the greatest team of all time, and not his '96 Bulls, who were 72-10. And it was when LeBron James went back to Cleveland and won a title for the Cavaliers, and people were all of a sudden saying, "Well, maybe LeBron is the greatest of all time." Michael doesn't really care to get into those conversations, and he always takes the high road. For a guy with as many accomplishments as Michael, and as prolific a superstar as he is, he's remarkably humble and reticent when it comes to discussing his own greatness. But, knowing the competitor that he is and knowing that fire that still burns inside him, it's tough to imagine that those Warriors teams and the emergence of LeBron as a possible GOAT candidate didn't play a role in his agreement to sit down and tell his story.
The opportunity to sit down multiple times with Michael and go deep isn't something that comes along often, and in your conversations he was at times very candid and emotional. Was there anything specifically that stood out or was surprising from your time with him?
What surprised me was his eagerness and openness to discuss any topic that I raised, knowing that someone of his stature has an image that has been crafted over the course of decades. I told him early on that there were going to be questions that I had to ask that may be uncomfortable for him, and how he chose to answer those questions was up to him. But even I was surprised by how willing and open he was in his answers, particularly when it came to the more sensitive topics that we would discuss. And he just came to play. It's no surprise, he's the Michael Jordan of being Michael Jordan. He came in and he was ready to go. He's always camera-ready, he's a charismatic guy, he's engaging on and off screen. But he came in relaxed that first day, and right off the bat it was clear that he was focused committed to sitting down and telling his story. The last thing he said to me after the first interview was, "If you do your job right, I'll never have to do this again."
Episode 5 is dedicated to Kobe Bryant, who died tragically in January. That hour focuses on his showdown with Michael in the '98 All-Star Game and features old footage as well as your more recent chat with Kobe. What was it like talking with him about Michael? That interview takes on an even bigger weight after not only Kobe's death, but Michael's moving speech at his memorial.
Sitting down with Kobe was great. They're so similar and kindred spirits in so many ways, both obvious and subtle in how they approach life. If you listen to the two of them and you close your eyes, it's tough to tell them apart. They're so similar, even the way that they walk, the way that they play, the way that they interact with teammates. We did that interview in July of last year, so it was a few weeks after Kobe's youngest daughter was born and it was the day of the ESPYs; he was about to get on a helicopter and fly up to the ESPYs. Obviously we had no idea what the future held. We discussed in early January that it would be a good way to kick off episode 5, this All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden, Michael's final All-Star Game as a Bull and Kobe's first All-Star Game, the youngest All-Star ever. So we edited that scene and we were done editing it about a week before the accident happened, so to have Kobe say Michael's like a big brother to me and then for Michael to make the speech that he made at the memorial service and say, "Rest in peace, little brother," it was so much more poignant in retrospect once you saw how genuine that relationship is. Michael verified it with his words and his emotions during that speech, how important Kobe was to him, and obviously the affection was mutual.
Was there maybe one interview that particularly stuck out to you, whether it be that you learned something unexpected or how great the conversation was?
It sounds boring to say Michael, but we were very lucky. If I were to rank the interviews, I would say that Michael's interviews were number one, and that's rare for a main character in a documentary. Usually someone emerges that is a surprise breakout character. But talking to David Stern [the former NBA commissioner, who died Jan. 1], he was such a brilliant man. It's daunting to talk to someone who is that smart, savvy, and knows exactly how to answer every question. Tim Grover is Michael's longtime personal trainer, and at the heart of this documentary is Michael's drive and his will to win, and no one has seen that more firsthand than Tim, and he's an articulate and compelling guy. Magic Johnson, we all know how gregarious and charismatic Magic is, but he has the ability to turn on several switches during an interview: He can go from funny to poignant to emotional to charismatic to introspective, so he was a joy to interview. All and all, it was a field day for me as a director and huge sports fan to be able to interview 106 people about the most famous team of my lifetime. It's a dream job.
This series is must-see for sports fans, but what would your pitch be to non-sports-fans on why they would still be engaged and interested in The Last Dance?
Sports fans or non-sports-fans, the Chicago Bulls were a global phenomenon. This was a cast of characters that Hollywood couldn't come up with, and Michael Jordan was the star of all stars. You name a movie star or TV star back then and they wanted tickets to a Bulls game, because they wanted to be close to Michael. We had time to dive into the evolution of what it meant to be a celebrity with the advent of satellite television, cable television, international exposure to American pop culture. So what you're seeing is the journey of one icon through several iterations of celebrity in pop culture. For non-sports-fans, they can see what it meant to be a celebrity in the '80s and '90s, and the toll that that took. Because this was a new concept, the cameras following you everywhere. You're seeing a person in real time experience the ups and downs of being a global superstar.
The Last Dance premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN, and will run in two-hour installments over the next five weeks.
A miniseries following Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls on their quest for a sixth championship.