The most satisfying beat drop of 2020 may come in a basketball documentary.
Near the top of the first episode of The Last Dance, the 10-part ESPN docuseries about Michael Jordan and his G.O.A.T.-making run with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan is skipping into the Lakers’ visitors locker room after winning his first NBA title, when the intro of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” begins to build. But that’s not the song that’s playing. It’s just the sample at the beginning of Puff Daddy’s “Been Around the World,” and just before the rising “ahhhs” crescendo, the beat drops and we see Jordan with his arms wrapped around the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time, overcome with emotion, shaking his head in disbelief — or maybe relief. It’s a spine-tingling musical cue, both for the moment itself and for the 10-hour Jordan Bulls retrospective it’s introducing.
The Puff Daddy single was an appropriate choice. “Been Around the World” was released in November of 1997, weeks after the Bulls began their quest to complete their second three-peat in eight years. Prior to it commencing, the season was dubbed the “Last Dance” by head coach Phil Jackson, who had been informed by general manager Jerry Krause that this would be Jackson’s last year with team. Jordan, who often butted heads with Krause, said he would not return to the Bulls unless Jackson was coaching. All that was left to do, then, was win one more title, and thankfully for millions of sports-deprived Americans quarantined in their homes 22 years later, a camera crew was tagging along for the whole season.
The 500 hours of behind-the-scenes footage that resulted is the basis of The Last Dance, which was originally set to premiere this summer, before ESPN moved it up to April 19th to accommodate a newly captive audience. ESPN will air two episodes every Sunday at 9 and 10 p.m. EST until the series wraps up on May 17th. Viewers won’t be disappointed. The docuseries is a sprawling examination of Jordan and the Bulls dynasty he willed into existence, told through the lens of their final season and the cast of characters who helped Jordan win his sixth and final championship ring. Director Jason Hehir (The Fab Five, Andre the Giant) interviewed 106 people for the project, ranging from Barack Obama to Carmen Electra, each adding color to what amounts to a dazzling portrait of perhaps the greatest prolonged phenomenon to ever befall the American sports landscape.
The Last Dance is, more than anything, a celebration of Jordan’s greatness, but it doesn’t shy away from delving into thorny issues like his gambling habit, conspiracy theories surrounding his father’s death, or the blowback following his “Republicans buy sneakers, too” comment, which came as he refused to publicly endorse North Carolina Democrat Harvey Gantt’s 1990 Senate race against Republican incumbent Jesse Helms. Other elements of Jordan’s life and career that have long been the subject of speculation — like how hard he rode his teammates in practice — are laid bare for the first time, either through behind-the-scenes footage, new interviews from Jordan and his teammates, or both. At the core of it all is Jordan’s laser-focused drive to be the best, regardless of the cost.
Rolling Stone recently caught up with Hehir to discuss how the massive docuseries came together, some of its most striking revelations, and what he hopes different generations of viewers will glean from the most in-depth look we’ve ever seen at the most famous athlete of all time.
When did you first become aware of this 500 hours of footage from the 1997-1998 season?
In the summer of 2016, Mike Tollin, who’s one of the executive producers, approached me and asked me if I’d be interested in telling this story. He didn’t finish the sentence. Being a kid of the Eighties and Nineties, I said, “Absolutely, I’d be interested.” I met with Curtis Polk and Estee Portnoy from JUMP, Michael’s company, and then I met with Gregg Winick with the NBA. They wanted to pick my brain and see where I thought I would want to head with the story and how I’d tell it. So I sequestered myself for a week or two and wrote a 14-page outline of how I saw the series developing and how I saw the story being told. Things died down because it took a while for them to find the right production and distribution partners. I went off and made Andre the Giant for HBO for about a year or so, and then came back to this. We didn’t start officially on [The Last Dance] until January of 2018, with a full staff and offices and all that.
Was the idea always for this to be a massive project with 10 episodes covering the entire breadth of his life up to that last season with the Bulls, or did they just have all of this footage and say, “What should we do with this?”
When they brought it to me, I remember they asked, “Do you think that you could do eight episodes wall-to-wall with just the vérité footage?” I don’t think that anyone in the room thought that we could do that, but they were curious to hear my thoughts. I hadn’t seen much of the footage at that point, but I said we would have to do original interviews from today in order to tell the story from back then, and that we had the opportunity to do a lot more, to go back in time and tell the backstories of not just Michael, but of Scottie [Pippen], Dennis [Rodman], Phil [Jackson], Steve Kerr, [former Bulls GM] Jerry Krause, [Bulls owner Jerry] Reinsdorf, and all the people that made that team what it was, that dynasty what it was. So it evolved from those same executive producers and all of our ideas that this could be something much bigger than just a vérité doc about one thing.
What’s your sense of why it took so long for this to get made? This is certainly something there’s been an appetite for for a while, a doc based around a bunch of behind-the-scenes footage of the 1997-1998 Bulls. Was it just a matter of Jordan not feeling the time was right until now?
I can’t answer why it took so long from their perspective. I can say that the story is massive and the amount of footage that we had access to was massive. It lends itself to a long-form documentary series, and those were not prevalent at the time when these stories were shot. To do a 75- or a 90-minute documentary back in 1999, the year after the footage was shot, seems to almost shortchange how momentous that year was. Every year that passes, that final year of Michael on the Bulls gets bigger and bigger in NBA lore. So I think the time was right with the prevalence of a long-format doc series, and also with some distance Michael and some of the guys on the team had. There was maybe a desire to tell that story a little bit more now that we’re 20 years out.
Was there anybody who you wanted to get to talk for this that you weren’t able to get?
There wasn’t. Almost every single person that we put a request out to said yes. We interviewed 106 people, which dwarfs anything from any project that I’ve ever done before. We shot for the better part of two years. We started shooting June of 2018, and we did our final interview, with John Stockton, just before the whole country went into lockdown about four weeks ago.
Yeah, we’ve been shooting and editing concurrently for the better part of two years. Jalen [Rose’s] interview was pretty recent, as well. It was right up to the last minute.
That can’t be typical, right? Interviewing people just weeks before a doc is going to premiere? I know the premiere date was moved up, but still …
Definitely not typical. Normally you want to turn in the finished product a couple of months before, for proper promotion and things like that, and clearly there’s nothing more about what’s going on in the world at the moment. But it’s a challenge to me. We knew that we’d be shooting and editing right up until whenever we had to air this thing, just because there’s so much fine-tuning, so much that goes into the finishing process, that we could work another year on this and there’d still be notes going around and there’d still be people’s opinions coming in. In a sense, it was good to finally have a finish line to shoot for, but there’s never enough work that can be done. If it’s not done, it’s just do.
How many hours did you shoot with Michael?
We did three sessions with Michael. I’d say they totaled probably a little less than eight hours of total interview time. We shot with him in June of 2018, and then we shot with him in May of 2019, and then we shot with him in December of 2019, and that enabled us, as we were editing the series, to show him what other people were saying, how other people were seeing the story, and have him react to those people like Isaiah [Thomas] and Gary Payton in real time. Knowing we had mapped out the series already so that we knew which episode which story would be told in, we could divide his 10-episode arc into three interviews.
Those were really great moments, when you showed him the interview video and he was able to react to Isaiah’s explanation for why the Pistons didn’t shake hands [at the end of the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals], or when Rodman and Pippen were able to react to Jordan’s recollection of Rodman’s vacation to Vegas in the middle of the season.
Michael got a good laugh out of Gary Payton in Episode Eight — Gary saying that if he [guarded] him from Game One [of the 1996 Finals], it would’ve been a different series. One of the challenges with interviewing a guy like Michael was that he’s been asked every single question. So how can you make it different and how can you keep him engaged, sitting there for three hours answering questions that he’s been asked over and over again for decades? That was one of the things. It was almost just a little toy to bring out every once in a while, to tell him to just hit play on this and not tell him what was coming. We got an unexpected emotional reaction out of him when we showed his mom reading his letter home from college. He doesn’t know me, and it’s always better to show him the actual people saying these things rather than me saying, “Well, your mom read this letter,” or, “Isaiah Thomas said this or that.” It’s just a more efficient way to show him these actual people saying it and to get a more visceral reaction out of him.
Considering how careful he’s been with the interviews and his image, I was surprised that you got into the conspiracy theories about his father’s death, the gambling stuff, and some of the political stuff as much as you did. He was far more candid about all of this than I would have expected. Was this surprising to you at all, that he was willing to open up and drop f-bombs and talk about stuff like gambling and the media and how much he hates Isaiah?
It was surprising to me, but I think there’s a level of confidence and comfort among his handlers or his people. Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk are two trusted advisers of his, and they had certainly done a lot of vetting with me. They were intimately involved in this process on a daily basis, even to this day, when we’re finishing these episodes. So I think that once he knew that they trusted me, I had his trust automatically. Then it’s just a matter of getting along with someone and demonstrating that you have respect for their story, that you are going to tell their story in a responsible, honest way, and demonstrating some knowledge of the subject. I’ve been studying Jordan and basketball since I was eight years old, so it was easy to be able to talk about these moments in his career, and moments off the floor, as well. I feel like he was eager to clear up a lot of misconceptions that are out there. So once he realized that he was in a safe, responsible place, I think that it became easier to discuss those things.
Outside of following basketball your whole life, what did you do to prepare for this?
There were over 10,000 pages of research that I read between books and archived articles and transcripts of old interviews. I would make notes. Every note that I made would go into a document. Wherever the note looked pertinent, it would go into the Michael Jordan folder, or the Larry Bird folder, or the Isaiah Thomas folder, or the Mrs. Jordan folder. You end up with a document that’s 80 pages long of all these facts that are pertinent or that you’d like Michael to speak about, and then build your interview from there. There was just a lot of reading and a lot of just memorization, deliberate or not, of all the details of this thing. So it became pretty easy to go back through the research and say, “All right, we definitely want Michael to talk about this or this.”
Was there anything that you were surprised to learn about his career after you had done that, once you started interviewing everybody and talking to him about everything?
I think what I was surprised to learn — and what was a larger theme that I was surprised to realize — was how difficult it was to win as much as they did win. I grew up, as I said, in the Eighties and Nineties. This was very much a part of my childhood, watching this team dominate. But after hearing from the individual players and hearing from the coaches that were on the ground at the time, you start to realize how difficult it is to repeat, and what a monumental achievement it is to three-peat, and then to take two years off and come back and do it all over again.
These were fierce battles that they had in the East with a lot of these teams, and it wasn’t a given. I think when we look back from 35,000 feet down, you say, “Well, yeah they dominated. The East must have been weak in the Nineties.” That’s not true. Each one of these seasons brought a different challenge, so I think what impressed me the most was his ability to just keep conjuring that drive. He would conjure slights and anything else he could do to keep himself motivated.
So it was just a respect for the amount of work involved. You look at guy like Scottie Pippen, who came from nothing. Twelve siblings in his family, came from abject poverty in rural Arkansas, and just believed from the time that he was in high school that he belonged in the NBA, for no good cause, with no good reason. He had no right to believe that he’d go on to the NBA, and then he ended up one of the top 50 players ever. Steve Kerr is famous for being the Warriors coach and for being punched by Michael, and he got a few rings of his own. He maybe was the toughest guy on their team, when you look at what happened to his dad and all the things that he overcame to get where he got. I think that the most surprising thing for me was how difficult it is for these guys to get to where they are.
I certainly took all of this for granted and assumed they just rolled through all these teams. I was surprised watching the doc, and over and over again it was like, “Oh, wow, here’s this crucial game they have to win and they’re down four with 40 seconds left,” or something. The games and series were way more hard-fought than I remembered.
Look at that Knicks series, where Michael was going through [criticism of his gambling] in ’93. The ’93 team was very, very, talented. You just look back and say, “Well yeah, that was the three-peat year. They were rolling through the early Nineties.” But they were down 2-0. Then Michael decided not to speak to the press again and then won four [games] straight. I mean some of these things, just when you look at it microscopically, it’s amazing all this took place over the course of one week. It was just incredible performances and incredible consistency by all these guys.
Did you reach out to LeBron James about speaking for this?
I didn’t, because the story really ends when their dynasty ends. I certainly did not want this to be some sort of referendum on who’s the greatest and to get into that argument at all. If people want to use this as evidence for their argument one way or the other, then feel free. I know that LeBron has been a massive Jordan fan and I know that Jordan influenced him in myriad ways, but he didn’t seem relevant to the story of the Jordan era, which was 1984 to 1998.
Another thing that struck me was the power in his maniacal need to prove he was the best, over and over again. Talking to him now, do you feel like this is still there relative to his legacy and how people perceive him today? Do you get the sense he feels this way toward LeBron, or has his all-encompassing competitiveness mellowed as he reflects on everything?
I think that he’s reluctant to even have that discussion, and he’s on record as being humble when it comes to people asking him, “Who is the greatest?” and, “Are you the greatest?” He doesn’t want to go there at all. But you can see a fire that burns in him when you start talking about rivals that he had back then and where they rank all-time. He certainly has a pride in him still.
I think that he worked his ass off his entire life to get to where he was in ’98 and to get to where he is now. I think he has a fierce pride about that, and that was instilled in him from day one by his parents, that you work hard for everything and you earn everything and you hate to lose. He still hates to lose. I wasn’t around 22 years ago, so I can’t tell you whether he’s mellowed or not, but I do know that when you hand him an iPad and you play him a clip from something that happened 30 years ago, you can see that fire in his eyes again. It’s like the old workhorse back in the room.
‘When you hand him an iPad and you play him a clip from something that happened 30 years ago, you can see that fire in his eyes again.”
Do you have a favorite clip or moment from those 500 hours of behind-the-scenes footage from the 1997-1998 season?
It’s in Episode 10, when you see how calm he is on the day of Game One of the ’98 finals. You see how relaxed this guy is. It’s almost like he knows something we don’t. He’s having a long-distance shooting contest with the rest of the guys on his team. They all missed by six inches to six feet, and he just buried the shot — nothing but net — to win the contest. He turns around, he talks a little bit of smack, and he’s acting like a guy who just won the championship, not a guy who was about to try and win his sixth. So that’s the most striking thing to me, just the confidence that this guy exuded and the calm that he exuded in the eye of this storm.
Do you have a favorite on-the-court Jordan moment?
There’s two. In ’86 was when he scored 63 against the Celtics [in Game Two of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs]. I’m a Boston kid. I grew up a die-hard Celtics fan, and I was in the Garden with my dad the day that he scored 63. I was a huge Jordan fan at that point, but that’s what really put me over the top. The other is in ’87, when he won the dunk contest. As little kids, all we wanted to do was to be able to dunk and to fly high like that. That’s why I had a Nerf hoop in my room and I would act like I was Michael Jordan all day. I actually taped that dunk contest and brought it into my fifth-grade class and made a presentation. We all had to sit there and watch the ’87 dunk contest with Jerome Kersey and Clyde Drexler and Terence Stansbury and a bunch of people that the rest of the fifth-graders probably couldn’t care less about.
I think that’s one of the things that I hope that people enjoy. I know there’s people from at least my era, there’s a nostalgia about it. It brings you back to a safe place, reminds you of home when you see some of these clips. It reminds you of your childhood. We certainly need some of that today, some safety and some happiness. So I hope that people get a sense of that when they watch this.
I’m little younger, and I only vaguely remember the ’98 Finals, so my nostalgia is mostly secondhand. I think people of my generation are going to love how this fleshes out our understanding of Jordan and what he accomplished.
My concern is people like my nephew, who is going to be 18 in a few weeks. I want to be sure that when he sees this he understands what I was trying to get across about what made Jordan that great — and that he was that great — because inevitably there’s going to be a hundred highlights that we didn’t show or a specific game we didn’t show. It’s tough, because we’ve been sitting in an edit room for two years and we see this over and over again. We’re cross-eyed at this point. I hope that does come across to the audience, though, that this was not an easy task, and this is something truly once-in-a-lifetime that we witnessed.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.