There’s likely a significant group of people tuning into “The Last Dance” hoping for a glimpse of the “real” Michael Jordan. In some ways, the 10-part documentary series from ESPN and director Jason Hehir shows how that distinction may be difficult to make. Try as Jordan may have during the height of his cultural ascension to put forward a version of himself to a hungry public, “The Last Dance” shows many of the ways that the idea of “Michael Jordan” was cultivated beyond his control.
Still, as Hehir told IndieWire earlier this month, the hours he spent with Jordan over the course of three separate interview sessions helped shine a light on a side of the global superstar that few others get the chance to see.
“I didn’t spend a ton of time with him, but I spent enough hours with him that I saw him as a human being and still a very polite Southern kid at heart. It’s ‘Ma’am’ and ‘Sir,'” Hehir said. “During our first interview, one of the makeup artists was about six-months pregnant. Someone offered him a cigar, to be more comfortable in the makeup room. And he said, ‘Are you kidding me? We have a pregnant woman here.’ He could not have been more polite with her, offering her a chair. And that’s when no cameras were there, just a few people in a room. That’s the kind of guy he is.”
There’s a tacit acknowledgment in “The Last Dance” that the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, at which Jordan was the center, was so scrutinized on a daily basis that the team’s story was already written. Short of the giant collection of behind-the-scenes embedded camera crew, the series draws much of its strength from taking a comprehensive approach to gathering how this team was perceived at the time.
Given that a lot of that public perception was shaped by the endless stream of reporters’ questions to Jordan — about everything from the state of his career to his off-court pursuits to his relationships with teammates — Hehir knew there was little chance he would be able to stumble on questions not previously exhausted.
“I had no illusions about the fact that anything I could dream up, he’s been asked that before. So the challenge became: How do you keep him stimulated? What is the fresh way to present him with these questions rather than just a typical Q&A?” Hehir said. “So in the second and third interviews, this is where we could use the expanded schedule to our advantage. We were able to show him [interviews with other people]. Not only could we utilize the resulting soundbite, we could utilize his facial expression, which oftentimes is more valuable than sound. First it was out of convenience, and then it became a valuable technique in keeping things fresher.”
Of course, Jordan is far from the only larger-than-life figure from the core of that Bulls team. Part of the appeal of “The Last Dance” is the way that it shows what it took for this collection of generational athletes, innovative coaching minds, and front-office figures to all find a single strip of common ground on which to build the last part of a dynasty.
As the opening pair of episodes showed, “The Last Dance” also draws strength from the contributions of Scottie Pippen. This week’s two chapters eventually turn their gaze to Dennis Rodman, an electrifying late-’90s presence in his own right. Rodman’s progression from a bitter enemy of Chicago to one of the team’s most valuable pieces represented a tricky progression to show without “spoiling” later parts of the story.
“There are certain things we couldn’t reveal. But we still had to keep the ball rolling, so his was a particularly difficult chronologically. The biggest challenge of the entire documentary was how to tell Dennis’s story because his story has major tentpoles,” Hehir said. “Just as those Bulls teams starred Michael Jordan, this documentary is going to star Michael Jordan. I was just as interested in telling the stories of the supporting players, the guys who played alongside Michael.”
“The Last Dance” greatly benefits from a trove of rare footage from a documentary crew that followed the Bulls throughout the fall of 1997 and through June 1998. At the time, NBA Entertainment mainstay Andy Thompson — brother of ex-Los Angeles Laker Mychal and uncle of future star Klay Thompson — was instrumental in bringing the idea to NBA Entertainment head Adam Silver (who now serves as the league’s commissioner).
Hehir said that at the time, there wasn’t a fixed, intended use for the footage. It was a matter of preserving that season in a kind of amber that could be extracted when the right time came. After two decades, when that footage helped form the backbone of “The Last Dance,” Hehir wanted Thompson to be involved as those behind-the-scenes glimpses first started to see the light of day.
“I have a lot of admiration for Andy, both as an artist and as a person. I wanted him to be involved as much as possible. So he attended shoots, he came and visited the edit room. I think he realized early on that we had seen all the footage and we understood it and we were leaving no stone unturned,” Hehir said. “I would consult him on a regular basis to say, ‘Hey, do you remember anything about this?’ or ‘What was your favorite shot?’ I felt a responsibility to Andy and to the guys who were there on the ground level during that season, to make sure that this thing came out the way that they envisioned as well. It’s as much theirs as it is ours.”
Part of the built-in game of that extra footage is trying to spot the ways that Jordan and his teammates might be noticeably different than in the more widely available media clips. Are they more candid or happier or looser with this smaller dedicated crew than they are under the lights of the United Center or in front of network TV mics?
Over time, Hehir got the impression that there’s something about Jordan that helped him transcend those differences.
“He actually wants to discuss these things and not give these rudimentary, normal interviews that you hear at somebody’s locker when they’re talking about the game action that night,” Hehir said. “I think everybody cares how they’re perceived. But I think his belief is that you say it the way you want to say it. And as long as you believe in your heart that you said it the right way, you can’t control how people perceive you.”
Of course, it’s almost impossible to get to that perception point if the surrounding narrative is incoherent. If “The Last Dance” truly succeeds, it’s because of the framework that allows for all of these different entry points into the greater Bulls mythology. Moving across two timelines at once, along that ’97-’98 season and any of the individual storylines that helped to make a run at a championship possible, allows those observations to flourish.
“We did 106 interviews, and some were better than others. Some were great and some were duds. The challenge was: How do we incorporate all of these backstories and tell a mini-documentary about each of these key figures, without having the viewer’s head spinning and wondering where in time we were?” Hehir said. “We did have a basic outline going in. There were certain storylines that I thought we would pursue that we didn’t, and then certain storylines that came up that never even occurred to me, ones that became became major turning points in the series. It’s always a good sign, when you have to deviate from that outline because it means that you got something that was good enough or meaty enough that you had to actually rearrange the building blocks you thought you had in place.”
New episodes of “The Last Dance” air Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on ESPN.