ESPN announced Tuesday that it will air “The Last Dance,” the network’s much-anticipated 10-part documentary about Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls, in April instead of June as originally planned.
The documentary, which relies upon footage shot by NBA Entertainment throughout Jordan’s last season in Chicago and features modern-day interviews with Jordan, his teammates, coaches, other NBA players and various celebrities, was announced in 2018 and originally was scheduled to be released last year. But at some point ESPN pushed back the release date to June 2020 to coincide with the NBA Finals.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has halted nearly all sporting events around the globe, opening up numerous holes in ESPN’s schedule. Soon after leagues started postponing and canceling games, fans began to clamor for ESPN to move up “The Last Dance” as a way to fill the void.
“As society navigates this time without live sports, viewers are still looking to the sports world to escape and enjoy a collective experience,” ESPN said in a statement. “We’ve heard the calls from fans asking us to move up the release date for this series, and we’re happy to announce that we’ve been able to accelerate the production schedule to do just that. This project celebrates one of the greatest players and dynasties ever, and we hope it can serve as a unifying entertainment experience to fill the role that sports often play in our lives, telling a story that will captivate everyone, not just sports fans.”
In an ESPN-released Q&A sent out March 17, programming executive Burke Magnus acknowledged the fan demand that “The Last Dance” release date be moved up.
“Overall, any original content project that we can conceivably move up, we are obviously considering that, including films,” he said. "I know some have asked about The Last Dance and the reality is that the production of that film has not yet been completed, so we are limited there at the moment. Obviously, you can’t air it until it’s done.
The Bulls entered the 1997-98 season in search of their second three-peat but knowing it probably would be their final season together: Jordan maintained throughout the season that he would not play for any coach other than Phil Jackson, and General Manager Jerry Krause already had announced that it would be Jackson’s final season with Chicago. Plus, Jordan, Jackson and forward Dennis Rodman were on one-year contracts.
After a middling start partly because of forward Scottie Pippen’s absence with a back injury, the Bulls finished 62-20 and advanced to a second straight meeting with the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals. Jordan scored 45 points in the deciding Game 6, including the winning basket with 5.2 seconds left.
Jordan retired after the season, but he returned to the NBA in 2001 to play two seasons in Washington. Jackson left as promised, resurfacing in 1999 with the Los Angeles Lakers. (He would win five more NBA titles, giving him a league-record 11 as a coach.) The Bulls traded Pippen to the Houston Rockets. Rodman left for the Lakers via free agency. Chicago went from 62 wins in 1997-98 to 13 in the strike-shortened 1998-99 season and then 17 and 15 in the two seasons that followed. In the 22 seasons since their most recent NBA championship, they have won only five playoff series, never advancing past the Eastern Conference finals.
“Michael Jordan and the ‘90s Bulls weren’t just sports superstars, they were a global phenomenon,” director Jason Hehir said in the ESPN statement. “Making ‘The Last Dance’ was an incredible opportunity to explore the extraordinary impact of one man and one team. For nearly three years, we searched far and wide to present the definitive story of an era-defining dynasty and to present these sports heroes as humans. I hope viewers enjoy watching our series as much as we enjoyed the opportunity to make it.”
Here’s a longer trailer released a few months ago: