The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In ESPN’s ‘The Last Dance,’ an unfiltered Michael Jordan gets the last word

“The Last Dance” offers a comprehensive look at the end of Chicago’s dynasty and presents Michael Jordan’s account of his cutthroat approach to competition and leadership. (Beth A. Keiser/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Practice was over, and Michael Jordan swaggered to the sideline with a camera crew in tow.

Chicago Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause was standing near a Gatorade cooler with medicine in hand as players and coaches milled around nearby. Jordan, handsome and cool in a Nike sweatsuit, peered down at the hefty Krause, who was wearing a blue sweater tucked into high-rise pants.

“Are those the pills you take to keep you short?” Jordan loudly asked, rendering Krause speechless with the withering insult. “Or are those diet pills?” Jordan walked off, chuckling at his own cruelty. The many bystanders stood in stunned silence, not laughing.

This unvarnished look at a maniacal Jordan appears in the first episode of “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part documentary about the 1997-98 Bulls, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern time.

For decades, the public has known Jordan as a supreme athlete, a smiling “Be Like Mike” pitchman and a global icon. Besides high-profile speeches at his Hall of Fame induction and Kobe Bryant’s memorial in February, though, the five-time MVP has spent retirement dodging the spotlight and eschewing social media. Nevertheless, Jordan’s ruthless persona — the alpha dog who humiliated Krause, intimidated opponents and punched Steve Kerr at practice — has maintained a stranglehold on the public’s imagination.

While “The Last Dance” offers a comprehensive and compelling look at the end of Chicago’s dynasty, its chief accomplishment is presenting Jordan’s own account of his cutthroat approach to competition and leadership. The basketball legend sat for three extended interviews and candidly discussed sensitive subjects, including his tyrannical tendencies, his gambling, his apolitical public stance and his father’s death.

“This is not a puff piece,” said Estee Portnoy, Jordan’s longtime business manager. “Nothing was off limits.”

The effort to paint all sides of Jordan, including the rough edges, was aided by a trove of behind-the-scenes footage that appeared in eight episodes reviewed by The Washington Post. But it was Jordan’s willingness to defend himself, rationalize his actions and explain his thinking that makes “The Last Dance” a definitive recounting.

“In the first conversation we had in person in 2017, [Jordan] was talking about his ‘Republicans buy sneakers, too’ quote,” director Jason Hehir said. “He was getting into topics in the first 20 minutes that I wasn’t sure he would be willing to get into during the entire years-long process. When we got to the set, he told me to ask him anything and he would tell me the truth. He’s aware of his image and of what people think about him. He was eager to talk.”

Examining the NBA playoffs that weren’t — and wondering what might have been

Ten thousand hours

The Bulls’ run to the 1998 title — dubbed “The Last Dance” by Coach Phil Jackson before the season — was filled with hard feelings. Jordan was frustrated by Krause’s premature rebuilding plans. Jackson was informed by management that he would not be retained after the playoffs. Scottie Pippen, angry about his below-market contract, purposefully delayed foot surgery and requested a trade. The enigmatic Dennis Rodman partied and pouted.

Appropriately, bringing “The Last Dance” to television was also a marathon process. NBA Entertainment, headed at the time by now-Commissioner Adam Silver, pitched the Bulls and Jordan’s camp on a behind-the-scenes camera crew to document the season. All parties agreed, but the resulting footage sat unused for more than 20 years as Jordan, Portnoy, financial manager Curtis Polk and producer Mike Tollin weighed their options. Jordan was initially “reluctant” to green light a project, Portnoy said, because he cherished his privacy and was concerned that explosive scenes would be misconstrued if they weren’t presented with full context.

As outlets began experimenting with long-form sports documentaries, Jordan’s camp became convinced it was the proper format to tell the full story. Hehir, who previously directed a documentary about Michigan’s “Fab Five” basketball team, prepared a 14-page outline in 2016 as he competed with other directorial candidates. Once Hehir won the job, Jordan laid out only one ground rule: “The Last Dance” must be about the entire Bulls team rather than a single-subject biography.

The project’s scope was breathtaking. Hehir and his team combed through 10,000 hours of archival footage, including 500 hours of NBAE’s exclusive tape. In 2018, they began conducting interviews with 106 people, including former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, that produced hundreds of hours of footage and 5,000 pages of transcripts. Hehir has spent the past 26 months working on the project full-time.

With Hehir in place, Portnoy said Jordan’s camp conducted a “whole tour” of prospective media distribution outlets. Ultimately, ESPN and Netflix were selected to handle the domestic and global streaming distribution, respectively. ESPN’s success with its “30 for 30” documentaries was a key deciding factor.

“This is the biggest, most ambitious original content project we’ve ever commissioned,” ESPN executive Connor Schell said. “When you find out an archive of that [behind-the-scenes] material exists, you’re dying to tell that story. I’m glad we waited. I’m glad it took this long. It’s that much more interesting with the passage of the time.”

ESPN planned to air “The Last Dance” on off nights during the NBA Finals in June. When the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down professional sports in March, fans and high-profile athletes, including Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, clamored for the project’s release.

Pickup basketball players, quarantined during an outbreak, have lost their courts and community

Although Hehir and his team are still finishing up the final two episodes, the series will air over five Sundays through May 17.

“The footage is so crisp that it looks like it was shot yesterday,” Hehir said. “I hope it dispels the myth that Michael played against plumbers.”

Consumed by winning

“The Last Dance” fulfilled Jordan’s mandate to tell the whole team’s story. Filmmakers invested significant time in Jackson, Pippen, Rodman and Kerr while also highlighting role players such as Scott Burrell, Jordan’s “pet project” that season. For basketball die-hards, there is footage of Pippen’s college days at Central Arkansas and USA Basketball’s 1992 Dream Team practices, plus an inside look at the Bulls’ 1997 trip to Paris and their ring night celebration.

Even so, Jordan was always going to be the centerpiece of this documentary. The 10 episodes time-shift, jumping back to explore Jordan’s childhood love of baseball, his infamous cut from Laney High’s varsity team, his title-winning jumper at North Carolina and his playoff battles with the Detroit Pistons. He famously relished rivalries and is seen talking trash to Charles Barkley, recoiling at comparisons to Clyde Drexler and dismissing Gary Payton’s claims that defensive strategy changes by the Seattle SuperSonics could have altered the course of the 1996 Finals.

Younger viewers should benefit from a full retelling of these familiar narratives and antagonists. Each of the Bulls’ six titles gets its own treatment, as does Jordan’s midcareer retirement to play baseball. His teammates are treated as stars in their own right rather than props.

“Jordan doesn’t need to be introduced to a new generation,” Schell said. “He transcends that. But I’m not sure the under-25 crowd fully understands how much he meant to people, how far he traveled globally, what he did for the sport and what those teams meant.”

Michael Jordan’s greatest moments, according to the Post Sports staff

Fans who grew up with the Bulls are treated to never-before-seen quiet moments: Jordan naively describes the drug habits of his rookie-year teammates, flips quarters with United Center security guards and muses about the suffocating nature of fame while alone in a hotel room. Cameras caught him crying and hugging the 1991 championship trophy with his father by his side; they were there again when he sobbed on the locker room floor after his first title following his father’s death.

“We questioned whether he was human, whether he had feelings,” Bulls center Will Perdue said. “A guy who was totally focused on [winning] only. The only emotion we’d ever seen from him was anger or frustration. We were literally stunned to see those emotions [in 1991].”

Some of the documentary’s most memorable exchanges come when Hehir facilitated collaborative discussions using technology to draw out genuine reactions and honest answers. To encourage Rodman to detail his midseason bender in Las Vegas, the director showed Rodman a clip of Jordan discussing the circus atmosphere. Instantly, Rodman copped to his debauchery. At another point, Hehir played video for Jordan of Isiah Thomas defending his decision not to shake hands after the 1991 Eastern Conference finals.

“I shook everybody’s hands two years in a row when they beat us,” Jordan said, rolling his eyes at his longtime nemesis. “There’s a certain respect to the game. That’s sportsmanship, no matter how much it hurts. Believe me, it f---ing hurt. They didn’t have to shake our hands. We knew we whooped their a-- already. To me that was better in some ways than winning a championship.”

“The Last Dance” shows the Bulls’ story evolving from fury to camaraderie over the course of the season. Jackson massaged egos and pushed the right buttons. Pippen backtracked on his trade request. Rodman refocused for the playoffs.

Get your goggles on: Any GOAT discussion must include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Twenty-two years later, angst has given way to closure. Hehir said the Bulls collectively looked back on the season with “pride, nostalgia and wistfulness” and that Pippen referred to Krause, who died in 2017, as the “greatest GM ever, [which] shows you how much the ice has thawed.”

But the unforgiving, domineering Jordan remains the central, driving force — both of the team and the documentary. He stood by Jackson throughout his contract saga, kept the Bulls afloat during Pippen’s early-season absence and led the charge to bring Rodman back into the fold. Ultimately, it was Jordan who stole the ball from Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone, dribbled up the court, brushed off Bryon Russell and hit an iconic jumper to seal their sixth and final title.

“I hope this series shows how exhausting and taxing it was on their bodies and souls to maintain their level of excellence,” Hehir said. “I don’t know that we’ll ever see someone who was so all-consumed with winning and not consumed with fame. Athletes today want more followers and more likes. That’s not what Michael was in this for at all.”

Sign up for our weekly NBA newsletter to get the best basketball coverage in your inbox

Read more on the NBA:

Brewer: It’s a new era for the NBA: The time of the unicorn

Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett elected to Basketball Hall of Fame

The Timberwolves prepared for an outbreak but are still left coping with fear and doubt