“For a basketball fan, it’s like crack,” said filmmaker Steve James, who directed iconic sports documentary “Hoop Dreams.” “I’ve never taken crack, but it’s like this is what I need right now.”
The backbone of the documentary is footage captured during Jordan’s last championship season with the Bulls. It was shot by an NBA Entertainment film crew and sat for nearly two decades, waiting for Jordan to green light its use, per the terms in which he granted access. And as entertaining as the series has been as its finale arrives Sunday night, it is that wrinkle that makes the series hard to define.
With Jordan’s confidantes — business manager Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk, who handles his finances — offering notes on the film to director Jason Hehir, and the NBA, another partner, sharing its own suggestions, it’s fair to wonder what, exactly, viewers are left with. Is it really an honest look behind the curtain at Jordan as he has never been seen? Or is it a Jordan vanity project wrapped in a glitzy production?
No one was more blunt than Ken Burns, who told the Wall Street Journal that he would never be involved in a project in which he shared editorial control with a subject of the documentary.
The underlying question — how authentic can the story be if Jordan is one of the storytellers? — is not new to recent sports media. With the rise of athletes founding their own production companies — LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry each have one — and websites such as the Players’ Tribune offering platforms to publish first-person essays, there are more ways than ever for athletes to have a say in how their stories are told and bypass the traditionally independent press. Sports media companies such as ESPN and Bleacher Report are partnering with athletes on content, too.
Perhaps no one has worked on more big productions in conjunction with athletes as subjects than filmmaker Gotham Chopra, who founded a production company with Tom Brady and former NFL star Michael Strahan. He has collaborated with Brady, James, Curry and Kobe Bryant.
Chopra said there can be real benefits for viewers in collaborations that give athletes a say in the editorial process. When he worked with Bryant on a film that documented his return from an Achilles’ injury, they began with just a few sit-down interviews. But after seeing a rough first cut of the film, Bryant decided he had more to say. In the ensuing months, he reached out to Chopra more often, including texts in the middle of the night asking for more interviews, and opened up about issues such as his relationship with former teammate Shaquille O’Neal.
“It turned into a form of therapy,” Chopra said. “Creative ownership over something is also an agency over his own story, and that makes a big difference — whether it's Kobe, Jordan or anyone else.”
Of Burns, Chopra said: “He’s an institution and an idol, but it’s a generational thing. Not everything has to be like it once was."
Some of that can be seen in “The Last Dance.” In addition to the irresistible nostalgia, the series has delivered its share of poignant moments, among them Jordan for the first time copping publicly to uttering one of the most famous unconfirmed quotes in sports history: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” And in an episode last weekend, Jordan grew emotional while talking about his no-holds-barred leadership style. “When people see this, they’re going to say, ‘Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy; he may have been a tyrant,’ ” he says. “Well, that’s you because you never won anything.” He then demands a break in the interview.
That tension, Steve James said, is what makes the documentary connect and why he has enjoyed it. But there are limits.
“You desperately want to know what happens after he says, ‘Break,’ ” James said. “And I want to know what the effect of that mentality has been — in his career, in his life, with his relationships. You’re still getting the Jordan that he wants you to see.”
For all of his praise of the series, Chopra wondered about the omission of the story of Craig Hodges, a Jordan teammate who visited the White House after a championship dressed in a dashiki and delivered a letter on inequality to George H.W. Bush. Hodges did not play in the NBA again; he later filed a federal lawsuit claiming he was blackballed.
Hehir said Hodges wasn’t featured because the film already had Barack Obama gently criticizing Jordan for his lack of interest in political causes and his quote about Republicans buying sneakers. He said he didn’t interview Jordan’s ex-wife, Juanita Vanoy, because it was outside the film’s scope.
“If we did interview and feature kids and wives, we would have had to do that for Phil Jackson, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen, too,” he said. “Then it’s more of a Michael Jordan documentary. It’s a blurry line. ...
“From the first time I met his team and the NBA and everyone associated with it, it was made clear to me: This is not the definitive Michael Jordan documentary. It’s the story of the Bulls through that dynasty, and it’s going to star Michael Jordan.”
That’s a narrow needle to thread: a film starring Jordan that looks at his gambling, childhood and career with the Bulls but one that, by definition, isn’t supposed to be definitive. Still, it’s hard to blame Hehir because Jordan got to set the ground rules.
“We were allowed to tell the story; we were never told to stay away from a line of questions or any footage or leave answers out,” Hehir said. “That was a pleasant surprise.”
“The Last Dance” also is not “O.J.: Made in America,” ESPN’s 2016 Oscar-winning docuseries about O.J. Simpson.
“The Jordan film will be a great piece of basketball lore and history captured while people were still alive to talk about it,” Steve James said. “But it won’t be like the O.J. film. No one will say this is a major statement about America.”
James added: “Let’s say you go to a meeting with Jordan, and he says, ‘You’re not going to film me watching my kids [play basketball], and I’m not going to talk about my marriage.’ For a filmmaker, do you still go and make the movie? I would.”
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