Beer, Grudges, Legacies: Inside the Making of 'The Last Dance'

Pulling back the curtain on the legend of Michael Jordan and his Bulls dynasty was a test for the franchise and for the filmmakers who waited more than two decades to bring the tale to the screen.
photo of Jonathan AbramsJonathan Abrams@jpdabramsSenior Writer, B/R MagApril 16, 2020

A gaggle of reporters anxiously waits outside the Bulls locker room shortly into the sixth installment of The Last Dance, ESPN and Netflix's epic docuseries that chronicles Michael Jordan's final season in Chicago.

One camera is inside as Jordan, perched on a trainer's table, cracks open a Miller Lite following Chicago's 60th win of the season. "After a hard day, I would take Gatorade," he says, "but I don't think so."

"That's all we be thinking about in the fourth quarter," Scottie Pippen chimes in. "Cold beer." Pippen then becomes conscious of the camera. "I don't know why y'all filming us," he says. "We don't want y'all filming us drinking no beer."

From the background, teammate Ron Harper has a different take: "I don't care what you film."

Jordan chuckles.

"Hey, if they go back 10 years ago, you would see half the brothers drinking a case—at halftime," Jordan says. "When I first joined the team, man, they were drinking beers at half and smoking a cigarette. And you know what? Shit, they were getting the cigarettes from the coaches."

Jordan soon lifts himself from the table to meet the throngs of cameras, recorders and reporters.

The interaction is just one in a docuseries peppered with moments like those—glimpses that reveal the adult-beverage-drinking Jordan and not the polished sports-drink endorser who transformed into a global icon. 

For those in their 30s and older, the docuseries provides a tsunami of nostalgia, offering deeper context on Jordan's career and his place in the cultural hierarchy. Each of his six championships was hard-earned amid an array of struggles and obstacles within the Bulls franchise and outside of it. It is a dive into Jordan's motivation, a look at the burdens that dragged and fueled him and an exploration of basketball's injection into mainstream America from those earlier NBA days that Jordan described when he first landed with the Bulls in 1984. For younger viewers, the series provides perspective on Jordan far beyond just that of a team owner, a meme or a shoe's silhouette.

The Last Dance premieres on ESPN on April 19 with two episodes. Two additional episodes will air each ensuing Sunday through May 17. The series will also be available internationally on Netflix, beginning with the first two episodes on April 20.  

A trove of never-before-seen footage from the turbulent 1997-98 season serves as the unifying thread throughout the series. A camera crew embedded itself with the team that season, providing a holy grail of footage. Approximately 500 hours of footage exists from that season, according to director Jason Hehir, and while a lot of it is game footage, there is also plenty of behind-the-scenes snippets from the locker room to plane rides to the practice court.

"It was definitely strange at the time," said Steve Kerr, Jordan's teammate at the time, during a recent media call about the series. "That was not an era where there was a ton of access behind the scenes before all the Hard Knocks-type shows came around. ... And for Phil Jackson, the locker room and the team's space was always very sacred.

"It was kind of a surprise at the time when we were alerted to what was happening. But I think everybody embraced it pretty quickly, because we were well aware we were playing in a very historic era and playing for a historic team. I think we all understood that someday, this would all be captured and it would be great for us to see it and remember it and show our kids and grandkids—all that kind of stuff. And then nothing happened for 20 years, whatever it was.

"So, it's great that it's coming out now. ... I think at the end, it's just an incredible thing for all of us. "

More than a look back in time, the docuseries includes recent interviews with Jordan, Pippen, Jackson and others reflecting on their time together. Hehir, who also directed ESPN's 30 for 30 on the Fab Five and HBO's Andre The Giant, does not merely ask about the past but tries to elicit more natural responses, at times passing Jordan an iPad featuring taped responses of other interviewees—like Isiah Thomas' recollection of walking off the court without shaking Jordan's hand following a playoff loss—and allowing Jordan to react.

Jordan, Hehir said, did not ask for any topic to be off-limits, be it his gambling, the murder of his father, his baseball detour or his hesitancy to engage in politics during his playing career. The film also delves into Jordan's practice of finding motivation in perceived slights, which seem to arrive from anywhere and everywhere—those remembered and forgotten like from former SuperSonics coach George Karl, a teammate turned rival in B.J. Armstrong and a mostly forgotten tiff with a player named LaBradford Smith.

As vivid as these tales are in painting a portrait of an athlete who still fascinates, they do hearken back to an era long since passed.

"I can't tell you exactly why he chose to do it now," Hehir said of the series' release more than a generation after the '97-98 season. "I can tell you that he was very willing and able to tell all the stories that we wanted him to tell and to answer every question we put in front of him."

Jordan, Hehir said, provided three in-depth interviews for the docuseries. Notes would come funneled to Hehir from ESPN, Netflix and the NBA. The occasional suggestion from Jordan would make it in, as well. In one instance, Hehir recalled, Jordan stressed how important it was to explore Bulls general manager Jerry Krause's decision to trade away his friend, team enforcer Charles Oakley. "So he wanted us to include in that, that that was part of that other relationship that he and Jerry Krause had, is that he had a problem with that trade," Hehir said. "But also, as he said, that it ended up being the right move."

Michael Jordan allowed the crew making "The Last Dance" to delve into not just his career on the court but also into some of the more controversial moments of his life.
Michael Jordan allowed the crew making "The Last Dance" to delve into not just his career on the court but also into some of the more controversial moments of his life.FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

While Jordan is the film's focus, the series also explores the backstories of his supporting cast, taking detours to Pippen's home in Hamburg, Arkansas, exploring Dennis Rodman's evolution as a maturing player in Texas and Oklahoma and detailing Jackson's journey from Montana to a championship player for the Knicks to his beginnings as a coach on basketball's fringes.

Hehir covers plenty of ground throughout each installment, although he had originally planned on devoting more time to Jordan's high school years. "Michael wrote to Virginia and UCLA asking to be recruited and never heard back from them," Hehir said. "So, the idea that there's a teenage Michael Jordan sitting down and asking for someone to come watch him play so that maybe he would be lucky enough to play for them, I found that really astounding. But, in that first episode, there was so much business to get out of the way between the '97-98 team, and we had to get Michael drafted and on the Bulls as quickly as possible.

"And you can't tell that story without telling the story of him at UNC. You can't tell the UNC story without telling the story of his shot against Georgetown in 1982, so there's a lot of things that you're positive are going to make it in that don't end up making it in, and that was one storyline that didn't."

When Jordan asks, Hehir found that people answer. The director said he landed every interview he had hoped for, a remarkable list that includes an array of notable names, from two former presidents—Barack Obama and Bill Clinton—to model and actress Carmen Electra (who describes running and hiding in a hotel room when Jordan once came to locate a tardy Rodman).

"I know John Stockton was the last interview, but it wasn't because of any reluctance on his part," Hehir said. "He did express some reservations that he wanted to make sure he wasn't going to be involved in a Michael Jordan puff piece. But once we spoke to him and we explained to him that this was going to be an honest, responsible telling of the Bulls story and the Michael Jordan story, he was great and he cooperated and he was generous with his time. He was our final interview before all of this COVID madness set in."

Every saga needs a foil, of course, and as he did when Jordan played for the Bulls, Krause serves as the "villain" here. The architect of the Bulls' two three-peat teams, Krause publicly stated that the '97-98 season would be Jackson's final one in Chicago before the season even began.

Krause died in 2017, but the series includes archived interviews from the former general manager. Hehir said Krause receives the credit he is owed in the last two episodes (ESPN allowed screenings of the first eight installments).

Though often ridiculed by his players, Jerry Krause oversaw a Bulls team that won six NBA titles in eight seasons.
Though often ridiculed by his players, Jerry Krause oversaw a Bulls team that won six NBA titles in eight seasons.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

"I would probably ask him what he was most proud of because I know that he was proud of a lot of things and he deserved to be proud of a lot of things," Hehir said of what he would want to ask Krause if he had the opportunity. "He was a polarizing figure, but he was the architect of that dynasty. So, I'd be eager to hear what it is about being that architect that he was the most proud of. And I'd also ask him his candid thoughts on the fact that at the time he was vilified because it's easy to vilify the front office when you're a fan of a team, but if he had any ambivalence toward being vilified at the time and rightfully earning his place in the Hall of Fame now, what his thoughts were on coming full circle."

Basketball fans, for years, have wondered how Jordan would have performed in an era of social media with cameras trailing him both on and off the court. We will never fully know the answer. But this series provides us with the closest look we will ever get, and the result is a fuller and deeper portrayal of Jordan, the icon, teammate and person. 

   

Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the bestselling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter, @jpdabrams.

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