“The Last Dance” is set to premiere this weekend, but a 10-hour documentary on Michael Jordan and the legendary Chicago Bulls begs the question: Why are we only seeing this now?
“The Last Dance,” a 10-part docuseries on Michael Jordan‘s last championship run with the legendary Chicago Bulls, premieres this Sunday on ESPN, and even in a time where American society wasn’t under quarantine, it would’ve been must-see television.
An extensive look at the 1997-98 Bulls, with insider access to Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Phil Jackson in the most tumultuous season of their dynasty? Yes, please! The anticipation began to build once the project was first announced and has reached a fever pitch since the coronavirus pandemic put an extra emphasis on finding quality content to binge at home.
With that being said, one obvious, glaring question hung in the air for such a high-profile project taking a definitive look at the greatest basketball player of all time and his final title run: Why now? Or, more aptly, why the hell haven’t we seen this in any of the 22 years that have passed since MJ won his last championship?
In a story from ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, all of those questions are answered, and as you would expect, there are a number of reasons that this project wasn’t greenlit and finished until just a couple of years ago.
MJ controlled all the rights to the footage
If you grew up playing NBA video games in the ’90s and early 2000s, you knew that Michael Jordan was off-limits. You didn’t know why — the reason was MJ opted out of the players’ union’s group licensing program, giving him complete control over his own likeness and image being used — but you understood that the GOAT transcended appearing next to his fellow players.
Yeah, it sucked as a child who wanted to control Air Jordan in his favorite basketball game, but MJ correctly asserted each use would dilute his image. By abstaining, his mythos grew.
So it’s no surprise to learn that part of the deal to convince Jordan to grant this film crew intimate access to his locker room and his life came from being given control over the rights to all the content. Simply put, until MJ was ready for the world to see this project, it would remain locked in a vault.
“Worst-case scenario,” Silver told Jordan, “you’ll have the greatest set of home movies for your kids ever created.”
For two decades, it felt like that footage would never see the light of day, but finally, Jordan’s thinking began to change.
MJ needed the right filmmaker to tell this story
As the legend surrounding this Holy Grail of documentary footage grew, plenty of people tried to get the project off the ground, including Frank Marshall, Spike Lee, and actor Danny DeVito. Shelburne reports that according to Curtis Polk, Jordan’s longtime business partner, none of them even got a face-to-face meeting with His Airness.
Most of them were trying to pitch your standard 80-minute documentary, but such a short time span would’ve sold the story short. How could one capture Jordan and the Bulls’ mythos, especially in such a season of turmoil, in just an hour and a half?
Producer Mike Tollin, who had helmed sports projects like “Varsity Blues” and “Coach Carter” saw his opening in 2016 after the eight-episode O.J. Simpson documentary was such a hit at Sundance. He soon got his shot to talk casually about the project with Jordan after convincing Polk and Jordan’s other business associate, Estee Portnoy, with a pitch of 6-8 episodes.
Tollin showed up with a lookbook. On the first page, it read:
“Dear Michael, every day kids come into my office wearing your shoes, who’ve never seen you play. It’s time.”
Tollin could tell MJ was engaged as he put on his reading glasses to actually read it, but when he got to the final page with thumbnails of the projects Tollin had worked on, the Allen Iverson project “Iverson” caught his eye. He asked Tollin if he had done that, and the producer cautiously answered yes.
According to Shelburne, that was the last thing MJ needed to seal the deal.
“Jordan took his glasses off, looked up and said, ‘I watched that thing three times. Made me cry. Love that little guy.’
“Then he walked around the desk, extended his hand and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
MJ wasn’t ready for any kind of “definitive” telling of his story…
Okay, so Jordan identified with the guy who took a great look at his buddy Allen Iverson, but why did the footage need to gather dust in a vault somewhere for two decades first? Well, as Shelburne illuminates, and as many of us could’ve guessed based on what we know about Jordan, the man wasn’t ready for a definitive version of his story to be told.
Why? Because such a story would bring closure, and with closure, the story ends.
This is the man who reached a level of sports fame in line with Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali. A man who said he never saw himself living past the age of 50 and is now 57. A man who reportedly called his teammate B.J. Armstrong to ask about Hall of Fame eligibility, and upon learning he’d be eligible within five years of retiring, asked if checking into a game just once would then delay the process another five years.
As Shelburne writes it best:
“He couldn’t control time. But he could control when he allowed someone to tell his story.”
…until LeBron James and the Golden State Warriors challenged his legacy
So we know Jordan wanted to control when his story was told, but the question, “Why now?” remains unanswered. What changed in 2016 that convinced him it was time to get the ball rolling?
Well, the day Tollin pitched MJ with his lookbook, the Cleveland Cavaliers were celebrating their NBA Finals victory over the Golden State Warriors with a parade. It was the day the player who most threatened Jordan’s legacy — LeBron James — clashed with the 73-win team that most threatened his Bulls’ legacy.
Call it petty if you must, but deciding it was time for his story to be told in full, on the very day that both LeBron James and the 73-win Warriors were at the forefront of the conversation … well, that’s the peak competitiveness that made Michael Jordan the GOAT in the first place.