During the 1997-98 NBA season, the Chicago Bulls allowed a film crew from NBA Entertainment to document what would be the last championship run for a historic team that included Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, head coach Phil Jackson and general manager Jerry Krause. The footage would sit on a shelf for two decades.
Jason Hehir was a senior in college during that season. But by the time he began work on “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary series about the Jordan-era Bulls and their final championship season, he was a veteran sports-documentary filmmaker — most recently having tackled “Andre the Giant” for HBO. However, “The Last Dance” is next-level. Hehir employed the trove of 1997-98 footage as well as older archival material and recording from dozens of hours of contemporary interviews he and his crew conducted with everyone from Barack Obama to Magic Johnson to Jordan himself to tell the story of that final run and the years leading up to it.
Epic in scope, “The Last Dance” debuts Sunday on ESPN at a time when the network and its audience are starved for new sports content — creating peak anticipation for the project. Hehir discussed with Variety how he went about telling the story of one of the most important teams in pro-sports history.
How did the ’97-’98 footage end up sitting there for 20 years?
A lot of people had to come to the table and agree on a lot of different parameters, financial, creative, logistical, and it took that long just to get that many people on board. A lot of it is timing. Maybe Michael wants to do it one year and the NBA doesn’t. Maybe we can find a network one year, and maybe we can’t the next year. I wasn’t around for that process. So I can’t tell you exactly why year to year this sat on the shelf. Knowing Michael, knowing Michael’s competitive nature and knowing that fire that still burns inside him, I think it’s no small coincidence that he agreed to be a part of this project right around the time that the [Golden State] Warriors won 73 games in one season, eclipsing the ’96 Bulls’ 72 wins, and LeBron [James] won a title with Cleveland, and people were starting to have the conversation, “Well, maybe LeBron is the greatest. Maybe Michael’s not the greatest.” So I think a lot of stars aligned creatively, financially, logistically and emotionally for everyone to come to the table and say, “Alright, it’s time to tell this story.”
How did you come up with the parallel structure of telling the story of the ’97-’98 team alongside the overall history of the Jordan-era Bulls and their key figures in the years leading up that season?
We had access to Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson. Their stories are so rich, and so deserving of their own documentaries — it felt like an opportunity to do mini documentaries within one macro documentary. And in order to do that, you have to go back in time and you have to tell the story of what made these people who they are. And also to understand the ’97-’98 Bulls, you need to understand the evolution of that franchise, and the evolution of that dynasty — how they became what they were at the time. By ’97-’98, they were a global phenomenon, and just 10 years earlier, they were barely a blip on the NBA radar. So it seemed like an opportunity for us to have the ’97-’98 team be the chronological spine of the doc, given the fact that we had access to this footage, but also to tell the story of the Bulls dynasty and the rise of Michael Jordan through the lens of that season.
There are a number of transition points in the doc. The one that really got me was in the third episode when you use Rodman as the entry point to go back and talk about the Pistons in the late ’80s. How many of those moments were you able to map out in advance?
The fun part was that we have these two converging timelines of the evolution of the Bulls dynasty leading up to their final title, and then the ’97-’98 season, which also leads to the final title. So the timelines converge at the finish line. Then you can work backwards, and you can say, “Okay, we’re going to tell the story of each of the titles that they won, ’91, ’92, and ’93, and ’96 and ’97. So when are we going to introduce ’91?” We can’t wait until after the first half of the series to start introducing when they started winning these titles. So Episode 4 seemed like a good time to have them win their first title in a flashback. And then when you work backwards from there, you have to say, “Okay, in order to tell the story of them beating the Lakers, you have to tell the story of them vanquishing the Pistons, who had been their nemesis for years before that.” And you want to introduce your main characters sooner rather than later. So then you say, “Dennis played for the Pistons. He’s a main character.” He also at that time, chronologically in the ’98 season, which is about a third of the way through the season, started to go off the rails. So there are three story points that all hit at one time and you think, “It seems like Episode 3 is the right time to start introducing this storyline.” It was a fun puzzle to figure out.
It’s easy to identify who the most major players in the story are going to be. Were there people who, as you were digging in, became more ore less prominent characters than you expected?
There were people who emerged as important storytellers, people who had important points that we needed to make. B.J. Armstrong is a good example of a guy that was not a Hall of Famer but had a great NBA career and was also very close to Michael during that first three-peat run. So he had a lot of insight into how exhausting it became for Michael to be this superstar both on and off the court and the toll that that took on him, which eventually led to him taking a year and a half hiatus. He was also a sounding board for Michael when Michael was away from the game, so he was able to tell the story in detail of Michael’s decision to come back. So that’s a guy who wasn’t a superstar, and wasn’t one of the more obvious figures you would expect to see in a series about the Bulls dynasty. But he became an important storyteller for us because of the insight that he was able to offer and the friendships that he had at the time he was on the team. Will Perdue is not regarded as a superstar on those teams. He was actually traded for Dennis Rodman. But his candor and his insight into what it was like to be a teammate of Michael’s made him a valuable character for us, especially in Episode 7, to say firsthand how difficult it was to play with Michael, how taxing that could be physically and emotionally — but also that it was worth it. Will Perdue is the one who says “Yes, he was an asshole,” and in the same breath says, “He was a great teammate.”
How much time did you get with Jordan and when did you interview him?
We did three interviews with him — June of 2018, May of 2019, and December of 2019. The cameras were rolling for about eight hours total.
I guess I should tell you the story of meeting him for the first time. We were a year into discussing and researching this project when I got a phone call, impromptu, from Estee Portnoy, who’s Michael’s manager. I live in Manhattan and she said, “We’re at a hotel in Midtown, and Michael would like to have a drink.” So I got to Midtown as quick as I could. I’m not gonna lie to you, when I turn the corner and see Michael Jordan sitting there for the first time, I turned into a 10 year old again. I mean, this is a guy whose poster was on my wall, so it’s hard to compute that he is an actual human being. But at the same time, that’s what fascinates me the most about him, that he is a human being. He looks and feels like a statue to most of us, but there’s humanity there and there’s emotion there. There are things that he cares deeply about. So I was interested in getting a little bit deeper, finding out more about Michael Jordan the person rather than Michael Jordan the superstar. It wasn’t until about 15 or 20 minutes into the conversation, he leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees, and he pointed at me as he was describing something with an index finger. And his index finger looks like it’s about 18 inches long, and it’s all gnarled and bent because of all the basketball he’s played. So he’s pointing that finger at me and I looked at his face. It was almost cinematic. He leaned into the light in this dark lobby lounge. And that’s the first time that I noticed the glint of his hoop earring on his ear. That’s the moment it was like, “Oh my god, I’m sitting here talking to Michael Jordan.” He’s an actual person, not just a two-dimensional poster that hangs on your wall and you see in store windows. The first 15 minutes were surreal. But then quickly, it became a conversation between two people — one person who was very passionate about a lot of the experiences that he’s endured and another person who has done years of research to help him express that passion in a responsible and comprehensive way. So I think that it was pretty early on that I had a good idea that he was in this for the right reasons, and I hope it was early on he trusted me that I was going to tell the story in the right way.
What was he like during the interview sessions?
When he came in, it was clear that he came to play. Because we were going to do several sessions, a lot of times the challenge is memory of details for these guys. And we need those details from them in order to tell a detailed story. I just researched this a month before the interview, but he hasn’t experienced this for 20 or 30 years. So I sent him a list of topics that we would be discussing — not the questions themselves, but just topics, just to jog his memory. And [before the first interview] he said, “I saw that you sent those. I didn’t even look at them. You can ask me anything you want. I’ll tell you anything you want. All you gotta do is tell the truth.” So that was really encouraging to me. And luckily he’s got a photographic memory of game events. So I didn’t need to remind him of what the score was at certain moments and at pivotal games.
With Jerry Krause, how hard was it to portray him as anything other than the stock villain? And was there any opportunity to involve him before he passed away in 2017?
We would’ve loved to get him involved. He passed away four months before we started filming. So if there’s one person I wish we could have interviewed for this documentary, it’s Jerry Krause. Say what you will, he was a polarizing figure, certainly in the city of Chicago and within that locker room, but he was the architect of those teams. He wasn’t on the floor making the plays. He did believe organizations win championships, not just players. And that may or may not be true, but I wanted to be sure that he got his due in this doc, and that people understood the role that he played and the tough decisions that he made that made the team what it was. [The players] could be very rough on him. You see Michael being rough on him right from the outset. But I thought it was important to show, not for any salacious reason, but just to show you the kind of ribbing that he endured, and that this was a guy who could take a joke and who would give it right back to them. He’s a guy who was short of stature, but he had a lot of personality. By the end of Episode 10, of all people, it’s Scottie Pippen [who feuded with Krause] who says, “Jerry Krause was the greatest GM of all time.” So I hope we did right by him because I think that Jerry deserves his due.