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A bold idea 23 years ago, ‘The Last Dance’ is finally seeing light. Here’s why

THE PITCH WAS as audacious in 1997 as it would be today.

A producer for NBA Entertainment wanted to do an all-access, season-long documentary with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls as they headed into what was likely to be their final season together.

In the huddles as Phil Jackson coached. Behind closed doors as Michael Jordan barked instructions and four-letter words. In the training room as Scottie Pippen vented about general manager Jerry Krause’s publicly humiliating trade discussions involving him. Off the court — or Atlantic City, in the case of Dennis Rodman, who escaped there in the middle of the Finals to wrestle Hulk Hogan.

Asking for this kind of access, with a team with as much controversy and pressure swirling around it as the 1997-98 Bulls, was unprecedented.

“I mean, then, as it is now, Michael was one of the most famous people on the planet,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who was the head of NBA Entertainment at the time. “And there were rumors that it was going to be Michael’s last season.”

NBA Entertainment producer Andy Thompson wasn’t worried about any of that when he pitched the idea to his bosses, Silver and executive Gregg Winik.

“I remember thinking, ‘Man, this guy is going to retire,'” Thompson said. “‘And we’ve never really fully documented a year in the life of potentially the greatest athlete in the history of the sport.'”

Thompson, the younger brother of Los Angeles Lakers center Mychal Thompson and uncle to future Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, had built a relationship with Jordan and shot several home videos that involved him over the years. But nothing as extensive as this. Nobody had.

But Silver believed in NBAE’s mission as the league’s archivist, and in opening up the game and its personalities to the world. That meant more than postgame interviews and home videos of championship runs. To do something more, he would have to convince the best team in the league and the best player in the league to let cameras into their inner sanctum.

He started by asking Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who was open to the idea, but only if Jordan and Jackson were on board.

“The coach, at the end of the day, controls the locker room,” Silver said. “So we needed Phil’s cooperation.”

You can actually see Silver meeting with Jackson on the steps of the Bulls team hotel in Paris, in Episode 1 of “The Last Dance,” the 10-part documentary on the 1997-98 Bulls, which begins airing on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET Sunday and continues for the next five weeks.

“Phil was great,” Silver said. “He got it.”

As long as Jackson had the ability to wave off Thompson and his cameras from time to time, he was OK with trading some privacy in the name of history.

It took a different approach to convince Jordan, however.

“There was no negotiation whatsoever,” Silver explained. “All I said was, ‘I’m sure there’ll maybe be a tough negotiation at some point, but we don’t have to have it now.’ Because first and foremost, we have to capture the footage.”

Then he offered Jordan the one thing he couldn’t turn down: control.

“Our agreement will be that neither one of us can use this footage without the other’s permission,” Silver told Jordan. “It will be kept — I mean literally it was physical film — as a separate part of our Secaucus [New Jersey] library. Our producers won’t have access to it. It will only be used with your permission.”

Now that was something.

Jordan had successfully controlled his likeness since he came into the league in 1984. He was one of two players (fellow David Falk client Patrick Ewing was the other) who opted out of the players’ union’s group licensing program, figuring correctly they’d make exponentially more by doing their own marketing deals.

When he’d sue to enforce that deal, Falk’s argument was that the value of Jordan’s image became diluted each time it was used. But if Silver was willing to front all of the production costs and give Jordan control over the content, there wasn’t much downside.

“Worst-case scenario,” Silver told Jordan, “you’ll have the greatest set of home movies for your kids ever created.”

It was a brilliant pitch, and maybe the only one Jordan would have agreed to. When Jordan hit the winning shot in the 1998 NBA Finals to clinch the Bulls’ sixth NBA title and second three-peat, Thompson felt he had just shot one of the most incredible sports documentaries ever.

“I mean the guy scores 45 points and pretty much won the game by himself,” Thompson said. “You couldn’t ask for a better ending than that.”

But for the next two decades, those home movies — more than 500 hours of film — sat in a vault in Secaucus.

“I just couldn’t understand how it wasn’t being made,” Thompson said.

He had stayed in touch with Jordan after he retired, even considered him a friend. But this wasn’t something he could ask him about, much less push him to do.

One day, he thought.

One day Jordan will be ready.

EVERY FEW YEARS a producer would come along, pitching himself as the right person to make the documentary. Frank Marshall, Spike Lee, even actor Danny DeVito gave it a whirl.

According to Jordan’s longtime business partner, Curtis Polk, none of them ever even made it to a face-to-face meeting with Jordan.

“When you think of the typical documentaries, before the last five years, they generally ran about 80 minutes,” Polk said. “And you couldn’t capture this at 80 minutes. Even if you just focused on ’97-’98 … you’re not really capturing the totality of it. You’re not going to understand what Michael was about or what the Bulls were doing when they were talking about breaking it up.”

With each “no,” the project receded further from view. Fewer and fewer people even knew about it as the years went on. But for the people who did know, the footage took on an almost mythical quality.

Connor Schell was a young development executive at ESPN in 2006 when he first learned that footage of Jordan’s last year with the Bulls existed. A contact at NBA Entertainment sent over a rough cut that had been produced in-house in 2003, just to pique his interest, and maybe get a little oxygen for the project.

The DVD was mostly a bunch of highlights and behind-the-scenes moments, with a narrator that sounded an awful lot like actor John Cusack — who was in the film a bunch because he went to a lot of Bulls games and interacted with the players — but wasn’t actually John Cusack.

“They had made this thing, and I was like, ‘OK, the underlying footage and the access they had is amazing, and of course it’s freakin’ Michael Jordan. So what are you guys going to do with this?'” said Schell, who is now ESPN’s executive vice president of content and an executive producer of “The Last Dance.” “And they said, ‘We don’t know. What would you guys do with it?'”

Schell could think of plenty of things to do with it. There was no buy-in from Jordan, however, which meant the project couldn’t and wouldn’t go anywhere.

But Schell never forgot about the footage. And when he and co-creator Bill Simmons were brainstorming ideas for 30 for 30 films in 2009, they couldn’t get it out of their heads.

“I’ve moved cities and building and offices like five times since I first saw it in 2006, but I still know exactly where that DVD is,” Schell said. “It’s in the cabinet right behind my desk. I’m picturing it now … this gold DVD, in this really basic jewel case, and the title is written with a Sharpie.

“This Jordan archive is just sitting there, and it’s the most desirable archive you could possibly stumble upon. But no one was ever able to bring together all the elements to make it work.”

Producer Mike Tollin had known about the footage since Falk appeared as a guest star on an episode of “Arli$$,” the HBO show about a fictional sports agent that Tollin executive produced from 1996 to 2003.

Tollin would go on to do dozens of critically acclaimed documentaries, movies such as “Varsity Blues” and “Coach Carter,” and television series such as “Smallville,” “One Tree Hill,” “What I Like About You” and “All That.” But he never forgot about the unseen footage of Jordan’s last year with the Bulls.

“It was like a treasure trove,” Tollin said.

In February 2016, he saw an opening.

“The O.J. [Simpson] documentary had just premiered at Sundance the previous month at eight episodes and like 450 minutes,” Tollin said. “[‘Making a Murderer’] had just premiered on Netflix at 10 episodes. … People were now consuming longform documentaries, multipart documentaries.

“As a guy who’s done documentaries since the ’70s, less was always more. And now all of a sudden, more is more.”

He arranged a meeting with Polk and Estee Portnoy, two of Jordan’s most trusted business associates, to make his pitch.

“So I said to them, ‘We could do this as six or eight episodes. So we can see the character arcs play out over the course of all this time. We can see the storylines, we can really dig in and tell the story that nobody’s ever really contextualized properly,'” Tollin said.

Over the next few months, the conversations continued. Tollin sketched out a proposal of what an eight-episode series might look like. Finally, in June 2016, a meeting was set with Jordan, now owner of the Charlotte Hornets.

“He was preparing for the draft; they knew he’d be there in Charlotte,” Tollin recalled. “They knew he hated meetings, so they said, ‘Why don’t you come and just hang out with us. There will be a break in the action between meetings, and we’ll get some time with him?'”

Nothing firm. Nothing scheduled. That was about as good as it was going to get.

Tollin hopped on a red-eye from Los Angeles to Charlotte, checked into the Westin hotel around 8 a.m. and tried to catch a couple of hours of sleep before connecting with Portnoy.

“The universe has such a funny sense of humor,” Tollin said. “Because when I woke up, I put on ESPN while I’m getting dressed, and there’s LeBron [James] and the Cavaliers parading through the streets of Cleveland with the trophy that they’d just won.”

He headed over to Jordan’s office at the Hornets‘ arena, hoping he would get a chance to present the lookbook he had made. No one had ever gotten this close before. But Portnoy and Polk could only open the door. Tollin had to close Jordan.

“The first page was a letter that I’d written to him,” Tollin said. “Dear Michael, every day kids come into my office wearing your shoes, who’ve never seen you play.

“It’s time.”

Tollin could tell Jordan was engaged, because he stopped for a moment to put on his reading glasses.

“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Wait, Michael Jordan needs reading glasses?'” Tolin said. “Well, he’s 53. That’s right. Yeah, OK.”

Jordan read every page. He looked at the pictures. He read the quotes. Then he smiled as he looked at the eight episode thumbnail sketches.

The last page of the presentation was a look at the documentaries, movies and shows Tollin and his company, Mandalay Sports Media, had done.

“So there’s Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], there’s Hank Aaron, there’s ‘Varsity Blues,’ there’s ‘Coach Carter’ and so forth,” Tollin said. “He’s actually looking at them all, and in the bottom right corner is ‘Iverson.’ He goes, ‘You did that?'”

Tollin didn’t answer. Jordan repeated the question.

Tollin wondered if this was going to work for or against him. Like the timing with the Cavaliers’ championship parade that morning, it was impossible to know.

Tollin mumbled a cautious, “Yes.”

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.”

FOR THE PAST two years, Jason Hehir’s job has been to figure out why Jordan was finally ready.

Hehir didn’t know Jordan when Tollin and Schell offered him the chance to direct the series. But he had read a story by ESPN’s Wright Thompson in 2013, in which Jordan said he never saw himself living beyond the age of 50. He figured that was connected.

“I discussed [that story] with Michael,” Hehir said. “And I think it’s because he cannot picture himself as slowing down. He can’t picture himself as not being in peak form. So it’s not that he had a death wish or that he was morbid; it’s just that he couldn’t fathom what an old man Michael Jordan would look like.”

Doing a documentary, especially one purporting to be a definitive look at him, felt like something an old man would do at the end of his life.

“In his defense, the guy’s 56. He’s got half his life left to live,” Hehir said. “I think he bristles at the notion of any project being definitive because it means his story is over.

“He bristles at the notion of a number being hung in the rafters. He bristled at the statue when they put that up while he was on his baseball hiatus.”

Former Bulls teammate B.J. Armstrong told Hehir that before Jordan was eligible for the Hall of Fame, he called to ask what the rules on eligibility were. Armstrong, who’d gone on to become a successful player agent, told him it was five years after a player’s last game.

Jordan then asked, if he checked into a game, and played one play, would it delay his induction another five years?

“Michael does not want to be a statue,” Hehir said. “He doesn’t want to be looked at as something in the past.”

Hehir had to understand that to tell this story. It wasn’t a precondition or a restriction. It was essential to comprehending the competitive nature and swagger of the man at the center of the story. And it is as true today as it was during his playing career.

When Hehir interviewed Jordan’s daughter Jasmine, she told him that when she was about to give birth, she asked her father what he wanted to be called? Grandpa? Pops? Grandpops?

Jordan thought about it for a moment, then said, “‘Have him call me Michael.'”

This desire to control time, or at least try to bend it to his will, is quintessentially Jordan. The man built his persona on outworking and outwilling people.

Those were his terms as a player and a teammate. Anyone who couldn’t meet them didn’t belong on his team.

In many ways, those are still his terms.

He couldn’t control time. But he could control when he allowed someone to tell his story.

So this isn’t the definitive documentary about one of the greatest players of all time, Michael Jordan. It’s a documentary about one of the greatest teams of all time, the 1997-98 Bulls, with Jordan as a leading character.

And he was ready to tell it, right after another player (James) and another team (the Warriors) got dangerously close to challenging those legacies.

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