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Director Jason Hehir says ‘The Last Dance’ shows that nothing came easy for 1990s Bulls

Ten-part series stars Michael Jordan but includes backstories of Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson and others. Episode 1 airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on ESPN and ESPN2 (edited for language).

Michael Jordan was interviewed three times totaling about eight hours.
Jon Roche/The Last Dance

The end of the 1990s Bulls’ championship run was a slog. It was exhausting and draining, mentally and physically. At times, it appeared joyless. It was rife with controversy and ill will. But it also was exhilarating and celebratory, giving fans one last, longing look at a decade of dominance.

Sounds like it’d make a pretty good movie.

Or 10.

Surely you’ve heard by now of “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary chronicling the ’90s Bulls, starring Michael Jordan and featuring the ’97-98 team that won the franchise’s sixth and final title of the decade. It was supposed to premiere on ESPN during the NBA Finals in June, but with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down sports, the network bowed to popular demand and moved up the release to Sunday. Episodes 1 and 2 will air beginning at 8 p.m.

Episodes 9 and 10 aren’t even completed yet. Director Jason Hehir and his crew have time until those shows are scheduled to air May 17. It has been a herculean effort to accelerate the timeline, made more challenging by stay-at-home orders. But Hehir said viewers won’t detect a difference, despite the crew being forced from multimillion-dollar production facilities to home studios.

“It’s a credit to the entire team that I don’t think one ounce of quality is going to be lost in the final product,” Hehir said on a conference call with reporters. “The biggest challenge was the lack of collaboration because the best moments and the joy of making this come from having the whole team together, sitting in a room, discussing ideas, trying things out.”

Early reviews agree with Hehir’s assessment. And while Jordan is the star of the show and the 97-98 team the “chronological spine,” as Hehir called it, several supporting actors will have their stories told, particularly Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr.

For instance, the series delves into Pippen in Episode 2, covering his return from a foot injury that cost him 35 games and explaining his rocky relationship with management during that time, namely general manager Jerry Krause.

“As things happened during the season, they would emerge as opportunities to tell the backstories,” Hehir said. “So as that season progressed, we saw opportunities to go in depth with all the characters who made that team what it was.”

The series goes deepest with Jordan, who was interviewed three times (June 2018, May 2019 and December 2019), spanning about eight hours. Backed by tons of research, from reading to viewing other documentaries and his own video vault, Hehir thought he knew all there was to know about Jordan.

“So when we found out things that are new, he went pretty deep on the gambling allegations against him in the 90s,” Hehir said. “He went pretty deep about what happened to his father [James, who was murdered in 1993] and how that affected him on and off the court. And he went very deep into how he is perceived, how his intensity is perceived, how his competitiveness is perceived and his ambivalence about that.

“It was interesting to see him grapple with the image that people have of him and the true person that Michael Jordan is.”

Hehir said that nothing was off limits during the interviews and that Jordan never ordered anything to be removed. He asked to have elements added to the series, such as games or plays he thought were important in the evolution of the team.

“From the moment that I first sat down with Michael to discuss the project, he was surprisingly forthcoming and candid and eager to discuss a lot of the topics that I think people are largely interested in,” Hehir said. “From Day 1, he told me that there wasn’t a question I would ask that he would not answer truthfully.”

The truth about the 1990s Bulls is that little came easy, despite six NBA titles in eight years. And if there’s one aspect of the series that Hehir wants viewers to take away, it’s that.

“I think what fans will see over the course of 10 hours of this program is that it was never easy, it was never simple,” Hehir said. “Nothing that is that significant is ever easy, and year after year they had different casts of characters, they had inner strife between the team and management.

“My hope is that younger fans especially realize just how challenging it is to win one, but to win six out of eight, I hope that’s what’s hammered home to everyone when they watch.”

‘THE LAST DANCE’ ON ESPN/ESPN2

Sunday

  • 8 p.m.: Episode 1
  • 9 p.m.: Episode 2

April 26

  • 6 p.m.: Re-air of Episode 1
  • 7 p.m.: Re-air of Episode 2
  • 8 p.m.: Episode 3
  • 9 p.m.: Episode 4

May 3

  • 6 p.m.: Re-air of Episode 3
  • 7 p.m.: Re-air of Episode 4
  • 8 p.m.: Episode 5
  • 9 p.m.: Episode 6

May 10

  • 6 p.m.: Re-air of Episode 5
  • 7 p.m.: Re-air of Episode 6
  • 8 p.m.: Episode 7
  • 9 p.m.: Episode 8

May 17

  • 6 p.m.: Re-air of Episode 7
  • 7 p.m.: Re-air of Episode 8
  • 8 p.m.: Episode 9
  • 9 p.m.: Episode 10

NOTE: ESPN will air two versions of “The Last Dance.” Viewers can hear all the coarse language on ESPN. It will be removed on ESPN2.