Michael Jordan turns in yet another star performance

ESPN documentary ‘‘The Last Dance’’ on ’97-98 Bulls is must-see television.

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Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson

The Bulls’ Michael Jordan holds the Most Valuable Player trophy as coach Phil Jackson holds the NBA Championship trophy after the Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz 87-86 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals in Salt Lake City on Sunday, June 14, 1998.

Jack Smith/AP

This Sunday, folks, strap yourselves in for a look back at something the likes of which we never saw before and assuredly will never see again.

That would be the dramatic final run of the Bulls in the 1997-98 season, as documented in a riveting 10-part series on ESPN over the next five weeks called “The Last Dance.’’

It’s a perfect title. 

It’s what the Bulls themselves called the end run — the final championship season in their skein of six in eight years — a process of dominance and magic that will never be re-created, if for no other reason than that society and the characters at that moment can never be re-created.

It was the last dance.

The players knew it. The staff knew it. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf had to know it. If you were a Bulls fan paying attention, you knew it.

Michael Jordan had said — had told me early on, actually — that he would not play for a Bulls coach other than Phil Jackson. He was adamant. 

And let me tell you something about Michael. When he says stuff like that, he means it. His barely controlled pride and ferocity and ego and God knows what else make him more quietly stubborn than a 50-ton anchor. For example, in 1994, when he felt that a snarky Sports Illustrated cover of him in a Birmingham Barons uniform missing a pitch by a foot had embarrassed him, he said he wouldn’t talk to the magazine anymore. That was over a quarter-century ago, and he still hasn’t talked to whatever is left of SI.

Just so you get the point. Just so you remember as Jordan went, so went the Bulls. 

And if Phil was gone after the season, which was a done deal, so was Michael. There were problems with contracts, feelings, the always-festering division between general manager Jerry Krause and certain players and Jackson, whom Krause had once shockingly named the head coach.

It was the public breakup of something like a complex and turbulent plural marriage that had been held together by dominance and public splendor.

“Last Dance’’ director Jason Hehir should be familiar to Chicago sports fans. He was the mastermind behind the excellent “The 85 Bears’’ documentary, which captured the essence of that one-hit Super Bowl championship team through the dynamic of defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan and his defensive followers.

Hehir was first approached about the Bulls project in 2016 by Mike Tollin of Mandalay Sports Media. It was Tollin who had discovered that an ‘‘urban lore’’ about the existence of hundreds of hours of NBA Film of that famous 1997-98 season was actually true.

“I read everything about that season, about Jordan, everything I could,’’ Hehir said. “I wrote a 14-page outline for eight episodes. But things fizzled out. So I went on to do ‘Andre the Giant’ for HBO Sports.’’

But then the project rose again. 

Originally planned to debut in 2018, the 20th anniversary of that title season, the actual staffing only began in January 2018. The filming itself began that summer. But simply viewing and cataloging all the NBA film — roughly 500 hours of it — took almost two years.

What had happened to restart the project was Jordan, longtime adviser Estee Portnoy and business advisor Curtis Polk had seen the possibilities of such an epic documentary. Jordan said he was in. Though he did not have editorial control, he became the central character in the journey, as was proper. 

According to Hehir, “Michael saw this as a chance to tell his story,’’ the story of his passion to win, something that might have gotten lost in all the frills and champagne of media hyperbole.

There were 106 people interviewed in the series, but Jordan is the crown jewel.

“Once he agreed to talk, he talked for eight hours straight,’’ Hehir said.

The genius of this series, though, is Hehir himself and a core group of a dozen helpers at ESPN, all of whom worked like sled dogs to do something monumental, with the clock ticking (the series was originally set to start in June) and even while working from home (hello, COVID-19). 

To achieve this informational peak you not only have to have vision, historic knowledge, focus, creativity and technical skill — you also need a type of authentic personal charm that encourages people to like you, trust you and open their hearts to you. Hehir has that.

Jordan and the ‘‘Last Dance’’ Bulls are something to behold. Buckle up.

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