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‘The Last Dance’ sparks unique coverage during a unique time

Much like they did with the 1990s Bulls, sports-media outlets have attached themselves to the documentary on those teams — and who can blame them?

Episodes 9 and 10 of “The Last Dance” will air Sunday on ESPN and ESPN2 (edited for language), starting at 8 p.m.
ESPN

One more night.

One more night of Bulls bliss before Sunday nights turn back into Sunday nights, those hours when people can’t help but turn their attention to the dreaded workweek ahead.

As the clock winds down on “The Last Dance” – the last two episodes of the 10-part series will air starting at 8 p.m. Sunday on ESPN and ESPN2 – so, too, will the unprecedented coverage of a team that played 22 years ago.

Never mind the series itself. Look at the surrounding coverage. It has been like Super Bowl week for five weeks.

The Score and ESPN 1000 have aired guests from the series and segments devoted to it. The Tribune has printed features and lengthy episode recaps. The Sun-Times has run column after column (this is my third!). Heck, we have a special section Sunday celebrating the star of the show, Michael Jordan.

There have been shows advancing and recapping the episodes on TV, radio and the internet. Podcasts and websites have spent the week between episodes reliving the already relived.

With no live sports to write about, the media have covered the documentary as though the events in it just occurred. It’s hard to find fault with everyone attaching themselves to the series, especially in the city where it took place. It was good for business in the 1990s; it certainly can’t hurt business now.

Had the documentary aired during the NBA Finals as planned, it couldn’t have attracted this much attention (though I’d bet everyone would take that scenario given the choice). This has been the ultimate communal experience, with the paradox being that everyone pretty much knows what happened, particularly in Chicago.

The series hasn’t been as enlightening as it has been entertaining. Some of the long-embargoed videos have been priceless, such as those of the bodyguard beating Jordan in a quarter-tossing game and Jordan’s deriding of Scott Burrell. And there have been some great untold stories of the genesis of Jordan’s motivations. But Bulls fans, even the casual ones who went along for the ride, have seen this movie before.

And yet, it still has been captivating. Maybe it’s because we haven’t heard Jordan speak with such depth — or at all, frankly — in a long time. Maybe it’s because those teams were dripping with drama. I can’t get enough of the highlights, comparing how the game was played then to now, seeing greatness personified on the court and hearing the announcers describe it.

News from other sports have infiltrated the series’ coverage since it debuted April 19. The NFL held its virtual draft later that week. There has been talk of how the NBA and NHL might resume and how MLB might start. But “The Last Dance” will have dominated the sports world for more than a month, and until live sports come back, we won’t have a lot of options to fill the void when it’s gone.

ESPN will try to maintain its momentum with more documentaries on Sunday nights. First up is “LANCE,” a two-part, four-hour series on disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. Then comes “Be Water,” which chronicles the life of martial artist and cultural icon Bruce Lee.

Chicago retakes the stage June 14 with the premiere of “Long Gone Summer,” which revisits the 1998 home-run race between the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa and the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire. This is the closest we’ll come to resembling the fervor that accompanied “The Last Dance,” albeit for one night. The doc is billed to include Sosa “talking at length for the first time in over two decades,” but “at length” doesn’t necessarily equate to “in depth” when it comes to Sosa. We’ll see what we get.

Regardless of a local connection, it will be almost impossible for anything else in this genre to achieve the reach of “The Last Dance.” The series has covered it all: athletic greatness, conspiracy, controversy, pop culture, race, rivalry. And then came the second night.

At some point, live sports will return to Sunday nights and distract us enough to keep our worries for the week ahead at bay. But unless the Bears are in the Super Bowl (dare to dream), nothing will give us more of a much-needed distraction the way Jordan and the 1990s Bulls have.

Remote patrol

  • NBC Sports Chicago will air the 1998 Bulls’ NBA title-clinching game against the Jazz at 7 p.m. Friday, followed by the championship rally in Grant Park.
  • Starting Monday, NBCSCH will show every victory from the Blackhawks’ 2013 Stanley Cup title run. All games will air at 4 p.m., except on May 29 and 30, when they’ll air at 3:30.
  • Marquee Sports Network will resume Mystery Week next week, airing random classic Cubs games. The games will air at 8 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and 8:30 Wednesday and Friday.