Mike Tollin On ESPN Docu Series ‘The Last Dance,’ A ‘Citizen Kane’ Rendering Of Michael Jordan’s Legacy

EXCLUSIVE: Sports fans are in a pandemic moment when we have no choice but to watch old game replays, videogame tournaments with NBA player/gamers, even a Dodgeball callback resurrection of ESPN’s The Ocho, a daylong marathon of obscure sports including cherry pit spitting, slippery stairs, stone skipping and cup stacking contests that seem funny but are an excruciating watch.

Like a cold drink in the desert, along comes the 10-part Chicago Bulls dynasty series The Last Dance, about arguably the greatest NBA team but really a Citizen Kane rendering of the sport’s indisputable GOAT, Michael Jordan. Every aerial accomplishment, and career high and low is captured on full display, most of it never before seen. The first two parts of the series debut Sunday. Exec producer Mike Tollin, whose sports-themed films include Radio, Coach Carter and Varsity Blues with docus on Allen Iverson, Hank Aaron and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, here discusses the epic construction behind the series and what he calls a once in a lifetime opportunity, a season’s worth of unseen footage and the most honest interviews with the 57-year old icon who has spoken only sparingly post-retirement, even as his Air Jordan Nike line sells multiples higher than when No. 23 wore them on the court. Every opponent is represented, including Kobe Bryant. It’s big enough that ESPN announced it will air a censored and uncensored version simultaneously. If you don’t have virgin ears, the latter version is worth it just to hear Jordan’s assessment of Isiah Thomas after he led his Bad Boy Detroit Pistons off the court prematurely when the Bulls finally bested the Motor City thugs.

DEADLINE: I watched the first eight segments. bingeing right through last weekend. Stopping abruptly and not getting the last two reminded me, a die-hard Knicks fan, of the times my Pat Ewing-led teams would soar into the playoffs, until the Bulls and Michael Jordan crushed our dreams. Thanks for that memory. 

MIKE TOLLIN: Honestly, it wasn’t about you. We are still at this moment editing. Remember, this was originally going to air in the summer. When the world stopped spinning Friday the 13th, the clamor began almost immediately on social media. ‘Put on the Jordan show, we have nothing else to watch.’ We all heard it, we huddled, the partners in this, from the NBA to Jump, Mandalay Sports Media, ESPN and Netflix. Fortunately, our agendas were compatible and we saw an opportunity for not a ratings grab as much as the chance to do something to bring people a little of joy and distraction. Our director Jason Hehir gets enormous credit for moving mountains. He’s got five editors going in downtown Manhattan. That was the pace we were on, just to get to June 2. And now we’re going to accelerate it by six weeks and we have a month. Everything had to be done remotely, all the material migrated to external drives and taken to peoples’ home edit systems. Jason’s in his apartment editing, and five editors are sending pieces to him, the score, the graphics and then everybody has to review the rough cut and give comments. Lock picture and get into color and mix, all the finishing touches. He just put his head down and said, let’s go. It felt too important and too big an opportunity. The edit team has been remarkable.

DEADLINE: Michael Jordan is a very private man post-retirement and we see over the course of these episodes as he progressively hardens with the scrutiny that haunted his every step, reaching an alarming level when his father and close confidante James was murdered and journalists falsely drew a tie to Michael’s passion for gambling. Why did Michael not only allow you to tell his story, he actually participated with clearly hours of post-retirement interviews? 

TOLLIN: Andy Thompson is a field production for NBA Entertainment, and he like many people realized that 97-98 was going to be special, even before Phil Jackson called it The Last Dance. It was clear there was infighting and dissension and one way or the other, this team would be dismantled after that season. GM Jerry Krause didn’t invite Phil to his daughter’s wedding, and said, you can go 82-0 and this is your last season anyway. Michael then said, if Phil’s not coaching, I’m not playing here. Andy has this great idea: we should follow this because it’s one of the greatest if not the greatest dynasty in the history of sports, let alone the NBA. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Andy went to the president of NBA Entertainment at the time and guess who that was? Current commissioner Adam Silver. They got the sign off from Michael, and the understanding was, if you give us access and let us follow the team, we won’t do anything with it until there is a mutual agreement to release it. They shot it, from the McDonald’s All Star Game in October before the season started, through to that last shot over Bryan Russell in Game Six of the ’98 series. The great thing a sports guy would understand: cameras are everywhere now, follow-docs are prolific and we all carry hi-def movie cameras in our pockets with imagery that are so great. Back then, this was shot in Super 16mm. They weren’t even content with 16mm, because when you shoot Super 16mm, you are doing it for a blow up to 35mm. That meant a theatrical release, evidence of how ambitious an undertaking this was. They followed him every step of the way. I remember my pal Frank Marshall heard about the footage and tried to make a deal to make it a film, going back 21 years. There was an IMAX film, and through the years producers circled. Fast forward to 2016, when forces converged in our favor. The 8-hour and soon to be Academy Award winning OJ Simpson documentary had just premiered in its entirety in January at Sundance. How to Make A Murderer premiered on Netflix at the end of 2015. A lot of longform documentaries including The Jinx came out. ESPN’s 30 For 30 series changed the landscape, and made people hungry for untold stories that went deeper into character. It was all auteur stuff and then came the streaming platforms, boundless landscapes, an infinite space. Being aware of this treasure trove that had become mythic, never before seen 500 plus hours, and looking at the opportunity to, instead of a one-off documentary, do a landmark event multi-part series, seemed like time. The other thing: it was February at NBA All Star in Toronto, I thought if we jump in now we could get this out and on air for the 20th anniversary in the summer of 2018. I sat down with Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk, Michael Jordans’ business managers. I pitched it and they were receptive. I got marching orders to present materials we could bring to Michael.

I go to Charlotte to make a presentation. I’m taking a red eye and land in Charlotte and on TV the Cavaliers are parading through the streets of Cleveland with the trophy they had just won against the Warriors the night before. We sit with Michael. You never know what people are really thinking or what their motivations are. Michael was 53, he was in a more reflective place as you see in the movie where he’s really open, emotionally, and eager to tell parts of the story that people don’t know. He’s really excited to give people a sense of his emotional fabric and the source of that intensity. The idea we could do that in extended way – we pitched it as eight and it grew to 10 – he realized we could delve deep into his character and tell the whole story. From a narrative standpoint, you have all these recurring themes, and serialized stories.

With a one-off, you can only scratch the surface. You wonder why Michael is picking on Scotty Burrell, and then you find out, when Scotty comes up huge and helps them win a playoff game. Everything is motivated toward winning and excellence. In Episode 7, there’s that great soliloquy where Michael says, “I never asked any of my teammates to do anything that I didn’t ask of myself.” We sat there and he said, let’s do it. Off we went. One thing he made clear was, he wasn’t telling this story. You guys know what you’re doing. I’ll make myself available, but hands off. It was an enormous expression of trust and through this enormous process, four years, it has been the right balance of him being responsive to our needs, but never being intrusive, never making demands, or making anything off-limits. We spent more time with him than he was contractually obligated to; he did three extensive interviews, covering the beginning, middle and end. Jason Hehir, our director, mapped this out in thirds so he knew exactly what he wanted to cover. It was so exciting to see how open he was with us, eager to chat, and emotional.

DEADLINE: Jason frequently hands Michael an iPad to watch interviews with the likes of Isiah Thomas, leading the Detroit Pistons off the court before game’s end when the Bulls had finally beaten them. Michael calls him an asshole, the kind of stuff you don’t see in these films. And we see it over and over again…

TOLLIN: There’s one you haven’t seen yet. Jason hands him the iPhone from when he and Reggie Miller were fighting in that seventh game of the playoffs with the Pacers. They’re fighting and the refs are breaking it up and Michael is watching this with a smile on his face, and saying to the ref, ‘let him go, don’t break it up!’

DEADLINE: Or when the Bulls diminutive GM Jerry Krause, during a championship celebration with the team, asks Michael for one of his Cuban Cohiba cigars, Michael says, ‘No Jerry, it will stunt your growth.’ And he laughs and walks away, pointing at their frosty relationship. It was stunning to see how this Cohiba Robusto-sized GM with a Napoleon complex could dismantle the greatest team in history, as they were going for their second three-peat. The players control the league now and stars routinely drive out head coaches and GMs. How did Krause have the ability to impose his will that way? You can see him seething with resentment that he and his organization didn’t get more credit for the team’s success. What was the deal?

TOLLIN: I could say a million things about that but it was a delicate balance for us in storytelling. Because he was a hugely gifted general manager. Lets look at the beats. He trades Olden Polynice on draft day for an unheralded guy from Arkansas named Scottie Pippen. Charles Oakley for Bill Cartwright. Michael was friends with Oakley but Cartwright was so instrumental in those early championships. Krause scouted Phil Jackson as a player in North Dakota and then somehow had the hubris to replace Doug Collins with Phil Jackson as coach, and allow him to institute the triangle, a system that will basically take shots away from the greatest player in the game. Wow. He thought that Phil and Tex Winter could somehow get Michael to go along with that and it worked. Then he brings in Dennis Rodman, a defense and rebounding machine, and goes out and finds Toni Kukoc. He kept finding pieces to the puzzle. He has a pretty wide berth and as you’ll see in later episodes, begrudging respect from even the guys who were his tormenters.

Thank goodness Jerry Reinsdorf was the owner and superseded him and said, I’m going to make sure Phil gets his contract, and offered him a contract to come back in 1998-99. Even Jerry Reinsdorf says, other than Michael a lot of these guys were on the downward slope. From the point of view in running a franchise long term, you might make the argument you want to move players out too early than too late. It’s kind of crazy to think there was Tim Floyd in the wings as a replacement for Phil, when the team was so good.

DEADLINE: It is uncanny how ruthlessly competitive Jordan could be, to both players and to Krause. When Krause tried to flaunt people he saw as future cogs in the Bulls team like Kukoc, Jordan’s Dream Team played Kukoc’s Croatian team and when Jordan and Pippen got on the court against him in the Olympics, they humiliated him. When Krause made it known he liked Dan Majerle, a polished player, Jordan buried him on the court. And heaven forbid an opposing player disparage Michael Jordan’s play. This series shows what happens every time anyone tugs on Superman’s cape.

TOLLIN: The 1992 USA Dream Team games are painful to watch, and what they did to poor Toni. That was Michael’s thing and you see it throughout these episodes. If there wasn’t enough fire in his belly already, he would just manufacture a grudge. In the ’92 playoffs, people were saying, what a showdown between Jordan and Clyde Drexler of the Trailblazers! Michael goes, ‘showdown? I’ll show him.’ And he has the ‘shrug’ game, where he makes six three pointers in the first half; ’93, Charles Barkley wins the MVP and Jordan is like, ‘MVP? I’ll show him.’ And he does it in the playoffs. In ’97, Karl Malone won MVP, same thing. There’s a B.J. Armstrong part you didn’t see yet. His former teammate lights Michael up in a playoff game and mouths off. Next game, he gets a clinic.

DEADLINE: Nick Anderson of the Orlando Magic steals the ball in a finals game when Jordan is heading up court for the winning shot, and the Bills lose. This was after Jordan wore 45 in his return, after his dad died and Anderson says 45 isn’t 23. Jordan’s ex-teammate and Magic star Horace Grant says he knew that was a bad idea. Jordan returned in his 23 jersey and beat Anderson and the Magic like they owed him money…

TOLLIN: You listen to guys like Steve Kerr, and another thing I want to get you psyched for. You saw the backstories of Michael throughout the series and also Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson, and Episode 9 is Steve Kerr…

DEADLINE: Jordan’s teammate who went on to win all those titles as head coach of the Golden State Warriors.

TOLLIN: Kerr had the tragedy of his father being assassinated in Beirut, and he called himself an overachiever who was sandwiched between three Hall of Famers. He made some of the biggest shots in the last two playoff seasons. He and Michael got into a fight, Steve got a black eye and then Michael learned to respect him for not backing down and he learned to trust him and Kerr hit some huge shots. When you see this over a 10-hour arc you get the whole experience.

DEADLINE: You’ve done projects on Alan Iverson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Hank Aaron, and Rorian Gracie is in the works. Is there a connective tissue between these great athletes and Michael Jordan?

TOLLIN: That phrase, first among equals? You mentioned some great names, Hall of Famers. But Michael stands above and beyond. You think about athletes who reached the status of global phenomenon and it’s Jordan and Muhammad Ali. And then everybody else. Can you imagine that 22 years later, Game Six of the ’98 playoffs, Michael’s last with the Bulls, remains the highest rated game in NBA Finals history? There’s the Seinfeld moment in an episode, where Jerry shows up in the locker room and says, the show of the ‘90s and the team of the ‘90s. Seinfeld got like 70 million plus viewers. That last game got 36 million viewers.

DEADLINE: The game where Bob Costas made the call, this might be the last shot we ever see Michael Jordan make.

TOLLIN: A great call. That’s in Episode 10. This might be the last image and when you see it, it’s chilling. We are still editing that episode, dealing with the rough cut and figuring where to put it. Why does Michael hold his hand up like that? You next see him in the huddle and it’s because he has got to get another stop because John Stockton is going to take a shot to try and win it for the Jazz. You see he’s exhausted and Costas says in the third quarter how spent Michael is and there is this montage where he misses three straight shots that hit the front rim and come up short. Finally he gets this extra gear and winds up with 45 points Where did that come from? Which is the best of the six teams that won championships? To me it’s that team. Pippen missed 10 weeks with a bad back and was barely on the court. Dennis was in and out and the team was decimated. Michael willed them to 62 wins which may be the greatest achievement of them all. There’s no quantifying it, nothing like it in sports. That will to win and the ability to raise your teammates level of play above their wildest expectations.

DEADLINE: We see a lot of David Stern, the genius NBA Commissioner who died January 1, and some wonderfully touching scenes of Michael interacting with Kobe. Did you change any of the Kobe footage in light of his stunning death January 26?

TOLLIN: We did not, and we didn’t reedit that interview, after Kobe’s death. We went back and as you saw we put in a dedication. We went back and looked and it was just perfect and we let him speak for himself. Jason asked Kobe something about Michael. For 20 years, everybody said Kobe was imitating Michael, on and off the court. Jason kiddingly said, so your role model and mentor won six titles and you only won five? Kobe downplayed the competitiveness and spoke to the inspiration and said, ‘look, I don’t win any of those titles without him.’ He calls Michael his big brother and says, ‘I owe everything to him.’ It registers and we put it in the film and it’s a great soundbite. Then, to hear what Michael said at Staples Center, that Kobe was my little brother, it was chilling for us. It just validated everything Kobe said, and made us realize that was a genuine relationship, from the heart and authentic. That’s in Episode 5.

DEADLINE: What were your favorite moments?

TOLLIN: I thought Magic Johnson was spectacular. He’s got that nickname for a reason. We interviewed him with the backdrop of the Lakers practicing in their facility. He came in his Sunday best, this beautiful dark suit, and it felt like he just wanted to pay homage to Michael. He just lit up. He talked about the Olympics in Barcelona and the Dream Team and how ‘we’ passed the baton. Another favorite moment was James Worthy, in an interview where the backdrop is my house incidentally. James was a senior at North Carolina when Michael came in as a freshman, and Worthy said, ‘I was the best player…for about two weeks.’ Magic said that he, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley were all there and all said, ‘we’re passing the baton, he’s the best player.’ Magic talked about the card games and how, if Michael was down, there was no way he’d let you go to sleep and let you beat him. The love there, the competitiveness alongside the affection really touched me. There’s 106 interviews in this thing. Phil Jackson was four and one half hours in his backyard in Montana, fascinating to hear him talk about his early days when he became enamored of Native American culture and how he identified himself as a seeker, and not a nester. You think about some of the great players and are they coachable? For someone as willful and talented as Michael Jordan to be as coachable…there are so many dimensions. And credit to the NBA crew because no one was affected by the presene of their cameras. They weren’t besieged by cameras, or things showing up on social media that night and they weren’t reading about it in the paper the next day. You felt like a fly on the wall, which is every documentarian’s dream.

DEADLINE: Jordan has seen all the episodes?

TOLLIN: Yes. He’s happy. One of the things for us was credibility. This isn’t investigative journalism. Jason’s a filmmaker and like his, my orientation is to tell great stories. But in order to tell a great story you have to be credible and people have to believe they’re getting the truth and you’re not pulling punches. There were some areas where we had to dig into the conspiracy theories. Why did the greatest player ever quit at the height of his career? If you watch where he was at the end of the third championship with the gambling, the furor over his Atlantic City trip, his father dying, his total exhaustion…you get why he stopped. Bob Costas said it really well [when journalists speculated the death of Jordan’s father was related to his son’s gambling]. He said after 27 years of every sports journalist turning over every rock to find a shred of evidence, and there’s absolutely nothing, and we have to put that to rest. There was the ‘Republicans buy shoes too’ line…

DEADLINE: When polarizing North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was challenged by African American candidate Harvey Gantt, and Jordan supposedly said that as reason he didn’t support the latter, who could have used Jordan’s influence and endorsement…

TOLLIN: Michael is really open about that and we have Obama coming on and talking about his relationship with Michael. I think Michael was eager to address it?

DEADLINE: That line was disputed. Anything Michael saw in the cut and disputed?

TOLLIN: The comment, which I don’t believe he ever publicly acknowledged that he said, it wasn’t properly contextualized. He said it on the bus, with a couple teammates, kidding around. A reporter heard it and wrote it and it’s a little unfair. Whether off the record or not, we say a lot we don’t mean, trash talking with our friends. He didn’t make a big deal about it, but he put it on context. He wrote a check for Harvey Gantt, talked to his mom. It was important to address the issue of activism and acknowledge that was a different era…

DEADLINE: From Muhammad Ali, who took the most courageous political stands…

TOLLIN: Muhammad Ali was an outlier while today there’s a generation of athletes who almost feel it’s their obligation. Michael is so honest about it and this is where he gets emotional at the end of Episode 7. All I tried to do was be the best basketball player I could be, he said. That single minded pursuit is so pure and he couldn’t have a more naked moment. Obama talked about how Michael’s contributions were significant as he became a national figure. He has evolved a lot, since. He never said to us, you can’t go there, never shooed away a question. Really seemed to enjoy it. Jason created a comfortable environment and someone like Michael knows that when the person has really done his homework, a shorthand developed. Jason and his team did copious research.

DEADLINE: It sounds like you raced to make Sunday’s premiere. Did the pandemic shut down cost you anything?

TOLLIN: We were lucky. We had one more interview to do and just before it became shelter in place, we went out and shot John Stockton so we had a first person storyteller for the Finals in ’97-’98. That was the last interview.

DEADLINE: This process of making this series took years and in between we saw a few 30 for 30 films that covered elements in your story, like the Pistons, snubbing the Bulls, and Rodman’s growth into a counterculture figure and the greatest rebounding/defensive forward the game as ever seen. Did you ever grow discouraged by these reveals and think, we took too long?

TOLLIN: Never. It’s a good question. Our concern was the opposite, to have the time to do this story justice. We took more time. We went in with insane and unrealistic hopes and then we moved it to 2019 but we realized this was once in a lifetime stuff. Give the ESPN executives, led by Connor Schell and Netflix’s Gabe Spitzer and his team credit for saying, we don’t want to sacrifice quality and rush this thing. We thought its rightful spot was this summer, and then this crazy hurry up offense adjustment happened. I admit, I saw those other documentaries. They were all good, and go on YouTube and there’s so much material on Michael. But I feel like we really set out to make the definite portrait of this team and this man. We hope the quality of the storytelling transcends and makes it worth the wait.

 

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