This is not about the “Space Jam” Michael Jordan.
Forget about Nike Mike, that hanging-around-with-Mars-Blackmon, casually chill image of Jordan.
Oh no, we are not getting another hagiography about that “Be Like Mike” version of arguably the NBA’s greatest player ever.
ESPN’s long-anticipated 10-part documentary “The Last Dance,’’ which premieres with the first two hourlong episodes Sunday at 9 p.m., followed with two new episodes the following four weeks, is a behind-the-scenes look at the Chicago Bulls during the 1997-98 season, the last season of their dynasty.
The footage largely comes from 1997-98, when coach Phil Jackson and Bulls management allowed an NBA Entertainment crew behind the scenes with the team for the full season. Very little of what was documented then has been seen, until now.
I’ve seen only several extended clips, but it’s apparent the series, directed by Newton’s Jason Hehir, is extraordinary for a lot of reasons — with characters such as Jackson, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr, and on and on, how could it not be compelling?
But the main reason it seems certain to be one of the greatest programs ESPN has aired (with the “O.J.: Made In America” docuseries locked in at the top) is that it delivers an honest look at Jordan, the man and ruthless competitor, in full — and with his full cooperation.
Jordan is probably the most marketable athlete of all time. In the ‘80s, he was at the forefront of athlete branding. His Jordan Brand offshoot at Nike remains enormously popular today. He seemed as friendly as he was charismatic, and he was as charismatic as he was talented.
But as a teammate, he often crossed the line from competitive to cruel in his quest to win again and again. The “Last Dance” — named for a comment Jackson made during that season when it was clear the band would break up at season’s end, win or lose — doesn’t just show us that Jordan. It has Jordan — candid, defiant, warm, emotional — telling us why he was that way, and responding to what others said about him.
Per The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch, who has seen the first eight episodes of the series, Jordan — who sat for three interviews with Hehir, for a total of eight hours — has one particularly direct moment when he explains why he was the way he was.
“Leadership has a price,’’ he says, “so I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. And I earned that right because my teammates who came after me didn’t endure all the things that I endured.
“Once you joined the team, you lived at a certain standard that I played the game. And I wasn’t going to take any less. Now if that means I had to go in there and get in your [expletive] a little bit, then I did that. You ask all my teammates. The one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn’t [expletive] do. When people see this they are going say, ‘Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.’ Well, that’s you. Because you never won anything.”
Kerr has won often in his NBA career. He played with Jordan on the last three of the Bulls’ six championship teams, won two more titles with the Spurs, and has added three more as coach of the Golden State Warriors. He said during a conference call this past week that there was nothing quite as intense as riding shotgun with Jordan.
“There was a pressure that came with it when you were his teammate I had never felt from anybody,” said Kerr, who once traded punches with Jordan in practice, but earned his trust enough that Jordan fed him the ball for the winning shot in the title-clinching Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals. “It was a great test. You had to step up and compete and perform every day.
“I always felt it was part of Michael’s genius with raising that bar, the level of competition and performance for our team every day just because of who he was. Nobody wanted to be left behind.”