The one sports documentary you must watch this weekend

ESPN had pencilled in June as the launch date for their 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan, and his and the Chicago Bulls’ extraordinary final season together. The disputes and friction in that 1997/1998 season, both with management and inside the championship-winning squad, were legendary and suggested a gleaming plane pulling itself apart in mid-air.

Hence the documentary’s title The Last Dance. And you don’t have to be a sports fan to understand the raw, human power that ESPN were interested in capturing: The Last Dance for that generation of Bulls players ended with perhaps the most blistering expression of individual willpower ever seen in professional sports as Jordan dragged his fractious team to his sixth and final NBA title.

So June 2020, to coincide nicely with the NBA Finals itself. That was ESPN’s plan.

But so crazed has been the demand for original sports content during the coronavirus lockdown that has robbed broadcasters of live events that an urgent hurry-up was ordered.

Dragging the air-date forward means episodes nine and ten are not even completed yet. But the first two parts are good to go, and the series debuts this coming Sunday on ESPN at 2100 Eastern Time, or 0100 GMT Monday. The final episode airs on May 17. If you are in the USA and don’t have a cable bundle that includes ESPN, after episodes air, they’ll be made available on the ESPN app with a subscription, or with a cable log-in. You can also livestream ESPN with services like Hulu + Live TV or YouTube TV.

In fact Disney-owned ESPN will air two different versions of the same programme simultaneously: ESPN’s version will all the athletes’ original language; the other, with profanities edited out, will air simultaneously on ESPN2.

The series is also available internationally through Netflix as video on demand. Coverage may be subject to broadcast rights restrictions in certain territories.

Michael Jordan talks to Robin Roberts on Good Morning America earlier this week about The Last Dance

Incredibly Jordan has never sat down for a long-form interview about either his life or career, and this is one of two key elements the series is built around. So why now?

The director of the series Jason Hehir, responsible for the HBO documentary on Andre the Giant and a number of 30 for 30 ESPN documentaries, says Jordan may have felt he and his teammates’ efforts were not getting fair recognition in today’s sports landscape.

‘It’s no small coincidence that around the time that [Jordan] agreed to participate, the Golden State Warriors were in the midst of a 73-win season, which beat the Bulls 72-10 season by one game, LeBron James was in the midst of a championship season with the Cleveland Cavaliers and all of a sudden a discussion was starting to arise, “Is LeBron as good as Michael, is Michael the greatest, is there a conversation to be had now?”,’ says Hehir.

The spine of the series is obviously provided by Jordan himself. Eight hours’ worth of interviews in three separate chunks helped give Jordan’s own perspective on his childhood, his college career and being drafted to the Bulls in 1984.

But there is one other key element that anchors the quality of this series and which will delight sports fans.

NBA Entertainment has released to producers of The Last Dance a treasure trove of behind the scenes footage from the 1997/98 season that has never been seen before publicly and which includes the team’s run through to the NBA Finals.

‘It’s a time capsule. As the season progressed, the team started to develop a trust and a bond with this camera crew so they were privy to moments that I was shocked to see,’ says Hehir. ‘That footage was the driving force of the entire project. Without that footage, I’m not discussing [directing] this film. It’s such a mammoth story to tell that you need a lens with which to tell it. That footage provides the perfect lens.’

The good people at the Bleacher Report have done their own preview of The Last Dance asking the ten questions that all sports fans hope to learn from the documentary about Jordan and that final chapter of Bulls basketball history. These include Was Jordan as Brutal to his Teammates as Legend Suggests? How Did Scottie Pippen’s Unhappiness Impact the Team? And What Was Jordan’s Relationship Like with Kobe Bryant?

We will be sure to find out this weekend.

And as Hehir told the Chicago Sun-Times, ‘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.’
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Charlie Charters is a former rugby union official and sports marketing executive turned thriller writer whose debut book Bolt Action was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2010.
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