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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

'The Last Dance' is must-see waltz through 1990s Chicago Bulls

Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan signals to his

Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan signals to his teammates during the first quarter of Game 5 of the NBA finals in Chicago, Friday, June 12, 1998. Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS/BETH A. KEISER

“The Last Dance” is one of the most highly anticipated sports documentaries in television history, so even under normal circumstances, many millions of people would have given it a look in June.

Still, because the original plan was to show the 10-hour series recalling the 1990s Bulls on off nights of the NBA Finals, it would have had to compete with 2020 basketball for our time and attention.

But in a COVID-19 lockdown world, “The Last Dance” has gone from a highly anticipated sports doc to perhaps the most highly anticipated piece of media content on Earth this spring. (Sorry, “Tiger King.”)

With live sports having evaporated, ESPN moved up the series to five consecutive Sunday nights, starting this Sunday, and plans to show two one-hour episodes at a time.

The decision required a frantic ramping up of the production process, with Episode 10 not even assembled as of mid-March. Director Jason Hehir and his team have had to finish the series remotely from their homes.

As a result, only eight of the 10 episodes were made available for review, but that is enough to get the essence. To make a very long story very short: It’s good.

The storytelling spine is the 1997-98 Bulls, who agreed to have a camera crew follow them closely as they sought a sixth championship before that group was to be broken up.

That is why coach Phil Jackson dubbed the season “The Last Dance” before it began.

But the film is much more than that, a non-chronological account of that team’s personalities and achievements.

It doubles back into the early 1990s to recall other championship seasons, and it uses 1997-98 as a reference point to tell the origin stories of Jackson and his biggest stars: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.

More than anything, though, it is about Jordan, and will stand as a document of his life and times long after those old enough to remember those times are gone.

Hehir and his team interviewed Jordan, 57, three times — in June 2018, May 2019 and December 2019 — for a total of about eight hours, with no questions off limits.

“The most surprising aspect of it to me was his candor,” Hehir said. “Michael is probably more adept than any athlete of our lifetime at giving a rudimentary answer in answering anything put in front of him . . . If he wants to share something, he will, and if not, he won’t.

“One of the challenges is that every question I asked him I knew that he had been asked in some way, shape or form at some point.”

Still, despite 10,000 pages of research and access to 10,000 hours of footage, Hehir managed to get Jordan to places he does not usually go, and he talks about his gambling, the death of his father and his taskmaster image, among other matters.

There are only two times we see him grow emotional: Talking about the murder of his father in 1993, and an extraordinary segment late in Episode 7 in which he talks about how hard he was on teammates.

I do not know how the series ends, but it could have done worse than to end with Jordan’s thoughts on that subject, which sum up as well as anything what made him tick.

“Look, winning has a price,” he says,” and leadership has a price. I tried to pull people along when they didn’t want to be pulled, and I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged, and I earned that right.”

Later, he says, “When people see this they’re going to say, ‘Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.’ Well, that’s you, because you never won anything.

“Look, I don’t have to do this. I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.” He then asks for a break to collect himself.

There are lighter moments, too, such as when Hehir shows Jordan video of others talking about him and asks him to react. They include Gary Payton boasting of being able to shut him down, which prompts guffaws.

As for viewing video of Isiah Thomas talking . . . there is nothing Thomas can say that does not stir up Jordan, who still loathes him with a passion after all these decades.

There is plenty of salty language in the series. So much so that ESPN is offering an unexpurgated version on ESPN and an edited one for more delicate ears on ESPN2.

Hehir said Jordan never asked that anything be taken out, only that more games and events be included. The tales of his maniacal competitiveness are a constant theme.

Jordan is only one among a staggering assemblage of interview subjects covering most of the relevant figures in basketball from that era. I counted 85 in the eight episodes, including Kobe Bryant, interviewed shortly before his death in January.

The footage from Jordan’s playing days is great fun, but much of it has been seen before. Not so the stuff from ’97-98, which reveals the end of a dynasty from the inside out, and Jordan’s ambivalence about his fame.

If there is a villain in the story, it is the late Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, whom the players widely disliked despite his success.

There also is much petty infighting over the years that borders on “This is Spinal Tap”-style rockumentary satire.

That can be tedious at times, and let’s face it: Ten hours (including commercials) is a heck of a time commitment for most viewers.

But again, the forced schedule change should help with that. These days, most of us can afford to be more patient than usual. And “The Last Dance” beats the heck out of watching replays of old games or backyard “H-O-R-S-E” tournaments. Or jigsaw puzzles.

The series, co-produced by ESPN and Netflix, will be seen on Netflix outside the United States.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who played for the 1997-98 Bulls, said on a conference call to promote the series that he hopes younger fans will gain an appreciation of what Jordan and those Bulls were about.

“To really see it up close,” Kerr said, “to see the impact he had on the game, to see not only the physical but the mental and emotional dominance he carried with him every single game, I think that will be really interesting and enlightening for an entire generation of young fans.”

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