For years, behind-the-scenes footage from the Bulls’ 1997-98 championship season sat in a vault. A film crew was granted unprecedented access to follow the team that year as it chased a second three-peat before the dynasty fell apart, but anything captured from that final run could not be used without the permission of Michael Jordan, who shot down many opportunities to use the footage following his retirement from basketball.
Now that “The Last Dance” is set to premiere Sunday night on ESPN, it’s clear one pitch finally piqued Jordan’s interest. So what changed his mind? Who should we thank for the arrival of this highly anticipated documentary series?
It turns out Allen Iverson deserves some credit.
“The Last Dance” producer Mike Tollin told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne he spoke with Jordan in June 2016 — on the same day LeBron James and the Cavaliers were celebrating their incredible NBA Finals comeback with a parade through the streets of Cleveland — and had the rare opportunity to persuade him to give his blessing and participate in the documentary.
Part of the presentation included a list of production credits for Tollin and his company, Mandalay Sports Media. One title in particular proved to be the perfect closer: the 2014 documentary “Iverson.”
“So there’s Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], there’s Hank Aaron, there’s ‘Varsity Blues,’ there’s ‘Coach Carter’ and so forth,” Tollin said. “He’s actually looking at them all, and in the bottom right corner is ‘Iverson.’ He goes, ‘You did that?'”
Tollin didn’t answer. Jordan repeated the question.
Tollin wondered if this was going to work for or against him. Like the timing with the Cavaliers’ championship parade that morning, it was impossible to know.
Tollin mumbled a cautious, “Yes.”
Jordan took his glasses off, looked up and said, “I watched that thing three times. Made me cry. Love that little guy.”
Then he walked around the desk, extended his hand and said, “Let’s do it.”
Tollin shared that same story during an interview with Philadelphia’s 94WIP Sports Radio, adding that “Iverson” served as “kind of the clincher.”
Jordan was initially hesitant to release the footage because he feared it would negatively impact his public image, but Tollin was able to alleviate those concerns.
“The reason I don’t think Michael wanted to do the show for so many years was, in a one-off doc, you just see his bad behavior and you’d say, ‘What a jerk,'” Tollin told 94WIP Sports Radio. “In a 10-episode series, you see the character arc play out. You see his motivation, you see his intent, you see how it pays off at the end. I gotta say, I hate to burst the bubble, but to me, he’s a great guy who just cares deeply, is intense, is emotional and he was really honest with us.
“I think you see a candor in Michael Jordan that you’ve never seen before.”
We wouldn’t have seen that side of Jordan without Iverson, but he was hardly the only important figure involved in the process. Check out Shelburne’s piece on ESPN for the full backstory.
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