People talk in the film world, so it wasn't long after the Chicago Bulls' 1997-98 championship season that Mike Tollin first heard about the treasure trove of footage — the coveted "500 hours," as he calls it — that would form the foundation of the much-anticipated documentary "The Last Dance."
An enterprising executive at NBA Entertainment at the time, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver helped facilitate the behind-the-scenes access during that season with then-coach Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf all signing off with the understanding it would be pulled out when the time was right. The footage sat idle for nearly 20 years until Tollin approached the NBA and startedtrying to convince Jordan and his team to tell the full story of that year, a rarity for the famously intense owner of the Charlotte Hornets who rarely agrees to interviews.
"(Viewers will) be surprised by how incredibly candid he is and emotional," Tollin told USA TODAY Sports. "Behind that intensity is a guy who really wears it on his sleeve. Who really wears it. Who emotes. Who isn’t afraid to show it. There are moments where it was just chilling, sitting there listening to him."
One interview, while discussing the motivation that pushed him during his career, became so intense Jordan called for a break.
"He’s just spent," Tollin said. "I think you’ll see a side of Michael Jordan you maybe haven’t seen and wouldn’t have expected."
Episodes 1 and 2 of the documentary will air Sunday on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET.
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Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan (23) celebrates in the final minutes of a playoff game against the New Jersey Nets at the United Center. (Photo: Anne Ryan, USA TODAY via Imagn Co)
The footage from '97-98 doesn't always reflect well on Jordan. For example, Tollin described, cameras captured him riding teammate Scott Burrell throughout the season.
But, as Jordan explains in one of his interviews, the point was to challenge Burrell so he'd rise to the moment when the team needed him.
Then, in the playoffs, Burrell scored 23 points in the first-round clincher against the New Jersey Nets.
"Michael was not that interested in necessarily revealing all of that footage and giving people a peek behind the curtain until more recently," said Tollin, who directed "Radio" and was the executive producer on the show "One Tree Hill." "So what I think we found early on was that once he committed, he was all in. And once he agreed to do it, there was only one day to do it — the Michael Jordan way — with an absolute insistence on integrity, on honesty, on addressing everything head-on.
"Everyone always talks about Michael’s intensity, which can be misinterpreted, which can be alienating at first until you understand the motivation behind it."
Director Jason Hehir had carte blanche with all 106 interview subjects (Jordan himself was interviewed on three separate occasions). And Jordan took the time to address the various controversies from his career.
"People want to know about gambling. People want to know about how he dealt with his father’s death. About retiring at the height of his career and going to play baseball. About the comment, ‘Republicans buy sneakers too,’" Tollin said. "All of that is covered chapter and verse, and I think Jason Hehir gets a lot of credit for just going right at it and creating a really comfortable environment for Michael. It’s a really spirited dialogue and I think Michael was remarkably forthcoming."
Jordan's cooperation with the project made the other interviews all the more insightful. Jordan advisors Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk from The Jump 23 — his business enterprise that is also a partner on the project with ESPN, Netflix, the NBA and Tollin's Mandalay Sports Media — sent a letter to the other participants, encouraging the star-studded list of subjects to be open as possible.
"I don’t think we ever felt that there were any punches being pulled," Tollin said.
Behind the scenes, Jordan revealed himself to Tollin as "a prankster, a practical joker." It's all part of the side to him the public hasn't seen much of, and an aspect to the man Tollin hopes the public can see in the documentary.
"One thing I've found from spending time with Michael over these last couple years, (his life) is full, it’s rich, he has a ton of friends, he’s a family man, he has a great sense of humor," Tollin said.
"You use the word iconic to describe something or someone as a global phenomenon and it’s usually overstated or overblown. With Michael, it’s unchallenged. He’s all that and more."
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