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On the evening of June 21, 2016, filmmaker Mike Tollin boarded a redeye flight from Los Angeles to Charlotte, N.C.
He was hoping to have a meeting the next day that had no scheduled start time or even really a guarantee that it would occur. It was with a man he’d never personally spoken with but had watched for years, someone who was both one of the most famous, and famously elusive, people on earth. It was a flight of faith.
“When it’s Michael Jordan, you just go,” Tollin said.
At stake was the fate of one of the most ambitious sports documentary projects ever proposed, what would, some four years later, become “The Last Dance”, a 10-part special set to begin airing Sunday on ESPN (9 p.m. ET).
It is a nuanced, in-depth look at the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls and Jordan, considered by most to be the NBA’s greatest player at the end of one of the NBA’s greatest dynasties.
However, there could be no project without the approval of Jordan, the team’s star player and alpha dog leader who had swatted down an untold number of previous pitches by previous producers and authors through the years.
A film about those Bulls teams, minus Jordan’s participation, would be a farce. Even during the conceptualization phase, everyone from potential distributors to teammates approached for possible interviews asked the same question: “Is MJ doing it?”
If Tollin could get Jordan, though, he suspected the floodgates of interest would open in every imaginable way (indeed, “The Last Dance” includes sit-downs with figures as diverse as President Obama and Carmen Electra).
Also at stake, a goldmine of behind-the-scene footage from that chaotic, star-studded, championship season that would serve as a base the series. The before-its-time, all-access experiment was the idea of an NBA Films producer named Andy Thompson, the brother (to Mychal) and uncle (to Klay) of two NBA greats. It was green-lit at the time by an NBA Films executive named Adam Silver, who is now the league’s commissioner.
It was a brilliant idea, but the footage had been sitting unseen, locked in a vault ever since because then, as now, it wasn’t easy to get Jordan to agree to the project. As a condition for his cooperation, he had been given final say on it ever being used. Across 18 years, Jordan never had.
Tollin was armed with a letter to Jordan making his pitch (in case the meeting was brief) and a look/story book of sorts that roughly laid out an eight-episode docuseries to sell this concept as the proper platform for the story. He and his team at Mandalay Sports Media had already poured plenty of work into this pitch.
Tollin’s credibility was forged from three-decades producing and directing hit shows and films, from multiple “30 for 30s” on ESPN to “Varsity Blues”, “Coach Carter” and others in theaters. A key, little to Tollin’s knowledge at the time, was a 2014 doc on Allen Iverson that Jordan had seen and loved so much he was moved to tears.
At the All-Star Game in Toronto that year, Tollin had convinced Jordan’s business associates, Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk, about his vision for the project.
The MJ gatekeepers thought there was enough of a chance that Jordan would go for it that they agreed to get him the meeting. That alone was a huge step. Through the years famed Hollywood figures ranging from Spike Lee to Danny Devito had tried for this project. Neither even got in front of Jordan.
Now, four months later, the day the Cleveland Cavaliers were staging a championship parade and the rest of the league was prepping for the following night’s draft, came Tollin’s chance.
It was make or break.
Not just for him, but maybe for anyone. If not Mike Tollin, at this time, then who or when could ever get this done?
Portnoy and Polk met Tollin in Charlotte and eventually they were off to the Hornets facility, where Jordan, the franchise’s majority owner, was deep in draft prep. Tollin said he was nervous — this was Michael Jordan, after all — but also confident that he had a real shot.
The issue was getting Jordan to agree that this was worth it.
Since his retirement, Jordan had lived a relatively private life. He rarely sat for interviews or appeared on television, despite a high-profile NBA position and serving as the literal brand for a global shoe company. His social media profile was practically nonexistent.
What MJ had found ran counter to most modern sports-entertainment thinking — the less exposure the better. By remaining private, his reputation, persona and power grew. He didn’t need an announcing gig or to judge slam dunk contests or to post “relatable” Instagram photos of himself.
He was now a bit mysterious, popping up courtside at Hornets games and on golf courses smoking big cigars, but not much else. A private life befit him. He didn’t need money. He didn’t need attention. He didn’t need adulation. He had plenty of work on his plate.
At the time, he was a 53-year-old self-made billionaire and still one of the coolest people on the planet ... nearly two decades after his last title.
“There is something truly magical about Michael,” Tollin siad. “He’s a global phenomenon and a global icon.”
So why be part of some docuseries? If his legend had become his reality, why let reality possibly impact his legend?
That was the question Tollin was prepared for as he was led into a large, well-appointed office, complete with shelves holding pictures of Jordan and his family. There was MJ, towering at 6-foot-6 and embracing him with a hand shake.
“I was trying to look him in the eye, but he immediately disarms you,” Tollin recalled. “He was welcoming.”
Tollin had been in a million pitch meetings. Sometimes the subject takes the prepared materials and sets them down without a glance and then waits for a verbal presentation. Other times they take a cursory look before losing focus.
“You never know,” Tollin said. “This could have been over in five minutes.”
Jordan was different. As he accepted the prepared material, he pulled out a pair of reading glasses.
“Michael Jordan has reading glasses?” Tollin thought.
Jordan then sat silently and read the entire letter. He then pulled out the story book, opened it to Page One and invited Tollin to go through it. So they did, for 30 to 40 minutes, every page, every quote, every detail discussed. He was completely dialed in.
“That is the genius of Michael Jordan,” Tollin said. “He has an ability to be really present. It’s a skill. He focuses. When he is in on something, he is all the way in.”
Tollin had two essential arguments.
“I told him, ‘Guys come into my office every day wearing your shoes and they never saw you play. It’s time to do this.’ ”
Jordan didn’t disagree.
The second part was that Jordan and the end of the Bulls dynasty were a complicated story. Jordan’s ferocious competitiveness and occasional abrasiveness made him complex. He could be brutally demanding with teammates and coaches and without lots of time to tell the full story he wouldn’t be presented in full — namely how he also would build trust and support to balance things out and how he never asked anyone to work harder than he did.
A lengthy series would provide time for that. Thanks to docs such as Netflix’s 10-part “Making a Murderer” and ESPN’s five-episode “O.J. Simpson: Made in America,” projects of such scope were popular with viewers.
There was some discussion, but Jordan was mostly offering ideas. After they worked through the book, MJ closed it, stood up and walked around the desk with a hand extended in Tollin’s direction.
“Let’s do it,” Jordan said. “What do we do now?”
Tollin got to work almost immediately, lining up an all-star team of producers and editors. That included director Jason Hehir, who, through documentaries on the 1985 Chicago Bears and wrestler Andre the Giant, had become known for his relentless pursuit of and preparation for interviews.
A series about the 1997-98 Bulls had to be as good as the 1997-98 Bulls.
In the end, 106 figures in and around the team sat for interviews, adding perspective and insight to hours of that never-before-seen NBA Films footage. Jordan did three lengthy sessions himself. Now, nearly four years after MJ gave the green light, “The Last Dance” is ready for prime time.
It is even longer than originally planned (10 episodes rather than eight) and recently moved from a June release due to programming needs created by the coronavirus pandemic. It’s received rave reviews.
“You really feel like you are peeking behind the curtain of the greatest dynasty ever,” Tollin said.
And it all started with a somewhat uncertain flight to Charlotte, a hope and whim, a letter and a look book and no less than Micheal Jordan, reading glasses and all, staring across the desk.
“That was a pretty good meeting,” Tollin said with a laugh.
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