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In a family that has amassed five N.B.A. championships, there are naturally strong basketball opinions. Andy Thompson didn’t win any of those rings, but he considers himself the only Thompson qualified to rank dynasties whenever his brother Mychal or his nephew Klay claim that their title teams were better — or a bigger deal — than Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
Mychal Thompson won back-to-back titles alongside Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1986-87 and 1987-88 seasons. Klay Thompson won three titles in five consecutive trips to the N.B.A. finals with the Golden State Warriors from 2014-2019.
Andy Thompson? He hatched the idea to embed a camera crew for an entire season with the circus known as the Jordan Bulls. As a 10-year veteran at N.B.A. Entertainment in the 1997-98 season, after a knee injury ended his own playing career, Andy Thompson went just about everywhere with Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Bulls Coach Phil Jackson, documenting Chicago’s sixth championship in eight years.
“Of course Mychal thinks that his era is the greatest era, playing with Magic and Kareem and Showtime,” Andy Thompson said of the 1980s Lakers. “I keep telling him, ‘You can’t compare.’ Klay thinks that what they go through and all the media attention and fanfare is as big as the Bulls, and I keep telling him: ‘No, it isn’t. Both of you are wrong.’”
Those Bulls, Thompson said, were “in another stratosphere.” He insisted this will all become clear when Mychal and Klay “see this documentary for themselves.”
That documentary is “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part series about Jordan’s final season in Chicago and the countless dramas that built up to it. It is highly anticipated well beyond the various Thompson households and premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. — after ESPN, which produced the film with Netflix, heeded a clamor, headed by LeBron James, to move it up from a June release.
The network will roll out two new Jason Hehir-directed episodes over the next five Sundays to try to help fill the sports television void caused by the coronavirus crisis and its shutdown of leagues worldwide. For Jordan devotees eager to relive the glory of his two three-peats, and for younger fans who did not have the chance to watch Peak Mike in real time, it is bound to be the sort of shared cultural experience, through sports, that is suddenly so scarce.
The candor Jordan unleashes throughout the docuseries — providing a window into his maniacal drive and discussing a lifetime of triumphs and controversies in greater detail than ever before — is the standout force of the production. The M.J. on display combines the vicious, can’t-let-it-go nature of his Basketball Hall of Fame speech in 2009 and some of the raw emotion that poured out of Jordan during his eulogy at Kobe Bryant’s memorial in February.
The bonus is the behind-the-scenes footage of a season that Jackson, after being told it would be his final season even if the Bulls went 82-0, called “the Last Dance.” For more than 20 years, some 500 hours of Super 16 millimeter film Thompson recorded as a field producer alongside his cameraman, Michael Winik, and the sound man, Mario Porporino, sat in N.B.A. Entertainment’s archive.
The scope of access granted to Thompson and his crew was unseen in those days, even in the media-friendly N.B.A. That was especially true with Jordan, who stunningly retired for the first time in September 1993 at age 30, in his prime, in part to get away from the relentless media spotlight trained on “the No. 1 sports team in the world,” as former N.B.A. commissioner David Stern described the Bulls in the first episode of the documentary.
By the time Jordan returned to the Bulls in March 1995, his global celebrity was boundless. Even with fewer news media covering the league then, seemingly only NBC’s Ahmad Rashad, the former Pro Bowl wide receiver and Jordan’s close friend, had the license to stray beyond typical media boundaries with the Bulls.
Inspired by the 1987 documentary “The Boys on the Bus,” about the N.H.L.’s Edmonton Oilers, Thompson tried to change that entering the 1997-98 season, after an executive named Adam Silver took over as president of N.B.A. Entertainment. Thompson suggested to Silver, the future commissioner, that the league assign a full-time crew to the Bulls before Chicago’s management disassembled the team.
“Just for history purposes,” Thompson said. “I didn’t even mention ‘documentary.’”
During the Bulls’ preseason trip to Paris, Silver persuaded Chicago’s power brokers, most notably Jordan, to let the cameras in. Jordan was assured he would always have a say in how much of what was recorded would be released to the public. He was also sold on the idea by Silver, as Thompson recalled, that he would at worst come away with “the greatest collection of home movies you can show your kids” if the project was abandoned.
“I knew that it was never going to be shown until Michael decided he was ready,” Rashad said. “As time went by, I think Michael just figured out in the last couple years, it’s time for this stuff to come out.”
All these years later, Thompson is convinced that the comfort level his N.B.A. Entertainment crew gradually reached with Jordan and that Bulls team required a considerable assist from Rashad. The first time Thompson met Jordan, during the 1990-91 season, he was Rashad’s field producer for a new NBC show: “N.B.A. Inside Stuff.” They soon learned Jordan had been a fan of Thompson’s older brother in his youth; Jordan revealed he was once scolded by his mother for spelling his name “Mychal” on a school notebook.
“He goes on and tells the story about how he loved Mychal as a kid and he wanted to emulate him because he thought he was cool, the way he spelled his name, and he wore these puka shell beads around his neck,” Andy Thompson said of Jordan.
Cut by three N.B.A. teams before he switched careers and landed with N.B.A. Entertainment, Thompson was described by Rashad as “the perfect fly on the wall.” The footage Hehir was ultimately presented, according to Rashad, led to “a wonderful inside look at the way a team works — the way it works around the star.”
Meetings in Toronto during All-Star Weekend in 2016 between Michael Tollin of Mandalay Sports Media and Jordan’s longtime advisers Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk, as well as N.B.A. Entertainment’s David Denenberg and Dion Cocoros, revived discussions that had gone dormant. Among the league’s previous flirtations were talks with Spike Lee, the noted filmmaker and Jordan’s former Nike commercial co-star. Tollin, in his bid, proposed to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Bulls’ last title.
Four months after the All-Star Weekend, Tollin was in Charlotte, N.C., to make his first face-to-face pitch to Jordan as executive producer — on the same day as the parade for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to celebrate a historic N.B.A. finals comeback against the 73-win Warriors and the city’s first major championship in 52 years.
“He said yes in the room, which doesn’t happen too often in my business,” said Tollin, who has produced or directed numerous sports projects, including movies such as “Coach Carter” and “Varsity Blues.”
That we have heard from Jordan so infrequently in the years that followed his polarizing Hall of Fame speech surely only adds to the anticipation. But Golden State Coach Steve Kerr, who spent 3½ seasons with Jordan in Chicago, defended his legendary teammate’s reclusive nature. Although Kerr’s own team has been subjected to an extended spell of intense scrutiny under the microscope of the Twitter era, Kerr echoed Andy Thompson’s view that no team has been suffocated quite like the Jordan Bulls.
“There was a cultural phenomenon with the Bulls that was just different,” Kerr said. “And there was a level of fame for Michael that was so uncomfortable. He was maybe the most famous person in the world. He couldn’t get away from it. As teammates, we were just along for the ride. It was more just an entertaining show for us.”
Rashad is convinced that even the hard-to-please Jordan will enjoy the show once it starts to unspool for the world Sunday night — despite the criticism His Airness is bracing for once the documentary exposes the depths of his withering treatment of several teammates.
“Yeah, he’ll like it,” Rashad said. “I think it’s one of those things where he’ll say: ‘Here it is. You make up your mind.’ I don’t think he’s going to be out there on a soap box trying to explain it.”