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How the NBA got access to the documentary “The Last Dance”



SportsPulse: Mackenzie Salmon met B.J. Armstrong, a former Michael Jordan teammate, to discuss the next 10-game streak that will highlight the 1997-98 NBA Chicago Bulls season.


If you want to know how the film crews got unprecedented access to the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls, which became the highly anticipated documentary “The Last Dance”, it’s best to start with Andy Thompson.

“The seed for the idea came from Andy,” said Gregg Winik, one of the executive producers of the Sunday 10-hour documentary that begins on ESPN and a former NBA Entertainment executive. “Andy had the relationship with Michael. “

You probably don’t know Thompson. But you know his work. He is the vice president of content production for NBA Entertainment. He is often behind the camera or with a team documenting the league for a variety of projects.

He is the brother of former NBA player Mychal Thompson and the uncle of Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson. He also played college ball in Minnesota after his brother.

In NBA circles, we know that if a cell phone has all the important numbers, it’s Andy Thompson’s.

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“I have always been involved in the championship videos we produced at the end of the season, and we hugged each other in 1992 when I was filming the documentary Dream Team,” said Thompson. “I always felt that we really never gave Michael his due to follow him for a whole season and really try to find out why this guy was so obsessed with victory and just the Beatles mania that was always around Bulls and Michael.

“After the ’96 -97 season, there was talk of their breakup, and it would probably be their last season. I said, “This is our last chance to get information about Michael for a whole year.”

The NBA had to convince the Bulls to own, coach Phil Jackson and Jordan.

Enter a young NBA executive named Adam Silver, now league commissioner but then head of NBA Entertainment; a cameo from Jordanian friend Ahmad Rashad; a family of filmmakers – the Winiks – who created NBA Entertainment; and of course Thompson.

This is the original story of how “The Last Dance” was made possible, starting over 23 years ago when Jordan and the Bulls ruled the NBA.

Since then, the project has started and stopped, Silver told USA TODAY Sports. At one point, Spike Lee was in talks to lead the project. For almost a year, there have been conversations with Danny DeVito to produce. And there were discussions with Ross Greenburg, the former president of HBO Sports, and film producer Frank Marshall, a longtime business partner of Steve Spielberg.

But Jordan also had to be comfortable with the timing of the release, and Silver said, “I have joked with Michael over the years about this. I think one of the reasons why it hasn’t been done in these years was because he was not very enthusiastic about it happening. He has remained a very private person over the years, and with a longer perspective on his career, he has been able to accept it.

“You see a side of Michael that everyone around the NBA knew. He has such a polite image, and there is nothing in what is unpolished. But you see a vintage Michael and how incredibly competitive he is. There is a roughness to it and it can surprise many people. ”

Dion Cocoros, senior vice president of content production for the NBA, said, “This is a good time because there is a whole generation of people who can look back and say, ‘Now I remember what made this dynasty and this player so special and so great. And think of the generation of children and young people who have never seen Michael play. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. ”

Silver recognized the importance of the idea and clarified the project after approval by NBA commissioner David Stern.

“We all understood at the time how special it was,” said Silver. “We were the official archivist of the league. If it was not a documentary or a finished product, the raw materials were part of a critical part of our history and we had to have them in our library. The decision was made almost entirely on the gut. There were no spreadsheets or financial models. ”

Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson celebrate after finishing Jazz to win the 1998 championship. (Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY)

The money went first to the president and owner of Bulls, Jerry Reinsdorf. “He said,” Absolutely. It makes sense to me. But you have to talk to Phil and Michael. It’s a team decision. It’s not my decision, “said Silver.

Then he had to convince Jackson, which Steve Kerr said: “For Phil Jackson, the locker room with the team has always been sacred. So it was kind of a surprise when we were alerted to what was going on. “

Jackson had stipulations.

“Phil said yes, with the understanding that Andy and his crew might be a fly on the wall, but if he needed them to get out, they would,” said Silver.

Silver then approached Jordan, obtaining assistance from Rashad, who was co-host at the time of the NBA’s Inside Stuff program.

“It was well known that Ahmad had a strong personal relationship with Michael. I knew Michael a bit through NBA Entertainment, but I think Ahmad vouched for me, “said Silver.

This does not mean that filming was easy. The tension was high knowing that this was the last season for this iteration of the Bulls, a dynasty.

Thompson recalled the first road trip with the Bulls.

“We were not allowed to shoot the training, and we were allowed to go into the media,” said Thompson. “We walked in with the crew and my sound man went straight to Michael and started following him, and he turned around and yelled at the camera and yelled at Phil, ‘These guys are not following me (expletively) like all this season, are they? ‘I said to myself, “Let’s go. ”

But Thompson and his team won the players’ confidence.

“Sometimes I think of myself as a slightly smarter black version of Forest Gump,” said Thompson. “I’m in the right place at the right time. I love telling stories. I love people … just knowing how to manage people, knowing how to manage a crew, when to push and be aggressive and when to withdraw. We are lucky. I’m lucky. ”

At the championship parade, the Bulls appreciated the film crew documenting the season.

“This process has been the white whale for NBA Entertainment and Andy, and many in the sports industry knew this and wanted to be involved in making it happen for 20 years,” said Winik.

Winik knew they had something special on video, but like Silver, he didn’t know what form it would take. A theatrical release was an idea. Anyway, the crew ended up with 500 hours of film, or 3,200 boxes of film – 250 miles if arranged end-to-end.

“There is a mystique about it,” said Winik. “Whether out of respect for the Bulls for giving us access, out of respect for Jordan or out of respect for the collection of players who are all fascinating, this is the one we all wanted to be right. “

The story cannot be told without the Winiks. Gregg Winik’s father, Barry, essentially started NBA Entertainment at the request of Stern in the early 1980s. Prior to that, Barry and a cousin, Richard, directed Winik and Winik Films, which filmed sporting events.

Richard’s father Leslie Winik ran Winik Films and started shooting major sporting events in New York almost 100 years ago, according to Sports Illustrated, which awarded Leslie the filming of the first complete streak of a football match. Gregg’s brothers, Peter and Michael, also work for NBA Entertainment. The family dedicated their work to preserving the history of the sport, especially the NBA, for the video.

Winik made a key decision in the 1997-98 season to film the Bulls in 16mm super film – which has enabled filmmakers to convert the film to high definition today. It was an added expense but it was worth it as it is a rare opportunity to see Jordan in HD.

“The picture quality and the pictures jump off the screen,” said Winik. “I hope it will be more than industry experts who can make a difference. … It’s like painted pictures. That’s wonderful. “

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.


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