As the COVID-19 pandemic was canceling the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, suspending the NBA and NHL seasons and derailing the start of baseball, the sports world desperately needed positive news.
Jason Hehir, the director of ESPN's "The Last Dance" documentary focusing on Michael Jordan in his final season with the Chicago Bulls, did what he could to help. "The Last Dance" is a 10-part series that had been scheduled to start in June, but the first two hour-long episodes instead are airing Sunday night on both ESPN and ESPN2, beginning at 9.
"I was in a bar with my producer and one of my best friends when we learned about (Utah Jazz center) Rudy Gobert testing positive and the NBA suspending play, and we all just looked at each other without saying anything," Hehir said. "Then we all just burst out laughing — not, of course, at the conditions, but because we thought they were going to make us do this earlier. We didn't view it as an, 'Oh, no,' moment. We saw it as an opportunity to fill a void.
"Every documentary I've done has been about sports, and I'm a huge believer that sports is a microcosm for society and our lives. You can go to a baseball game and sit next to a stranger in the first inning, but by the ninth inning, you're high-fiving him like he's a lifelong friend. Sports bonds people in that way."
Hehir already has directed two of the most well-received documentaries in the ESPN Films "30 for 30" series with "The Fab Five" in 2011 and "The '85 Bears" in 2016.
"The Fab Five" detailed the University of Michigan's freshman men's basketball class in the 1991-92 season that consisted of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King, a quintet who guided the Wolverines to consecutive NCAA championship games. The initial showing of "The Fab Five" drew 2.75 million viewers, setting a record for an ESPN documentary.
With almost no live sports in our current landscape, "The Last Dance" is expected to be a ratings monster from the premiere to its conclusion on May 17. The ninth and 10th installments that will be televised on that date have not been completed, Hehir said, and "The Last Dance" will have its unfiltered version shown on ESPN and a more language-friendly option on ESPN2.
Asked if ESPN's unfiltered version would be PG-13 or R in a movie theater, Hehir said, "A hard R."
"The Last Dance" contains never-before-seen footage of the 1997-98 Bulls during their quest of what would be their sixth NBA title of that decade. Hehir said 108 interviews were conducted among 106 people, with Jordan interviewed on three occasions.
The documentary details Jordan's career from his birth, with Roy Williams and James Worthy providing reflection from Jordan's three seasons at North Carolina that included the 1982 national championship. Hehir said back stories also are provided for former Bulls coach Phil Jackson and former Bulls teammates Steve Kerr, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.
When Jordan was approached about the documentary, he expressed significant apprehension, which Hehir had to appease.
"His concern was that there would be footage of him yelling at a teammate that wasn't flattering and that no context would be given," said Hehir, who was a guest this past week of "Press Row" on Chattanooga's ESPN 105.1 FM. "I assured Michael that we have 10 hours of context to give and that he would be given every opportunity to explain why he had to be that way.
"Will Perdue, who was on Chicago's first three title teams, calls Jordan both an a—hole and a great teammate in the film. He realizes that all of the rings were exactly what Jordan wanted all of the players to have."
Webber declined to participate when Hehir directed "The Fab Five," and the star of "The '85 Bears" wasn't coach Mike Ditka or quarterback Jim McMahon but defensive tackle Steve "Mongo" McMichael. Hehir said nobody declined the chance to be interviewed in "The Last Dance" and that the best soundbites surprisingly come from Jordan.
A Jordan who Hehir believes is thankful he didn't play in this era.
"I think he would have abhorred today's social media," Hehir said. "He would have been a PR person's nightmare, because he wouldn't have wanted to cooperate with anything. He wouldn't have cared about Twitter followers or likes. He was a gym rat and was most comfortable in a gym.
"Everything depended on his performance on the court, including his sponsorships with Coke, McDonald's, Nike, Hanes and Gatorade, and that's where his focus was."