Ten Surprising Things We Learned From the Michael Jordan ESPN Documentary

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Michael Jordan though the ages. Photo Illustration by Gluekit; Source images NBA Photos & Getty

Since he retired for good in 2003, Michael Jordan has been an elusive figure. He's played in and hosted celebrity golf tournaments, occasionally marketed his Nike clothing line and ventured quietly into NBA ownership, all while spending little time publicly reflecting. Even as the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, Jordan has rarely gone on the record; a 2013 Wright Thompson profile for ESPN is perhaps the closest in-depth post-career look at the greatest basketball player to ever live.

ESPN's new docu-series, The Last Dance, which premieres on April 19, doesn't dwell on Jordan's life since he left the Bulls in 1998. Instead, it adds color and context to his career: the early years in Chicago, the first championship three-peat, the baseball interlude, teammate drama, the movie Space Jam, and his final three titles. Bouncing primarily between two arcs—one that takes viewers from Jordan's college years through 1997, and the other that looks closely at 1998—the documentary can be tricky to follow at times. But the dual timelines are valuable in illustrating Jordan's growth as both a player and phenomenon. It also helps that we see Jordan on camera —17 years removed from playing and 57 years old. His perspective sets the project apart.

Two episodes will air each Sunday for five weeks. The series, the final two episodes of which are still being completed, was moved from its June release due to popular demand and a lack of live sports programming as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The final two episodes, which will air on May 17, will take viewers through the end of the Bulls' 1998 playoff run, when the team won its sixth championship of the Jordan era.

The series relies primarily on retrospective interviews from Jordan, his Bulls teammates and Phil Jackson, the coach who led Chicago to each of its championships and departed with Jordan after 1998. And though it focuses heavily on the team's ascent to greatness, it doesn't shy away from the thornier elements of Jordan's legacy: his gambling and the circumstances surrounding his decision to spend 18 months playing baseball at the peak of his hoops career. (Though it offers little new perspective on the latter.) Still, that's one of only a few moments where viewers might be left wanting more, and if the final two episodes are as compelling as the first eight, The Last Dance should be remembered as one of ESPN's best documentary projects.

Highlights? Here are 10 things you'll learn from the first eight episodes of The Last Dance:

Basketball—and competition—still make Jordan tick: The best moment of the series thus far comes at the end of Episode 7. Several former teammates discuss Jordan's intensity: the success it brought on the court and the tension off it. "Was he a nice guy?" B.J. Armstrong, who played point guard in Chicago from 1989-95, asks. "He couldn't have been nice...he would be difficult to be around if you didn't truly love the game of basketball."

Next, viewers return to present-day Jordan, his hands clasped in front of his face. "Do you think that intensity has come at the expense of being perceived as a nice guy?" an offscreen interviewer asks. Jordan collects his thoughts. "Winning has a price," he says. "And leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn't want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn't want to be challenged...you ask all my teammates; the one thing about Michael Jordan was he never asked me to do something that he didn't fucking do."

Clips of the Bulls celebrating their five championships before 1998 play across the screen as he talks. "Look, I don't have to do this," Jordan continues. "I am only doing it because it is who I am. That's how I played the game. That was my mentality." With his arms outstretched, he pauses again. "If you don't want to play that way, don't play that way."

Jordan is visibly emotional by the time he delivers the last few sentences, and the camera stays on him as he quiets, leans forward and mutters, "Break," pulling the earpiece from his left ear.

Jordan's memory is vividly detailed: The best athletes can recall games from a decade ago like they were yesterday, and that holds true for Jordan. Though the series shies away from much play-by-play of individual Bulls games, there's a segment in Episode 1 where Jordan, his University of North Carolina teammate James Worthy and Georgetown center Patrick Ewing break down exactly what went into Jordan's game-winning shot in the 1982 national championship game, where the Tar Heels topped the Hoyas. The shot put the UNC freshman on the map, and Jordan and his fellow players talk through the details like it happened 38 days ago, not 38 years.

"[Coach Dean Smith] was calling up a play for James [Worthy]," Jordan explains of the timeout UNC took when it was down, 62-61, with 32 seconds remaining. "And he says, 'When you get the ball, swing it back, swing it around. Michael should have a shot.' He looked at me, and he said, 'If you get the shot, take the shot.' "

He took the shot.

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University of North Carolina basketball player Michael Jordan shoots the winning basket in the 1982 NCAA Finals against Georgetown University. Bettmann/Getty

Jordan, like others students, was once a broke, naive college kid: In Episode 1, Deloris Jordan reads aloud a letter she's saved from her son's freshman year at UNC; her son wrote to tell her he had only $20 left in his bank account, and he asked her to deposit more. Spliced throughout Deloris' reading is film of Jordan watching her interview on his iPad, smiling and laughing at his freshman self.

Jordan went back to college while he was injured in his second season: In his second season in the NBA, Jordan broke his left foot. He missed 64 games, and he was anxious to get back despite his doctor's orders. Instead, he convinced the Bulls to let him return to UNC to work on his degree. But he had other things in mind, too. Jordan narrates what came next, which is accompanied by a video of him rehabbing in a pool and black-and-white still photos of his time back on campus in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. While he was there, Jordan began playing—first one-on-one, then two-on-two, three-on-three—working his way up to what he believed was full strength.

The Bulls had no idea until he returned to Chicago and team personnel noticed that the calf on his injured leg appeared stronger than his non-injured leg.

Jordan's love for gambling started early: There have long been rumors about Jordan's gambling and whether it became a problem during his career. The series re-airs a gambling-focused 1993 interview with Ahmad Rashad, the pro football player-turned-sportscaster. In the sit-down, Jordan, wearing sunglasses indoors, presents the flimsy argument that his gambling can't be a problem because he's not struggling financially. That interview is part of a larger treatment of Jordan's love of cards—Bulls center Will Perdue discusses the high-stakes games that used to transpire in the back of the Bulls plane while less risk-averse guys played dollar blackjack up front—which the series traces back to the star's rookie year.

Cards are mentioned as early as Episode 1, when Jordan as a rookie is portrayed shying away from his teammates' partying. Instead, he preferred cards and his favorite "cocktail": orange juice and 7Up.

When Jordan filmed Space Jam, Warner Brothers built him a practice facility:
Before watching The Last Dance, I'd never thought much about the logistics of Space Jam. Jordan filmed it in the summer of 1995, just months after he'd returned to basketball after nearly two seasons away playing minor-league baseball. He wasn't quite himself on the court in the spring of 1995, but by the fall, he was in good enough shape to lead the team on a championship run.

That means Jordan spent the summer he was filming Space Jam getting his 32-year-old body back in peak form. He did so in a facility on the Warner Brothers lot, where he recruited other star players—including Pacers guard Reggie Miller, Ewing and Nets center Shawn Bradley—to stop by for pickup games that helped Jordan get his edge back. The games went late into the night, and Jordan had early call times, sometimes at 6 a.m.

"This dude was like a vampire," Miller says.

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NBA Commissioner David Stern presents Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls the championship trophy after the Bulls defeated the Phoenix Suns in Game Six of the 1993 NBA Finales Andrew D. Bernstein/NBA Photos

The Last Dance was Bulls coach Phil Jackson's semi-official name for the 1997-98 season: Jackson has used the words "last dance" to describe the 1997-98 season before, but in Episode 1, viewers catch a glimpse of the team handbook from that year, which illustrates the title of the docuseries is more than just a clever catchphrase. The handbook's laminated cover reads: "I II III IV V VI," Roman numerals for the five championships the Bulls had won and the sixth they hoped to: "THE LAST "DANCE"?"

Jordan's devotion to Phil Jackson couldn't ultimately save the coach: That Jackson was even thinking along the lines of "last" in the fall of 1997 is hard to grapple with today, considering his championship record. But after the 1996-97 season, when the Bulls won their fifth title under Jackson, the coach's contract was up. Bulls management seemed ready to start a rebuild, no matter that Jordan threatened to retire if Jackson was out.

Eventually, general manager Jerry Krause and owner Jerry Reinsdorf relented, signing Jackson to a one-year deal. But that was it. Krause, with whom Jackson had a contentious relationship, announced the coach wouldn't be back even if Chicago won a title. It did; Jackson wasn't.

They love him in France: Travel to another country in 2020—three years nine years after Chicago won more than one playoff series—and you're bound to see a Bulls jersey. And odds are it'll bear the number 23. Jordan made the Bulls internationally relevant, which is part of the reason why the scenes—mostly in Episode 1—of the team's October 1997 trip to France make for such entertaining television. The team is treated like a boy band, mobbed by fans who barely speak their language. And there's great footage of the trip: the team getting off their plane in head-to-toe Bulls gear, security positioned along what appears to be the Rue de Rivoli standing watch as the players file off their bus.

"Michael was like the Pied Piper walking down the Champs- Élysées," former NBA commissioner David Stern, who sat for an interview before he passed away in January, said.

Jordan gave Dennis Rodman a mid-season vacation to Las Vegas in 1998: There's a long interlude at the end of Episode 3 and beginning of Episode 4 that focuses on Rodman, the quirky and disruptive defensive star who came aboard for the Bulls' final three championships. In 1995, the Bulls decided to take a chance on Rodman, who'd had tumultuous tenures in Detroit and San Antonio. Scottie Pippen and Jordan formed a sort of big three in Chicago. That said, team leadership was largely left to Pippen and Jordan—until Pippen became dissatisfied and injured in 1997.

At the outset of the 1997-98 season, with Pippen sidelined, Rodman filled the leadership void, behaving like a "model citizen," Jordan says. That was, in some ways, against Rodman's nature, and when Pippen returned to the court in January, Rodman said was tired. He asked Jackson for a vacation—which Jackson called upon Jordan to approve. He approved.


Joan Niesen is a freelance sportswriter who previously worked at Sports Illustrated, the Denver Post and Fox Sports. NBA, NHL, NFL...She covers it all.

Correction 4/17/20, 3:05 p.m. ET: This article has corrected the spelling of Wright Thompson and David Stern's names. We regret the error.