The coronavirus pandemic has put a halt to the NBA season, but the entire basketball world will still be on their couches for the next few Sunday nights. Not for a playoff game, unfortunately, but instead for "The Last Dance, the 10-part documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls during the 1997-98 season.
Ahead of that season, which everyone expected to be Jordan's last, producers at the NBA came up with an ambitious plan to document the entire thing. Now, more than 20 years later, the project has finally come to fruition, and early reviews indicate it will be a must-watch for any basketball fan.
But why now? How did this documentary finally come about? There were obviously all sorts of different factors that played a part, but it turns out that three key figures in NBA history were instrumental in getting Jordan's approval to go ahead with the film, according to a terrific story from Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.
Before serving as NBA commissioner, Silver used to work in the league offices as the head of NBA Entertainment back in the 1990s, and was one of the main forces in getting the project off the ground. First, he was able to convince Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, and head coach Phil Jackson of the historical importance of documenting that season. That was the easy part, however.
In order to get Jordan to acquiesce, Silver made a promise that the face of the league would have total control over the film after it was shot.
"There was no negotiation whatsoever," Silver explained. "All I said was, 'I'm sure there'll maybe be a tough negotiation at some point, but we don't have to have it now.' Because first and foremost, we have to capture the footage."
Then he offered Jordan the one thing he couldn't turn down: control.
"Our agreement will be that neither one of us can use this footage without the other's permission," Silver told Jordan. "It will be kept -- I mean literally it was physical film -- as a separate part of our Secaucus [New Jersey] library. Our producers won't have access to it. It will only be used with your permission."
That was a risky bet on Silver's part, because it meant the tapes might have sat locked away in a vault in Secaucus forever. But he correctly understood that getting the footage was the most important part of the league's job. There would be nothing to figure out on the backend if you didn't capture everything in the first place.
Looking back, that kind of foresight and negotiation ability makes it easy to see how Silver rose through the ranks in the league to become the commissioner.
M.J. or LeBron? Those two will forever be linked in the debate about the NBA's greatest player, so it's fitting that LeBron figured into the making of this documentary. As it turns out, Jordan gave the OK to use the footage on the same day that LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers were celebrating their 2016 championship with a parade through the streets of Cleveland.
"The universe has such a funny sense of humor," said Mike Tollin, the producer of The Last Dance. "Because when I woke up, I put on ESPN while I'm getting dressed, and there's LeBron [James] and the Cavaliers parading through the streets of Cleveland with the trophy that they'd just won."
Was LeBron getting one ring closer to matching his mythical six titles a driving force in Jordan wanting to create something that would truly capture his greatness? Or was this just a weird coincidence? Probably the latter, but as competitive as Jordan still is, you can't rule out the former as a possibility. Either way it's an interesting anecdote to the story.
Aside from Jordan and LeBron, there's perhaps been no more culturally significant player in NBA history than Allen Iverson. So, again, it's fitting that he factors into this story as well.
Tollin previously made a documentary about the misunderstood star titled simply, "Iverson." It's a well done project, and one Jordan loved so much that it made him cry. The fact that Tollin was involved in "Iverson" sealed the deal.
The last page of the presentation was a look at the documentaries, movies and shows Tollin and his company, Mandalay Sports Media, had done.
"So there's Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], there's Hank Aaron, there's 'Varsity Blues,' there's 'Coach Carter' and so forth," Tollin said. "He's actually looking at them all, and in the bottom right corner is 'Iverson.' He goes, 'You did that?'"
Tollin didn't answer. Jordan repeated the question.
Tollin wondered if this was going to work for or against him. Like the timing with the Cavaliers' championship parade that morning, it was impossible to know.
Tollin mumbled a cautious, "Yes."
Jordan took his glasses off, looked up and said, "I watched that thing three times. Made me cry. Love that little guy."
Then he walked around the desk, extended his hand and said, "Let's do it."
Even well after his retirement, Iverson is still impacting the league and the culture surrounding basketball. He might not have the on-court accomplishments of others, but his legacy stands toe-to-toe with all-time greats. Nothing makes that more clear than this story.
Overall, Shelburne's story is a fascinating look at the behind-the-scenes work that went into getting this project off the ground, and it's a testament to the familial nature of the NBA that so many of the league's most important figures played a part in making it happen.