We get some 20th-century relief from 2020 on Sunday night.
The first two one-hour episodes of “The Last Dance” will be broadcast to the nation on ESPN Sunday, starting at 8 p.m. Two more episodes will air in each of the following four Sundays. The documentary is a behind-the-scenes look at the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, the last of their six NBA championship teams of the 1990s.
It’s about the Bulls, the NBA, sports, culture, commerce, the media landscape of the time, lots of things. Primarily, though, it’s about Michael Jordan.
“I teach freshmen who were born in 2001. Even our grad students don’t have really strong memories of Michael,” said Melissa Isaacson, a University of Iowa graduate who is on the faculty of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
“I really want my students to watch it and see what the fuss was about.”
Isaacson is one of 106 people who were interviewed for the series. She was the Chicago Tribune’s primary Bulls beat reporter for their 1992 and 1993 championship teams and was part of the Bulls coverage through several of her 19 years with the Tribune. She wrote a book about the team during that time before the barrage of sports talk radio/TV, before the internet changed how people got their news.
“Every day, I knew people were counting on your story,” Isaacson said. “The challenge became how to bring readers into the locker room, into the (Chicago) Stadium and feel like they were there. It was an incredible opportunity for a young writer.”
It was, she said, like being in the middle of Beatlemania.
“The Bulls were famous beyond famous,” she said. “I remember being in a hotel lobby in New York (where the team was staying) and literally not being able to move. The team bus was surrounded, almost rocked off its wheels.
“I’ve covered Wimbledon, been to the Great Wall of China when I covered the Olympics. I told people I was from Chicago and they wanted to know about Michael Jordan. It was like a one-word word, ‘Michaeljordan.’
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“I absolutely knew at the time that it was really, really special. If I didn’t know, my friends and family would remind me.”
What Isaacson says she remembers more vividly than the circus and the games themselves were private moments talking to players, especially on the road. She recalls a time when she was “very pregnant” while covering the team. Somewhere on the road she, veteran guard Ron Harper, and younger guard/former Iowa Hawkeye B.J. Armstrong were in a locker room talking about whether the father should be in the room with the mother during childbirth.
Armstrong was adamantly against it. Harper, who had kids, tried to convince him otherwise. He persuaded Armstrong to lie on a training table while he and Isaacson pretended to be helping him through the childbirth process, using a basketball as a baby.
“We weren’t trying to be funny,” said Isaacson. “This was minutes before a game, and (Bulls coach) Phil Jackson walks in. He takes five steps into the room, sees the scene unfolding, started shaking his head, and walked straight out.”
The Jordan we know was a ruthless competitor, someone who could be just as hard on teammates off the court as he was on opponents during games.
“I think he really was a nice guy deep down,” Isaacson said. “You’ll see the not-nice part for sure in the documentary, but I don’t think any beat writer of the team then would say ‘What a bad guy.’
“He was unlike any other great athlete I’ve ever covered before or since in that he treated all media with the same courtesy.
“Often, the questions were difficult or silly. But there usually was a mob around his locker, and he’d answer every last question from the smallest paper to the New York Times.”
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Pro athletes can be rough on reporters. They can be uncooperative. They can be unkind. Not the championship Bulls teams.
“It was a team of gentlemen, and I didn’t find that everywhere,” said Isaacson. “Michael set the tone, but Bill Cartwright and John Paxson did, too, and (Scottie) Pippen and (Horace) Grant followed along. And, of course, Phil was that way.
“They were very respectful and I appreciated that greatly.”
Much of “The Last Dance” came from an NBA Entertainment crew embedded with the Bulls for the entire 1997-98 season. Material culled from 10,000 hours of archived footage will be new to the public.
“This is special,” Isaacson said. “I know the amount of thought and work that was put into it. I think it will be fabulous.
“I think it wasn’t just Michael wanting ‘Understand me,’ but also ‘See how good I was.’ I think when people see this they’ll understand why Michael Jordan was so magnificent.”