Michael Jordan is well-known for carefully controlling his image in retirement. That’s why it was a surprise to some that he not only authorized ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary but also sat for interviews.
The documentary is built around footage from the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls season, Jordan’s last with the franchise. During that season, NBA Entertainment cameras were given unprecedented access to the Bulls both on and off the court. As part of the deal to receive that access, it was agreed that none of the footage would be publicly released without Jordan’s consent. For years, that consent was not given, and the film sat in the NBA’s vaults.
So what changed? Mike Tollin, one of the producers of “The Last Dance,” may have offered a clue when recounting how he got Jordan to authorize the documentary. Tollin was promised the chance to meet with Jordan for a face-to-face presentation in June of 2016 while the former Bulls star was doing draft prep in his role as owner of the Charlotte Hornets. Coincidentally, a major thing was happening in the NBA world that day.
“The universe has such a funny sense of humor,” Tollin said, via Ramona Shelburne of ESPN. “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.”
That 2016 title was James’ third. It also came at the end of a season that saw the Golden State Warriors win 73 games, breaking a record set by Jordan’s 1995-96 Bulls team. Tollin didn’t explicitly say these reasons may have fueled Jordan’s willingness to authorize the documentary, but they might have played a role.
To be clear, there were other reasons. Tollin’s role as a producer of an Allen Iverson documentary that Jordan said “made me cry” helped the case. Still, it’s not hard to make that link between modern teams and players threatening Jordan’s accomplishments and his willingness to authorize a documentary about the greatness of his Bulls teams. After all, Jordan found a way to remind that Golden State team that it had work to do even after breaking the regular-season wins record. Defending his legacy is important to him.