By Michael Angelo S. Murillo
THE original airings of the 10-part documentary The Last Dance came to an end last week, finishing well received and making documentary content history on ESPN. It is a result that the people behind the production take much pride and satisfaction in, considering the process of making it was not easy.
Spotlighted the final year of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls as they went for a second three-peat in the 1990s in 1998 and sixth title in eight years, The Last Dance finished its original airings run with an average of 5.6 million viewers for its 10 episodes, cementing its standing as the most-watched documentary content ever on ESPN.
The documentary featured never-before-seen footage from the 1997-98 season as the Bulls went for their sixth NBA title as well as took the audience to Jordan’s early roots as a player, how he built his legend with the Bulls, showing their struggles as a team after drafting “MJ” in the 1984 draft and eventual ascent to the NBA summit.
It also provided the inside tale of the 1998 championship run, with extensive profiles of Jordan’s key teammates including Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr, head coach Phil Jackson, and featured dozens of current-day interviews with rivals and luminaries from basketball and beyond.
The Last Dance documented the tension and conflict that defined that final championship run, which culminated in the six-game conquest of the Utah Jazz in the finals.
For Andy Thompson, NBA Entertainment vice-president for production and executive producer of The Last Dance, for the documentary to have the kind of reception from the audience it had was very fulfilling, especially since filming it, particularly getting the footage throughout that final year, was not done in the most ideal of setups.
Speaking on the Republika Huddle podcast with hosts Nikko Ramos and Boom Gonzalez, excerpts of which were shared by NBA Philippines, Mr. Thompson, a one-time Philippine Basketball Association import, shared that being “embedded” with the 1997-98 Bulls had a lot of challenges.
“In the beginning, you have to understand that when we made the arrangement to get the permission to shoot, it was a loose arrangement with Phil [Jackson]. We had no access to shoot when we arrived the first day. And it had to be negotiated day-by-day,” said Mr. Thompson, who started doing production work for the NBA after his stint as import of the Tanduay Rhum Masters in the PBA in the late 80s.
“It was not an open door arrangement, like Phil would say ‘Okay guys you’re in and have access.’ No. It was a feeling-out process. They had to get to know us. We had to get to know them. It is fun when I show up one day and I get to interview you guys, but if I show up the next day, and the next day, and pretty soon it gets old. You have to give the players some space,” he added, likening their experience to walking on egg shells for the most part.
Mr. Thompson, brother of former NBA player Mychal and uncle of All-Star Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, played in the PBA as a replacement import for Tanduay in the 1986 Open Conference.
He partnered with Rob Williams in helping the then Grand Slam-seeking Rhum Masters reach the semifinals.
It was an experience Mr. Thompson said that impacted him a lot — especially the kind of support he got from Filipino fans — and stuck with him up to this day, nearly four decades since.
Also that episode in his playing career was something he got to share with Mr. Jordan, the main protagonist in The Last Dance, at the time of their filming.
“That (PBA experience) was a poignant thing and I relayed that to Michael (Jordan). I said, ‘Michael I know how it is to be you.’ And he looked at me like I had two heads or something,” he shared.
“I said when I played in the Philippines the amount of fans I have down there [was like] the adulation that was coming at you… For two weeks I was bombarded with that and I loved it, and he laughed,” Mr. Thompson added.
The Last Dance, directed by Emmy-winning Jason Herir, started airing on April 19.
According to ESPN, episodes 1 and 2 averaged 6.1 million viewers, becoming the two most-viewed original content broadcasts on ESPN Networks since 2004. Subsequent weeks continued the momentum, with episodes 3 and 4 averaging 5.9 million viewers, episodes 5 and 6 averaging 5.5 million viewers, episodes 7 and 8 averaging 5.1 million viewers, and episodes 9 and 10 averaging 5.6 million viewers, all of which have become the most watched documentary content on ESPN, surpassing 2012’s You Don’t Know Bo (3.6 million).