“The Last Dance” has became the most-watched documentary in ESPN history two decades after filming began in chronicling the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls season. Two decades before then in Minnesota, wheels had begun to churn that led to its creation.
The documentary was the brainchild of Andy Thompson, a University of Minnesota basketball player from 1979-82 who is one of the executive producers. The 10-hour show is being shown over five straight Sundays through mid-May.
Thompson’s journey was helped by Bulls star guard Michael Jordan having grown up admiring his brother, former Gophers star center Mychal Thompson, and by having a longtime association with former Vikings star wide receiver Ahmad Rashad. Andy Thompson had first met Rashad when he was a sophomore forward with the Gophers in 1979-80 and later was his producer for 14 years when Rashad was co-host for the “Inside Stuff” television show on NBC.
“I owe a part of my career to Ahmad,” said Andy, 61, the vice president of development at NBA Entertainment.
Andy had arrived at Minnesota in the fall of 1978 after transferring from South Florida, not long after his brother had been the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. He redshirted his first season before averaging just 2.2 points over the next three.
“I was a big fan of Mychal and so I went to a lot of University of Minnesota basketball games when I played for the Vikings,” said Rashad, who played for Minnesota from 1976-82. “(Andy) was Mychal’s younger brother, so, yeah, I definitely was going to meet him.”
Rashad and Andy’s paths would cross again. After he played professionally in France and the Philippines, Andy got a job in 1987 as a production assistant with NBA Entertainment. Having played basketball and being an art major at Minnesota helped him land it.
“It was the perfect marriage of knowing the game and playing the game of basketball and then also having an eye to know what makes a good picture,” Andy said. “My canvas became the television screen.”
Andy worked his way up the ranks and by 1990 was a producer. That was the year he met up again with Rashad.
Rashad, who had worked in television for five years in the Twin Cites while still playing for the Vikings, took a job with NBC when he retired after the 1982 season. When NBC got the NBA contract starting with the 1990-91 season, Rashad became a co-host of “Inside Stuff” with Julie Moran, and Thompson was named the show’s producer.
Rashad, meanwhile, had become friendly with Jordan. The two met in the summer of 1990 at a benefit game in Los Angeles that was televised by NBC.
“We hit it off immediately. We hit it off as friends,” said Rashad, who now lives down the street from Jordan in Jupiter, Fla. “He was a huge football fan. We exchanged numbers, and we’ve probably talked every day or every week since then for 30 years.”
Because Andy would be working on features involving Jordan, Rashad wanted them to meet. Rashad, who then also was NBC’s NBA sideline announcer, brought Andy to Michael Jordan’s Restaurant in Chicago.
“Ahmad had to do a story with Michael in his special room that he had so he can have dinner and eat steaks by himself or with his teammates, and wouldn’t be harassed,’’ Andy recalled.
“It was ’91, the first year of the show, and we were setting up to do the interview and Ahmad said before we rolled, ‘Hey, do you know who his brother is?’ And Michael said, ‘No,’ and (Rashad) said, ‘His brother is Mychal Thompson.’ I didn’t realize that Michael Jordan really admired my brother Mychal.’’
Jordan told Andy that when he was a teenager in Wilmington, N.C., he took note of the spelling of Mychal’s name and how the Bahamas native wore a tamarind seed necklace when he played.
“He said he admired him so much he changed the spelling of his name and he would wear these puka shell beads around his neck when he was a kid,’’ Andy said. “And his mom called him on the spelling of his name one day and says, ‘Why are you spelling it this way?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m a big fan of Mychal Thompson and the way he spells his name.’
“His mom told him, ‘Hey, I don’t care how he spells his name, but you spell the name the way we told you to.’ Once he told me that story, I realized he respected my brother and we just hit it off. … That’s where the genesis of our relationship started.”
The last ride
Over the next six years, Andy saw Jordan regularly. Thompson was part of the crew that spent seven weeks with the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” for a documentary.
The two hit it off so well that Jordan often would give Andy extra time at a shoot if he requested it. And it all started because Jordan was a fan of Mychal Thompson.
“I had no idea Michael even knew who I was, even when I was in the league with him,” said Mychal, who played in the NBA from 1978-91, including seven seasons after Jordan entered the league in 1984. “Andy didn’t tell me that story right away but he told me years later, and I was shocked. I was flattered.
“But looking back, that definitely opened the doors and made Michael more welcoming to Andy. I’m sure that made Michael more relaxed around Andy.”
By 1997, the Bulls had won five out of the past seven NBA titles and were going for a second three-peat. With Jordan perhaps entering his final season, and head coach Phil Jackson having already been told it was his last in Chicago, Andy had an idea.
He went to Adam Silver, the current NBA commissioner who had just been named president of NBA Entertainment.
“(The Bulls) had ascended to this unbelievable team, and Michael was this iconic player,” Andy said. “So, I thought, ‘This is perfect. Michael is the perfect player for this one last all-in document of just how great this franchise is and this player is, and the only way we can do that is to convince them to allow us to be embedded with them for the entire year.’ … (Silver) loved the idea.”
Silver began talking to Bulls officials. He flew to Paris, where the Bulls were playing exhibition games, to convince Jackson and Jordan to let an NBA film crew hang out with the team the entire season.
Silver had to make a deal with Jordan to get the project off the ground. After all the film had been shot, Jordan would have the final say on whether the public ever would see it.
Andy said he “was ecstatic” when the project was given the OK. So Andy, cameraman Gregg Winik and sound man Mario Porporino followed the Bulls throughout the season, attending 72 games and most practices, and shooting 500 hours of footage. Andy shot at times with a second camera.
“I was amazed because this was unprecedented,” Andy said. “No team had ever given us any type of access like this on a daily basis. It was just so huge. I mean, they were the rock stars of their time.
“This was the Beatles, so following them around, one of the greatest teams ever, and then following around the most iconic player in NBA history, yeah, I was amazed that they got so comfortable with us, and we were able to capture pretty much everything that they did.’’
With Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman also starring, the Bulls won their sixth championship on a last-second shot by Jordan in Game 6 of the finals against the Utah Jazz. He retired after the season.
Meanwhile, all the footage that had been shot was stowed away, and the wait began for Jordan to give his approval.
Jordan returned to play for the Washington Wizards from 2001-03. During that time, Andy asked him many times when he might OK the footage to be used.
“It got to be a running joke because every time we’d see each other, he would say, ‘I know what you’re going to ask. I don’t know either,’ ’’ Andy said.
The wait wasn’t fun for Andy.
“It was definitely frustrating in the beginning because we wanted to get this out because we knew we had the holy grail of documentaries,” he said. “We had an unbelievable storybook ending.”
Four years ago, Jordan finally gave the approval to release the footage. Andy was thrilled when he got the news in a phone call from Winik.
The NBA provided all the footage to producer Mike Tollin and his company, Mandalay Sports Media, which put the final product together. Andy was not heavily involved in that process but provided guidance on what footage was best.
Numerous interviews were conducted over the past year to complement the footage from 1997-98. Backstories on the key figures from that season were added by director Jason Hehir, as well as looks at all of Jordan’s previous seasons with the Bulls.
It all worked out better than Andy Thompson could have imagined.
“I am so thankful that things did not work out the way we wanted to early on,” he said. “Back then, they only wrote 90-minute, two-hour documentaries. Now, we’ve got 10 hours, which is amazing.
“Even though I’ve seen this footage 100 times, the fact that with the new interviews and the way they integrated the old footage, it’s perfect. I think (Hehir) couldn’t have done a better job.”
The 10-part series got underway with parts 1 and 2 on April 19 and parts 3 and 4 on April 26. Parts 5 and 6 will be shown Sunday night, followed by the final four parts on the following two Sundays.
“The Last Dance” was moved up from a scheduled June airing when the coronavirus pandemic suspended all sports. It has drawn massive ratings, becoming the highest-rated documentary in ESPN history.
“It was a great decision to show it now, and it certainly has a captive audience because you know people are going to watch now,” Rashad said. “It’s a very good documentary, and I think it would have been big no matter when it was shown. People get a chance to be like a fly on the wall and watch what it was all like.’’
Rashad, who was regularly with the Bulls during their dynasty, was interviewed for the documentary last summer in Jupiter at the same time Jordan was. Rashad watched all 10 parts of it earlier this year, some with Jordan.
He said there were no surprises because “I lived it.’’
When “The Last Dance” debuted on ESPN last month, Rashad walked down the street to Jordan’s house and they watched together.
“We drank a little bit of tequila, and we had a lot of laughs,” Rashad said. “We smoked cigars. It was a lot of fun watching it because it brought back a lot of memories with the funny clothes we had on and how stylish we thought we were.”
Rashad long has admired the work of Andy Thompson, who was part of a team that won an Emmy for the 2013 NBA TV production of “The Doctor,” the story of Julius Erving.
“Andy is absolutely one of the best I’ve ever worked for,” Rashad said. “He’s got a great eye and has a great way of carrying himself. … If he hadn’t ever met Jordan, (the documentary) wouldn’t have happened. But that was just a start. Over time, they developed a rapport, and that made all the difference in the world.”
In addition to being Rashad’s producer on “Inside Stuff’’ from 1990-2004, Andy has worked with him on a number of other projects. He gives Rashad plenty of credit for all the advice he has provided, especially during the early days of “Inside Stuff,’’ when Andy was a relative novice while Rashad was well seasoned in television work.
“I’m only three years into my career (in 1990),” Andy said. “Ahmad really taught me how to manage a shoot, big time.”
Mychal, now the radio analyst for the Lakers, has been watching the documentary at his home in Capistrano Beach, Calif., along with his sons, Golden State Warriors star Klay, former NBA player Mychel and major league baseball player Trayce.
“I’m very proud and very happy to see Andy getting recognition for his work because he’s a very talented producer,” Mychal said. “I’m watching it like the rest of us, because I want to see it live and not see it raw. And now I get to see what Andy was talking about for all those years about what he got.”
Andy has been watching the ESPN broadcasts with his wife, Dawn, and children Marcus, 19, and Simone, 18, at their home in New Jersey. He’s gotten a thrill out of seeing their reactions.
“All of their lives, they’ve heard about this mythical footage that existed of the greatest player and the greatest team of all time,” he said, “and they’ve heard me talk about Michael, they’ve heard me talk about the project, and they’ve never seen it, not a second of it, until the airing on ESPN.
“So, the fact that I’m able to share this with them finally, that makes everything worthwhile.”