Welcome to the first installment of Hard Out.
The premise? Short and sweet conversations with people that I enjoy, scheduled right before a meeting that I can’t miss.
Who better to start with than Jason Hehir, the director of “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part gift of a documentary on the 97-98 Chicago Bulls.
Spoiler: he SNAPPED.
Rembert: So I wrote out six questions. For starters, when was it supposed to come out?
Jason: June 2nd. And I think the NBA finals were supposed to start on Thursday, June 4th, so a premiere on the eve of the NBA finals. And then on off-nights during the finals it was going to air. So all 10 hours were going to air within a week or so.
Rembert: When you found out that it was getting pushed up did you freak? Or were you excited?
Jason: Excited, because everyone was looking for a chance to do something to make the world a little better right now.
Rembert: It feels like a public service. Genuinely. When we saw Former Chicago Resident Barack Obama, I almost screamed.
Jason: That rush of serotonin from just seeing him.
Rembert: The Last Dance was already going to be must see TV. But it feels so much more special now that it's literally the only show in town.
Jason: Yeah, this would've been in the midst of the NBA finals, the Stanley cup playoffs, there’s the NBA draft, all the golf majors — it would've been one of a host of things that everybody was clamoring to watch as the Spring turned to Summer. But now it’s one of the only new things on television. It also helps that it’s not too heavy — just nostalgic and fun.
Rembert: It really felt like an escape. I saw someone Tweet that it felt like the first time in a while that they’d forgotten what was happening in the world.
Jason: That's the number one compliment you could possibly hear.
Rembert: Switching subjects a little, I went to your Twitter account and it's hysterical because it's basically just LinkedIn.
Rembert: Oh yeah, Fab Five. Let’s go. Oh there’s Fridge. Did the Bears doc. Let’s go. Oh there’s Bill and Andre the Giant. Did that one. Let’s go. MJ. Let’s go.
Your work clearly speaks for itself. But how’d you get this job?
Jason: The executive producer of this whole thing, Mike Tollin, is the guy who kind of got all of these behemoths to the table. He cast a pretty wide net for directors. And he called me in July of 2016 and told me about this project. There, he showed me this packet. It was a deck that he had built and the final page of the deck was all the possible directors. Peter Berg, Spike Lee — big names.
Jason: I think I said out loud, "What the fuck are you talking to me for? I guess you struck out with these guys.” And that's what happened. But eventually, after a long vetting process, they were like “what would you do with it?” So I went away for a couple of weeks and just read everything I could get my hands on to reacclimatize myself. Now, if I hadn't been a massive basketball fan and specifically a Jordan fan, from the time that I was eight, I wouldn't have put together the pitch that I put together. Because I already knew a lot of this stuff, I wasn't starting from scratch. I had been basically doing this research for for 30 years.
Rembert: Did your structure involve the flashbacks?
Jason: Yeah. Because the deck that they originally showed me was wall-to-wall '97, '98 season, for eight episodes. I gave them a 14 page outline, starting with Michael at UNC and converging all the way up to episode 10. By the time we get to episode 10 there's no more flashbacks.
Rembert: The flashbacks were great. And then to see the way the next parts are getting teased, you're like, "Oh wow. That means we get to see this — ooh, we’re going to get old Piston stuff next, etc.”
Jason: Yeah, that’s my hope. Like, ”Oh, in episode X he might win the title for the first time. That means the next episode might be the Shrug Game, which would mean baseball goes in this episode.” People will be able to start anticipating what's going to happen.
Rembert: You know, one time I went to a Hawks/Bulls game days before my birthday. It was in the Omni, I was in a Jordan jersey, and he lit up the Hawks. It was, admittedly, the best day of my life up to that point.
Jason: In the episode when he comes back from baseball, he has the big comeback in Indiana. He's rusty, scores like 14 points. In the rough cut we had originally gone right from that to the double nickel game at The Garden. When Jordan watched the rough cut, he gave the note "In between those two games we played in Atlanta. I hit a buzzer beater and that's when I knew that I could be my old self."
Rembert: Holy shit.
Jason: The first person account.
Rembert: I'm going to go back and find the date of that game because that might be the game I'm talking about.
Jason: When's your birthday?
Rembert: March 28th?
Jason: Yeah. Yes.
Note: The 55 point game in the Garden was on my birthday.
Rembert: I love that he had notes.
Jason: Yeah, it’s like “holy shit, we're putting that in.” Or he was like, "Hey, you should include the Cartwright trade, because I was pissed off at Krause about that too. I was pissed off at him about my broken foot and then I was pissed off at him that he traded Oakley."
Rembert: That’s truly amazing.
Jason: Michael bristles at the notion of the definitive documentary, because I think he has such a fear of mortality and a fear of being forgotten. A definitive documentary means, to him, that your story is over. Right? He always said from the first meeting, "This is not the definitive Michael Jordan documentary. He said you can do that when I'm six feet deep in a pine box."
Jason: Do you know the story about BJ Armstrong by the way? Jordan calling him and asking the rules for eligibility for the Hall of Fame.
Rembert: Please keep talking.
Jason: Jordan called BJ after the Wizards days. BJ was an agent at that point, still is. And he said, "Hey, do you know the rules of eligibility? When am I eligible? When does the player become eligible for the Hall of Fame?" And BJ says "Five years after your last game." And Jordan was like, "All right, so if I just check in for one play, that would buy me five more years?" And BJ said "Correct."
I don't know this for fact, but I think he bristles at the statue. I think he bristles at the retired number. And he bristles at the Hall of Fame. He doesn't want to be a bronze bust. He wants to be in a uniform.
Rembert: He doesn't want to be thought of as part of a time capsule, almost.
Jason: He doesn't want to be looked at as in the past. The second interview we did was in May of 2019. And he had just become a grandfather and I said to Michael "You don't look like you're a grandfather." He said, "I don't feel like one." And I asked his daughter, "What's he going to call his grandfather?" And she said, "I asked my dad and I was like, 'what do you want to be called? You want to be like pops or grandpa or grandpops?’"
And he's like, "Have him call me Michael." She's like, "He's not calling you Michael, dad."
He was joking. But that's where his brain goes.
Rembert: Call me Michael.
Rembert: One of the bummers about this, unfortunately, is not being able to watch it with all the homies. It feels like something you want to experience with other like minded folk in the room, almost like Beyonce’s Homecoming. Like, all I want to do is laugh with 10 other people about Mike’s berets.
Jason: You know what’s funny — UNC Mike was a slick dresser, that leather Members Only looking jacket and the suede shirt that he had on when he got the Rookie of the Year.
Rembert: Ahhh, I’m so glad you brought up UNC. My final, and most important, question from the first two episodes: were you shocked by UNC Michael’s country ass accent?
Jason: Oh yeah, he's got a country accent. Michael's got three different vernaculars, or three different timbers to his voice. There's Corporate Michael who you see behind the podium at a press conference or when he's hosting an event. And then there's Interview Michael. By the way, when he threw his head back and laughed at the cocaine circus, I was like “holy shit, this might be a good interview.” That was 15 minutes into the first one.
Rembert: That was unreal.
Jason: And then, finally, there’s Off-Camera Country Michael — when he’s just talking to his friends — which I've been around aa couple of times. But yeah, he was nasally-country when he was a kid. He always had kind of a high pitch twang to his voice.
Rembert: My guy, I appreciate you, and I could keep going forever, but it is 11:59am and I have to go. Thanks man.