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'The Last Dance': ESPN Releases Michael Jordan Documentary

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The sports world has been at a standstill since most major sports league suspended their seasons back in March. Sports fans are hungry for excitement. Now they have it in the form of a 10-part ESPN documentary series about Michael Jordan and everything that led to his sixth and final NBA championship with the Chicago Bulls. It's called "The Last Dance." And it offers an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at the basketball legend and the team he led. And it's filled with previously unseen footage that highlights Jordan's famously aggressive style.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LAST DANCE")

MICHAEL JORDAN: And if you're trying to maintain dominance over people, you don't want to give them a chance to gain confidence.

MARTIN: We wanted to hear more about what we've learned in this documentary about Jordan, who remained remarkably private even as he became one of the world's most famous men. So we called someone who followed his career closely, Michael Wilbon, a former Washington Post columnist and co-host of ESPN's "Pardon The Interruption." He's featured in the documentary, and he wrote about it for The Undefeated. And he's with us now. Michael Wilbon, welcome.

MICHAEL WILBON: Michel, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: As I understand it, the footage featured in the documentary was taken during the 1998 season, and it was never released to the public until now. What's the story behind this?

WILBON: Michael Jordan certainly just did not grant that permission, did not want it done. So much of the behind-the-scenes footage, Michel, is of very candid moments in practice, in the dressing room, in the locker room, where Michael may get on teammates, may ride them quite a bit to get them to the point where they were going to be a championship team. And he never thought that people would understand seeing that type of approach from a leader. And so finally, after saying no for all these years, the director of "The Last Dance" said to Michael, OK, people don't understand. You make them understand. You get them to understand after all these years what you were doing and why it worked.

And this time Michael said, OK. It's interesting 'cause in that first episode, Michel, you see Michael Jordan in practice riding his teammates. And a whole generation - two generations of people who did not see Michael Jordan in real time, they're looking at this going, oh, my God, what is that? And that's the reaction Michael was concerned about the first place.

MARTIN: OK. Let's play a short clip where we can hear that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LAST DANCE")

JORDAN: I let my anger motivate the players by saying, I want this. Do you guys want it?

BILL WENNINGTON: He's not worried about hurting your feelings. If he hurt your feelings, you could leave. He would gladly tell you. Get out. You don't want to play hard? Get out.

(CROSSTALK)

JORDAN: Let's go out and get our first win. I ain't going to say that [expletive] again.

MARTIN: He was, as you just said, he was concerned that people would think that he was horrible. You know, what do you think changed his mind?

WILBON: (Laughter) Nothing changed his mind. I can tell you he's still concerned about it. I had a chat with him a few days ago, and he was concerned about it. He was asking me, what does your son - my son is a 12-year-old sixth grader but a basketball player and a fanatic about pro basketball and the Bulls and Michael Jordan. And one of his concerns is, I want to know what he thinks. And I have said to Michael over the years, decades, why do you care what people think? You won six times. You were - you have been the most famous person on the planet, not just most famous athlete. I don't understand that.

MARTIN: But it's - OK. Let me just try this one theory out, though. He reportedly approved this documentary the same day that LeBron James celebrated his championship in Cleveland. We know that Michael Jordan is famously competitive. That's at the root of so much of - that drives him. Could this rivalry have been part of the reason that he was interested in making himself better known?

WILBON: I wouldn't buy that for one second, Michel. I mean, the rivalry is from LeBron James. LeBron James has said that he - I - am the greatest, sort of a Ali-like - he said that the victory that Cleveland achieved in 2016 proved he was the greatest player. Michael Jordan's never said that in fact. And I did the interview with him 10 years ago on the morning of his enshrinement into the Hall of Fame. And I said, is it important to you to be known as the greatest player ever? And he said, absolutely not. You're never going to hear that from me.

MARTIN: Well, it is a measure of his impact, not just on the sport but in the world at the time. I mean, you noted this yourself that the filmmakers got both former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in the film, which is remarkable. On the other hand, as you pointed out in your piece for The Undefeated, it does - his - the impression he gives is not one that everyone is going to like. I mean, you even wrote in your piece that your son even asked you, Dad, did yelling like that actually help them? So how do you think history will look at him as a leader? And what do you think the metric is going to be? I mean, there's even a story about him punching a fellow player in the face. I mean, it's not - you know what I mean? It's not like this guy - he wasn't Santa Claus. So what is your thinking about that?

WILBON: I think that the ends justify the means, Michel. And what I say to my son is, he won. Yeah. Yeah, the yelling helped. But they're going to look at the six championships. They're going to look at - being the center of the Dream Team, the single greatest team ever assembled. And I think they're going to look at him being the greatest basketball player, if not the greatest athlete in team sports in the history of at least North America, if not the world. He'd be on anybody's short list. I think the sort of harshness of what happened in practice can be overstated. But I haven't seen the rest of the footage either. I haven't seen the rest of documentary and don't know how that lands.

MARTIN: That was Michael Wilbon. He was a longtime columnist for The Washington Post. He is co-host of ESPN's "Pardon The Interruption." And he is featured in the 10-part ESPN documentary series about Michael Jordan. It's called "The Last Dance." Michael Wilbon, thank you so much for talking to us from your backyard, where we can hear the birds tweeting. Thank you.

WILBON: Michel, thanks for having me. And I hope you're getting to watch all of this because it's - even for those of us who lived it, it's fascinating. But thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.