What I experienced for eight years cannot be crammed into 500 minutes. Let’s hope the 10-part documentary series, “The Last Dance,’’ is remembered for more than the usual retro rehash: Michael Jordan’s merciless appetite to conquer flesh and blood, an angle that merely brushes the marrow of the most exhilarating and elaborate sports story ever told. The magnitude and scope of his reign remain immense even now, still hard to wrap the mind around, as if Shakespeare, Scorsese and Fellini collaborated to inject every conceivable dramatic element, with sprinkles of Spike Lee, Dick Ebersol and Bugs Bunny.
Competitive rage. Global overload. Gambling. Murder. In-house treachery. A pop-culture explosion. Celebrity fawning. Corporate exploitation. Political aloofness. Sneaker frenzy. A mysterious baseball interlude. And characters as diverse as ‘90s life itself: a brooding sidekick, a free-love coach, a feather-boa-wearing freak, a grumpy general manager who poisoned the joy instead of embracing it, and an insufferable owner who was stingy with well-deserved financial rewards and couldn’t wait to launch his own dynasty, which has become a travesty. Even a filmmaker as skilled as Jason Hehir wishes he had a wayback machine to tackle a monstrous challenge: The Jordan spectacle, with all its triumphs and tensions and scandals, was best lived and consumed each day to allow for an exact chronicling of grandeur and wildness.
Nor can a film about Jordan and the Bulls dynasty serve any therapeutic purpose, for a country mired in a stupefying medical lockdown, if it dabbles in the worst two words in the ongoing political lexicon: fake news. This narrative always has lacked a complete filling of all the blanks, revelations that make the story whole. Thus, “The Last Dance’’ is thrust as a moratorium on getting at the truth of a man who somehow remains mysterious after a generation of tongue-wagging and slam-dunking through our consciousness. Some would compare Jordan, in a context of baggy shorts and $200 sneakers, to Donald Trump, and just as Americans demand transparency from the President of the United States, particularly during a pandemic, they would appreciate clarity from the most significant basketball player and sports cultural figure ever.
The audience will be the judge, over the next five weekends, on whether Jordan strikes a more authentic bond beyond his extraordinary legacy. At 57, still mourning the death of his younger friend and disciple Kobe Bryant, he is losing chances to resonate with the masses. He will make progress in “The Last Dance,’’ but likely not enough to lift him from the realm of the enigmatic.
Never has the world hosted an athlete so heavenly and simultaneously devil-like — and if that seems a stretch, consider Jordan won six championships and six Most Valuable Player awards in his six NBA Finals … 666. His genius was his fury, his compulsive need to control every human being and circumstance around him, and that is what fascinates me about the docu-series. As a general rule since his playing career ended, Jordan has been largely reclusive as owner of the nondescript Charlotte Hornets, reticent to reconstruct the Bulls years, an era I covered as a Chicago Sun-Times columnist. He has controlled his image by simply not discussing it and staying out of the mainstream and Twitterverse. That has led to social-media mockery (see: Crying Jordan meme), but isolation served him long before he was advised to shelter at home like the rest of us.
So why come out now, Mike? Why consent to a massive project that drops Sunday night on ESPN and Netflix? Is the renowned control freak just playing us again?
Or, some 22 years after pushing off Bryon Russell (he did) and delivering his famous final fling with an exquisitely flexed extension of the right wrist, is Jordan finally ready to drop the veneer and tell the entirety of his tale? If so, it would include a dissection of the following subjects, heretofore off-limits: his troubling gambling habits, the unanswered questions about his father’s grisly 1993 murder, his abrupt decision to play minor-league baseball and whether it was attached to an NBA suspension, his well-known loathing of Bulls general manager Jerry Krause and its toxic spread throughout the organization and league, his rebuke of team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf for siding with Krause in his feud with coach Phil Jackson, Jordan’s disgust that ownership dismantled the dynasty before its expiration date, a public sexual affair and the end of his first marriage, his relationship with his children, and an array of friendships that have run the social gamut, from Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and Kobe to the shadowy likes of Richard Esquinas, Slim Bouler and Eddie Dow, a North Carolina bail bondsman found dead with three of Jordan’s checks in his briefcase.
Obviously, not all of those talking points will be in the show. But the opening episode does include a scene that confirms Jordan’s heartless contempt for Krause. Described as “maniacal’’ by the Washington Post, Jordan approaches the roundish Krause after practice and says, “Are those the pills to keep you short? Or are those diet pills?’’ It’s a symbolic snapshot of the wicked strife between management and the team’s cornerstones — Jordan, Jackson and Scottie Pippen — that led to the tragicomic breakup of a powerhouse capable of winning one or two more titles. It took the presence of rare footage from the final 1997-98 season, christened “The Last Dance’’ by a turmoil-weary Jackson, for the NBA’s entertainment division to kickstart a project centered around the farewell tour, with breakout profiles of the human sides of Jackson, Pippen and Dennis Rodman, assuming Rodman has a human side.
The question to ask throughout the eight-plus hours of air time: Is any new ground being broken? Just because Hehir raves about Jordan’s willingness to answer the most sensitive questions — including those about gambling and his father’s murder — doesn’t mean we’re getting absolute answers from Jordan that settle all doubts.
“He never once censored us. He never once policed us. He never once said that any topic was off-limits, so he was a perfect partner for this project,’’’ said Hehir, who sat down with Jordan for three lengthy sessions. “He went pretty deep on the gambling allegations against him in the ‘90s. He went pretty deep about what happened to his father and how that affected him on the court. … He never instructed us to take anything out, and from Day One, he told me that there wasn’t a question I would ask that he would not answer truthfully.’’
Of course, it’s one thing for a director to raise sensitive topics in a one-on-one interview setting — and quite another to pursue penetrating follow-ups, explore the topic with other people and edit the film with an independence that lets the viewers decide. Didn’t Hehir, who grew up mesmerized by the Jordan mystique like the rest of his generation, fear the wrath of Basketball Jesus? Evidently not. Hehir asked the tough questions, and Jordan provided firm responses, but if this is an Oscar-caliber film, it must be balanced and explore all sides of the explosive issues. Watch closely, with a checklist and pen, to see if “The Last Dance’’ is more about presenting Jordan in a favorable light or at last revealing the real-real, regardless of optics. Which delicate topics are confronted and which are short-shrifted, downplayed and ignored? Gambling, for one, is pervasive throughout the series; the NBA camera crew repeatedly shows Jordan making wagers on anything and everything during the final season. Given Hehir’s exhaustive research and interviews with dozens of subjects, the director had the leverage to attack as he chooses. The wealth of material provides an opportunity for an all-time cinematic work, one befitting his stature. Both blessed and haunted, through triumph and tragedy, Jordan deserves an epic Hollywood deep-dive that captures his historical footprint.
But that would happen only with unvarnished truth. And the control freak in Jordan wouldn’t allow total disclosure. Does he reveal how many wagering millions he blew? If he was suspended by the NBA? If he sees a direct link between his gambling and his father’s murder? No, he does not.
The credits suggest Jordan took typical liberties to protect his portrayal. His Jump 23 enterprise is a principal producer, along with ESPN Films, NBA Entertainment and Mandalay Sports Media, which is chaired by a league owner, the Golden State Warriors’ Peter Guber. Meaning, Jordan and his longtime business representatives, Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk, have had the entire production of “The Last Dance’’ under their dictatorial thumbs, with Portnoy and Polk listed as executive producers alongside industry veteran Mike Tollin. Team Jordan also is fully supported by a league far more interested in legacy promotion than any raw, damaging truths, as well as a sports network grateful to have something substantial to fill dead air during a pandemic. If he wanted it — and my experiences with him say he would demand it — Jordan is armed with the power to control content as a creative overlord. As Polk told The Athletic, that power was wielded during early moments in the project, perhaps making it more difficult to address the most jarring and sensitive components of Jordan’s joyride with definitive, full-blast treatment.
No doubt “The Last Dance,’’ at its core, succeeds in presenting the Jordan panorama in a 2020 prism: the unprecedented glorification, the rock-star traveling circus, the endless highlight reel, the cut from his high-school team that fueled his inner rage, the title-winning jumper for North Carolina, The Shot, the 63-point game, his personal rivalries and accompanying trash-talking, the postseason dramas that weren’t as easy as they seemed, failures and eventual conquests against the Detroit Bad Boys, the Knicks wars, the legendary “Sick Game,’’ the near-crash against Indiana in the 1998 Eastern Conference finals and, of course, the final shot in Utah that should have been the perfect ending for the perfect career. The docu-series will serve as indisputable evidence to hush stubborn millennials and Gen Zers who insist, with recency bias and ignorance, that LeBron James is the greatest of all, forgetting that Bryant came closest to approaching Jordan’s body of work and pulling off the grand impersonation.
Just how far does the documentary dare to reach? I’d like to know if the late David Stern, who presided as NBA commissioner during the Jordan era, fully investigated the relentless flurry of his gambling. Didn’t the league have much to lose if Stern publicly benched his Golden Goose? Jordan didn’t even try to hide his itch for the action — an off-night trip to Atlantic City during a playoff series in New York, his massive golfing losses to an opportunist (and book author) such as Esquinas, his Las Vegas rampages with Woods and Charles Barkley. Was it merely coincidence that Jordan escaped to baseball and missed almost two NBA seasons? We don’t get those answers. During that period, I wrote a column explaining why Jordan was exposing himself to potential extortion — say, a scumbag on an 18th green asking him to fix an over-under in a Bulls game. The Sun-Times’ managing editor, who didn’t last in the job much longer, warned me, “This is the most important column you’ll ever write.’’ The piece ran in some form, but not before an editing workover that seemed to involve outside meddling. Such was the influence of Jordan.
In the doc, Jordan does pile on Krause, whose 2017 death makes the scene look worse. He won’t be so cruel to Reinsdorf, now a fellow NBA team owner and a man Jordan fears to some degree. “The Last Dance’’ should include the all-encompassing quote of the final season, when Krause, already settled on Iowa State’s Tim Floyd as the next coach of a so-called new Bulls dynasty, sat down with Jackson and said, “You can go 82 and (bleeping) oh and you’re not coming back. This is it for you and the Chicago Bulls’’ — prompting Jackson and the players to declare war on the front office. Also worthy of pitiful detail: the subsequent two-decade implosion of the Bulls. Now an abysmal franchise that wasted the most potent resource in sports history — the pomp and glory of Jordan — the Bulls allowed the very icon they’ve immortalized with a United Center statue to finish his career with the Washington Wizards, all because Jordan was seething about how Chicago ended and needed to control the last scene, sad and dubious as it was in D.C.
No Jordan series is complete without Reinsdorf, now 84 yet still a power player in sports, and how he extracted mega-fortunes for himself and Bulls investors yet never rushed to reward Jordan, Jackson and Pippen. Reinsdorf demanded Jordan play out an eight-year, $24-million contract that became laughably obsolete, particularly after Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Patrick Ewing received new, fatter deals amid an NBA boom. Jackson would win title after title, then be insulted each summer with a Scrooge offer that led him to sign one-year deals — the breaking point in his rift with management. Pippen was grossly underpaid for years, demanded a trade and had to leave in free agency to hit a jackpot commensurate with his Hall of Fame credentials. Reinsdorf, as he has done once or twice, could make that story line vanish in the ESPN project with one call to the Disney Co. hierarchy.
There was the anger of Jim Brown and other black activists who called Jordan a coward for his social indifference, such as his flip comment that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,’’ which Jordan says was taken out of context. And don’t forget how Jordan and Pippen turned the 1992 Barcelona Olympics into the humiliation of Krause’s Euro-pet, Croatia’s Toni Kukoc. In an NBA documentary about the Dream Team, Jordan said, “We weren’t playing against Toni Kukoc. We were playing against Jerry Krause in a Croatia uniform.” Does he now think the stance was a bit petty? Especially after Kukoc famously bailed out PIppen by hitting a game-winning playoff shot after Pippen pulled himself from the game, upset Jackson didn’t draw up the play for him. Pippen should be painted as an agitated soul during Jordan’s baseball escape, not dealing well with lead-dog pressure and referring to Chicago fans as racist around the time a gun was found in his vehicle outside a restaurant. How about the 1993 NBA Finals, won in Phoenix by John Paxson’s dagger and lost when Barkley spent too many off-nights partying at an Irish pub in Scottsdale? And what of Jordan’s faltering relationship with Barkley? Speaking of alcohol, Jordan threatened to ruin Rodman’s life when the party animal routinely showed up hungover at practice, a necessary form of pressure that sobered up Rodman long enough to contribute to three titles and cement his Hall of Fame induction. The bullying side of Jordan is front and center — the haymaker he threw at a feisty Steve Kerr in practice and his ruthless criticism of end-of-the-roster patsies, if only to toughen them for the postseason grind. I once saw Jordan try to gouge Reggie Miller’s eyeball, and he wasn’t apologetic, telling a magazine, “Playing Reggie drives me nuts. It’s like chicken-fighting with a woman.’’
Say what? Jordan should thank the lords, every day, that he played before social media and TMZ. That goes for all facets of a life that would be 10 times crazier and more scandalous had he had born in 1993, not 1963.
Said Hehir: “He went very deep into how he is perceived, how his intensity is perceived, how his competitiveness is perceived and his ambivalence about that. He has a certain pride in how competitive he is and how he’s a win-at-all-costs kind of guy, but also he’s a human being.’’ But the Jordan-rage angle is well-worn, because everyone was subjected to his wrath at some point, myself included. There was the day he warned, “I keep your articles on my refrigerator door,’’ and the time he tossed an ice cube toward my head — missing like, well, a batter whiffing on a curveball — when I stopped by a golf course to ask about the gambling probe. I remember arriving in Memphis to see his oldest son, Jeff, play one of his first AAU games, only to have the coach instruct me which questions to ask — as ordered by Jordan over the phone. When the Sun-Times displayed the column on the front page, with a large photo of Jeff, Jordan was outraged, even as I explained I don’t make placement decisions. And when he couldn’t personally scold and admonish, his tentacles were deep. Broadcaster Ahmad Rashad, his friend and media protector, would take personal shots. And Jordan’s father, not long before he was murdered, engaged me and other media people in a spirited discussion, concluding that his son’s gambling urges were the product of “a competition problem.’’
For years, I navigated Jordan’s attempts to control the media.
Now, in 2020, Jordan is part of the media.
It’s vital to ESPN’s editorial integrity that “The Last Dance’’ not be a puff piece. Buried until further notice in a coronavirus black hole, the network desperately needs oxygen without live sports, which has caused considerable ratings slippage and revenue bleeding along with continued cord-cutting that is killing the cable industry. With journalism in Bristol giving way to business relationships with leagues and athletes, ESPN cannot afford watered-down storytelling for “The Last Dance’’ — the one story that should be maximized and dramatized for full effect.
The clamor for an unconditional, consummate Jordan documentary has been intense for years, increasing amid America’s collective quarantine. LeBron himself tweeted, like a schoolboy: “April 19th can’t come fast enough. I CAN NOT WAIT!!’’ We will be entertained and educated, occasionally gobsmacked and slack-jawed, and that is cool, because I no longer can binge on “Ozark’’ without wanting to body-slam Marty Byrde. But if you’re looking for long-lost revelations that will rock the world, well, remember the operative rule about Michael Jordan: No matter the game, he is in control.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’
Media Noise – Episode 44
This week’s episode is all about the NFL. Demetri explains why the league embracing kids is long overdue, Andy Masur stops by to breakdown the first Manningcast, and Ryan Maguire explains why some sports radio stations are missing a golden opportunity to shine on Sundays.
Interviews Thrive On Podcasts In A Way They Can’t On Radio
“Opportunities that a podcast creates open doors to audio that is simply superior to live radio.”
Live radio vs. podcasts seems to be a heavyweight fight that isn’t ending anytime soon. Podcasts are growing so much that companies that do radio are also now offering podcasts. This column is hardly about that fight.
Instead, this is about how a podcast interview is a better way to get the best out of the guest than anything live on a radio station. This is not about downloads or clicks or sponsors. Solely about the content that is being produced.
A podcast makes the guest more comfortable and is more intimate than a live radio show. Especially in sports.
Since 2015, I have hosted and produced 656 podcasts (yes it was fun to count them) and hosted many radio shows. My current shows are called Sports with Friends, Hall of Justice, and Techstream. That last one I host with tech expert Shelly Palmer.
On radio, there is a myriad of things the host has to do besides focus on the guest.
First, there are the IDs. Program directors have always told me ID the guest every chance I get. “We are talking with Eli Manning on WFAN,” is heard 7 times during an eight-minute segment.
On a podcast, the name of the guest is on the player or app that is playing the podcast. “Episode 1. Eli Manning, New York Giants” scrolls across smartphones, car radios, or other devices constantly. Never interrupt the guest with an ID.
Then, there’s the fact that it is recorded and not live. I have a standard preamble that I say to any guest before any record light turns on.
“I will push,” I explain. “I will see where the conversation takes us, but I do tend to push. However, I’m on your side. This isn’t some expose’. If something comes up that you don’t like your answer, tell me. I’ll take it out. If there’s something that I say that is bad or wrong, tell me, I’ll take it out. This is a conversation, not an interview.”
In 656 podcasts, only one player, Bryce Harper (then of the Washington Nationals) asked me to take something out of a podcast.
We were doing Episode 54 of Sports with Friends when the subject of Dusty Baker came up. He had just been hired to manage the Nationals. I mentioned in passing that Dusty had given the eulogy at my best friend Darryl Hamilton’s funeral.
Bryce was so intrigued that he recalled the comments I had made and asked if we could pause. We then spoke for a good 10 minutes about the kind of person Dusty was. Why Darryl held him in such regard. It was a really inciteful chat. Never was on the podcast.
Still, guests do relax when told that the editing option exists. They let their guard down. The host of a podcast can ask deeper questions.
“Who was the first person you called when you found out you were traded?”
“Have you seen a life for you after football?”
“How much do you hate a certain player?”
All questions, that if asked live, could seriously backfire. So not only does the guest have a guard up, but the interviewer also has to play it relatively safe, when they are not IDing the guest for the umpteenth time.
Time constraints also don’t exist in a podcast where they are beholden on live radio. The guest is just about to tell you they did cocaine during the World Series, and you are up against the clock.
I have hosted shows over the years where the guest was phenomenal, but I screwed up the PPM clock. That was the takeaway. The clock is important on a live medium that needs to get that quarter-hour.
I try to keep my podcasts short. You wouldn’t see it from looking at the lengths of my episodes. Still, I feel that if someone wants to talk and dive into a topic and it goes a little long, I will never cut the guy off.
Ken Griffey Jr. spoke for 45 minutes with a cigar and his feet up on the phone by his pool. He was telling jokes and stories. I wouldn’t have stopped that if a train was coming. When I hosted Mariner content at KJR in Seattle, our interviews usually last 5 minutes.
Jon Morosi broke down the future of clubhouse access and how he traveled during Covid. Then he told an amazing story of his wife working in the medical field and how that impacted all of his family. Shannon Drayer of 710 KIRO got so in-depth in her arduous journey from being a coffee barista to the Mariners on-field reporter. It was split into two episodes.
Former porn star Lisa Ann talked about her decision to quit the business. Even Jason Barrett himself was Episode 173 of Sports with Friends.
(When in the past has Jason Barrett been in the same paragraph as a porn star? Note to Demetri: please leave it in.)
The radio industry is seen to be cutting costs wherever it can. Mid-market stations are not doing night shows anymore, instead offering nationally syndicated programming.
Weekends are another avenue that perplexes me. Talent that is not deemed good enough to be on during the week is often given weekend shifts. Also, some Monday-Friday hosts add a weekend shift to their duties. Here’s a theory: play podcasts. Format them to hit your PPM time marks.
They don’t have to be my podcasts, but in the crowded podcast space, surely there are sports talk podcasts that are intimate, deep, and fun. Since we live in a data-driven age, let’s see how a radio station fares playing high-quality podcasts or portions of them, vs. weekend hosts.
Program directors often worry about the outdated nature of a podcast. That sells the podcaster short. As someone who has been in the podcast space since 2003, I know how to make them timeless, and companies make shows often enough, that rarely would they be outdated.
Quality shines through the speakers. The spoken-word audio format is continually evolving. Opportunities that a podcast creates open doors to audio that is simply superior to live radio.
The podcast industry is continually evolving. Radio needs to evolve as well. Then, it can be a fair fight.
National Voices Can Work For Local Clients
“Distance, like absence, can make the heart grow fonder.”
Selling personalities is one of the hottest trends in media today. Sure, most of the buzz is around social media influencers, but radio has long had a relationship with its audience based on personal connections between host and listener. And nobody has a better relationship with their audience than a sports radio host.
I am sure you are leveraging your local hosts by now. Live spots, testimonials, remotes, and promotions are all great tricks of the trade, as well as sponsored social media posts. But does your station carry syndicated shows? I am sure you do either from 7 pm-12 am Monday-Friday or on weekends.
In 2018, The Ticket in Boise, Idaho brought CBS Sports Radio host Damon Amendolara and his co-host, Shaun Morash, to town for a Boise State football game. Damon had just switched to mornings from evenings, and his show aired in Boise from 4 am-8 am Monday – Friday. His ratings were decent, but nothing that stood out considering the daypart. It was thought to be risky to sell him into sandwich shops, pizza places, appearances at local legend hangouts, and so forth.
Boise State head football coach and QB Bryan Harsin and Brett Rypien did a live shot on the show from the on-campus bookstore. At dark thirty. It all worked. DA and Morash were hits! Everywhere they went, lines and crowds awaited them and they hit spots in a two-county area. The few days of appearances worked so well that DA is back in Boise three years later, this time for a week. Now, DA is doing his show from resort hotels 2.5 hours away, taking riverboat adventure fishing trips in Hell’s Canyon, craft beer tours for his sidekick Andrew Bogusch and hosting college football viewing parties at brewpubs. Every station that carries syndicated shows probably has a DA success story waiting to happen.
Start by listening to the shows, know the benchmarks and quirks of the national personalities or call the affiliate rep and ask. Does the talent discuss their love of beer, BBQ, pizza, whatever? If they do, then go ahead and sell them to a local client. The national talent can do the spot and endorse your client. If it’s a product, send one to them. Figure out how to get them a pizza. If it’s a service, do a zoom call with the client and let them start a relationship. Include some social media elements with video. The video can be used in social media and can sit on the client’s website. Yours too!
If you want to bring the talent to town, do it for a big game, local event, or 4th of July parade, and the sponsors will follow. Run a promo during the talent’s daypart asking local sponsors to text in to reserve their promotional spot. Have the talent cut liners asking the same thing. Take the NFL Sunday morning host and sell a promo to a sports bar where the host zooms in to a table or room full of listeners, and they watch a portion of a game together. Or sell the same idea to a national chain and do an on-air contest for a listener to have a home watch party with the zoomed-in host complete with food and beverages from your sponsors sent to both locations. How about sending your #1 BBQ joint that handles mail orders and sends some food for the talent? They can videotape themselves reheating the BBQ and make some great Facebook and Instagram videos.
Distance, like absence, can make the heart grow fonder. Try selling a nationally syndicated host inside your market. I promise you’ll like it.
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