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‘The Last Dance’ Director Jason Hehir On The Series’ Upcoming Surprises And Why Jerry Krause Shouldn’t Get All The Blame

On Monday, a new Michael Jordan meme hit social media. There’s Jordan in Jason Hehir’s The Last Dance, watching Isiah Thomas give an interview, and, well, reacting. Now, Michael Jordan is all over the internet reacting to a whole host of things. But the funny thing is, there are a lot more surprises coming, including a Jordan reaction shot to Gary Payton’s interpretation of the 1996 NBA Finals that puts the Isiah Thomas one to shame. (We’ll see that one in the eighth episode.)

Jason Hehir is a busy fellow these days. Now, famously, with so many people at home, ESPN moved The Last Dance from July to now, and it’s been a massive success. Four episodes have aired, but there’s still so much more coming. (Eight episodes were sent out to media. The last two episodes weren’t done yet when screeners went out.) This coming week spends a large portion of its time on the 1992 Dream Team. And Hehir was lucky enough to watch an hour of footage from the now-famous Dream Team scrimmage and tells us what that was like, which he says was maybe most interesting for the trash talk between Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.

Hehir also gives us his thoughts on the much-discussed motivations of former Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause. Now, Krause died in 2017, so Hehir has to piece together his informed opinion, but dives deep into Krause’s mindset and warns that all isn’t what it seems and that it wasn’t just Krause’s ego alone that ended the reign of the Chicago Bulls. And, if it were possible, Hehir tells us the one question he’d ask Krause.

I know you’re busy, so thanks for taking the time. With how popular this is, it’s like getting time with the Pope.

[Laughs] I think the Pope’s schedule is a little bit more regimented than mine, and his fashion sense is certainly better than mine. And I doubt that he’s running out to the deli for chicken cutlet sandwiches every six hours.

You don’t know that, there’s a chance he is.

Who knows? He might be a Chick-fil-A guy.

Everyone on social media is talking about Michael Jordan’s reaction to the footage of Isaiah Thomas’ interview. Wait until they get a load of the Gary Payton scene, because that is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in the last five years, just that whole exchange.

Michael’s reaction?

Yes.

Well, that’s when the true Michael comes out. You hand him that thing and it’s almost like a time machine. It’s a portal back to prime MJ and you can just see it, it comes over his face, he’s locked back in. He goes from a 57-year-old grandfather retiree, who’s competitive on the golf course, to prime Michael Jordan who was the most ferocious competitor in the history of sports. So, he definitely wasn’t going to do that reaction if I had just read him what those guys said. I think he needs to see their face and hear their voice to bring him back to that place.

Before this premiered, there was that quote from Jordan about how he was worried that he’d look like a dick or whatever. But he comes off pretty hilarious.

He is.

Like, a hilarious dick.

Every group of friends has the guy who loves being around people and is that ball-buster. And that is Michael. This is not a guy who has reached ultra levels of fame and he’s Charles Foster Kane locked away in his capital. Michael wants to be around people and always has. So that’s why, as you see as the series goes on, it gets more and more difficult for him. You talk to the local Chicago beat writers and they’re the ones who said that Michael was the most outgoing and the most likely to stay around after practice and just shoot the shit with these guys and sit there and talk basketball and talk life and talk politics and talk anything else.

We see that in that clip where he’s complaining about getting asked on the road if he’s coming back next year, but he’s talking with the local Chicago press and makes it clear it’s not them, then he just hangs out.

You can tell that everybody in that room was relaxed. That kind of aura that’s present when someone that famous and that culturally significant walks into a room, it dissipates very quickly when he starts to interact with people because he’s so down to earth and he’s got such charisma that you can’t help but feel relaxed in his presence. So it’s nice to see that side of him in these interviews, because he was very relaxed and natural every day that we did these interviews and he was very generous with his time and his candor. And I’m so glad that people can see that side of him rather than just the basic Q&A podium Michael. And this is more of what it would be like to hang out with him and have a discussion.

So, let’s pretend for a second that Jerry Krause didn’t pass away three years ago and he agreed to do this. You get one question. What would you ask him?

“What do you regret the most about the breakup of that team?”

Are you under the assumption that he did, in fact, regret it?

I’m under the assumption that everyone has regrets. I think that the way that team broke up, it was so unnecessary because it was so much more about ego than it was about money. I’m under the impression that everyone looking back says, you know what, man? It was a 50-game season [because of an NBA lockout before the 98-99 seasson] and next season we could have gone for seven. And you’ll see more of Michael and the guys talking about that in episode ten. We go deep into that, about everyone’s reasons, from Reinsdorf to Michael on down. And that’s not to… I don’t want that question to come off as like, “you must regret something, now’s the time to come clean and apologize.”

Sure.

That’s not it at all. I think that Jerry Krause has an enormous amount to be proud of and that’s the kind of relationship I hope I would’ve forged with him. Once he sat down, that he knew where I was coming from and he felt safe with me, but of course he’s got regrets. I would ask him if he had any regrets, if he had any regrets about the way that situation was handled in the late ’90s and if he does have regrets, what he would have done differently.

He just seemed so malicious against Phil Jackson. It’s like Phil Jackson killed Jerry Krause’s dog or something. Like, the whole Tim Floyd thing — it’s really nuts. It’s almost like there had to be more going on than just, “I want more credit.” But I guess that’s it, right?

That’s it as far as I know. I mean, I spent years researching this before we even sat down with the major players here and I never got the sense that it was over much more than just pettiness and jealousy for attention and credit. And that doesn’t stop with Jerry — that’s everybody. That year, Phil was famous for giving books to players and anyone who was on that long road trip. The first long road trip of the year, he would give everyone a book that he had curated and chosen just for them. A reporter asked Phil, “What book are you giving Jerry this year?” And he said, “I don’t think Jerry’s getting a book from me this year.” Some of this stuff is so childish. It was like, well, what are you proving here? You’re in the course of making history with arguably the greatest basketball team of all time other than the Celtics in the ’60s and you’re going to break this up because people are sucking their thumbs over who gets credit and who deserves to be mad at who? So, I think everyone, especially after Jerry’s passing, time heals all wounds and those wounds heal a lot quicker when people pass away. Before you get a chance to truly tell them how you feel about them. How much you appreciate them and if you’re sorry. What you’d be sorry about. And I think there would be a lot of reciprocal expressions of appreciation and apology to go around. But it’s too late now, and that’s a shame.

And Krause’s quotes from the time make it sound like it’s easy to just put a team like that together again. And it didn’t happen. And then he gets into the Hall of Fame, but it’s after he died. It’s kind of sad.

Yeah, well, I think that the important thing to realize here, too, is how far back Phil and Jerry Krause’s relationship went. Jerry Krause scouted Phil Jackson when Phil was in college, when Jerry was a scout for the Washington Bullets. So he knew him for decades and recognized something in Phil that he thought would make a great head coach when Phil, as we demonstrated Sunday night, was just about out of coaching. He was ready to go back to Montana and get his law degree and do something else with his life. So Jerry kind of rescued him. And Jerry always felt that Phil owed him a debt of gratitude. And I think from Phil’s perspective, he brought Jerry six titles. So in reality, neither one of them owed the other one anything because they both provided so much. It was a very symbiotic relationship, but it became toxic.

Pat Riley calls it “the disease of more.” Once you win one, you win two, you win three: everybody wants more credit, more money, more adulation. And that’s what happened. So I think that Phil’s in the position where he’s… the villain is always going to be portrayed in public as the front office, as the rich guy who’s pulling the strings and isn’t out there running up and down the floor every night, playing hurt, and winning the actual titles. Because Jerry Krause is not dunking from the foul line. But he did do all that leg work. He did do the work necessary to put the pieces in place. His reputation and his legacy is fraught and I think that one of the things that I wanted to do in this is demonstrate how difficult it was for him to navigate those relationships and how cruel they could be to him. So, some people are misinterpreting that as the film ridiculing him. If anything, it’s the opposite. I want to demonstrate to people just what this guy went through on a daily basis.

Were there any restrictions that Jordan had for you? Because the thing that I noticed was that there’s never even a passing mention of his wife at the time or his kids. Was that off limits?

It wasn’t off limits. Because the marching orders at the outset of this thing, and Michael said this himself to me, that this is not the definitive Michael Jordan documentary. “You can do that when I’m six feet under in a pine box,” is what he said. And if it’s not going to be the definitive documentary about his life on and off the court, I wanted to tell the story of the Bulls Dynasty, starring Michael through the lens of the ’97-’98 season. His children do appear in this in “Episode X.”

Ah, okay.

We wanted to get them in there. We interviewed them. Michael’s remarried now and he’s got twin daughters and he’s in a new chapter of his life. But this is not a biopic. This is meant to be an examination of all the machinations of building a dynasty and what goes into that and how many characters were there to make up this once-in-a-lifetime team. So I always say, as absurd as it sounds, ten hours is not enough time to tell the full stories of all of these people. So we decided to dedicate a lot of time to telling B,C,D stories of all the guys who made up that team, rather than to concentrate on Michael too much.

So next week is the Dream Team episode. Did you actually watch that entire famous Dream Team? Isn’t that supposed to be this hallowed thing that not many people get to see? Because we get to see some of it in your film, but did you watch the whole thing?

I did, yeah. It was included. That’s been seen before in another NBA entertainment doc about the Dream Team.

Right, but not the whole thing?

That footage has been seen by people, but I don’t know how many people have gotten to sit there and watch it in full, which is a thrill for a fan. It’s incredible. It’s literally some of the best basketball ever played. So just to watch the intensity of those guys playing in a tiny gym with a referee, a local referee that they hired who barely spoke English. There should be a documentary on that. Because I’m sure that those couple of days for him were quite nerve-wracking.

Yeah, I bet he has some stories.

But those are the kind of moments, you’re sitting in an edit room by yourself at night, and you’re screening stuff and taking notes on…

How long is that? How long was that scrimmage?

I think we had about an hour of footage of that.

Oh, wow.

I think we had about an hour of footage of that game. They switched up teams a bunch and played back and forth a bunch. But I was more interested in – spectacular plays of course – anytime we could decipher what they were saying on the floor. Because it’s so echo-y and obviously none of the players are mic’d and they’re filming it with a home video camera from about 50 yards away. But anytime we could decipher what people were saying, I took note of those things because I just loved to hear it. Who wouldn’t want to hear everything these guys say to each other when they’re talking trash on the court? So it was a fun experience though, just to watch.

Was there one thing that stood out? A piece of trash-talking that was like, wow, that was good.

Well, I thought it was so telling when Magic Johnson said, “It’s just like we’re in Chicago Stadium again and you’re getting all the calls.” And then Michael came back at Magic and said, “This is the ’90s.” And the implication there was: your time is done. If there’s a passing of the torch moment, there’s a good argument for it being the ’91 finals when Magic hugs Michael and congratulated him on winning his first title. But even more so, it’s that Michael was now the alpha dog among all the alpha dogs and for Michael Jordan to shout at Magic from the sidelines, “This is the ’90s.” That means, your time was the ’80s and the new sheriff is in town. So I thought that was cool to hear.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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