A version of this story about Jason Hehir first appeared in the “Race Begins” issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine. It is one in a series of conversations about the effects of the coronavirus on the TV industry.
Live sports have been shut down since the middle of March due to the coronavirus, but fans relived the 1990s era of the NBA on ESPN, courtesy of The Last Dance. Director Jason Hehir’s 10-part docuseries, which moved up its initial June 1 premiere date to help satiate sports-starved fans, traces the history of Michael Jordan and his time with the Chicago Bulls. Airing two new episodes each Sunday beginning on April 19, the series was framed around Jordan’s final season with the club in 1997-98, which ended with the franchise’s sixth title of that decade.
TheWrap: The series has garnered record ratings. What has the reaction been like for you?
It has been really great to see people’s enthusiasm for it. I will get messages from strangers on social media saying, “This brought my family together.” Someone told me that this was the first time since this whole shutdown began that his family didn’t speak or think about COVID-19.
When did you realize that you would be able to get it out early?
When the whole lockdown began, Episodes 1, 2 and 3 were done. We could have shown those that night. But we were trying to think of, “All right, how can we roll this out, so this is going to be evenly spaced?” We knew that Episodes 9 and 10 would not be completely done and ready for air until mid-May. May 17 is when the last episodes air, but if we’re going to be done that Friday, May 15, let’s backtime it.
There’s just a lot of work that goes into figuring out every single step to make sure that it’s exactly as we want to show it, but also getting it out to people as soon as possible. Could we do 10 weeks, one at a time? That was on the table. We talked about one show every night for five nights a week (in May).
This footage from that season had been sitting in a vault since 1998. Why do you think Jordan agreed to let it be used now?
Part of me thinks it was because of the Warriors (the 2015-16 team won a record 73 games). And LeBron (James) just won a title. But the more I thought about it, the more I think that Michael doesn’t think that way. Those two thoughts would indicate insecurity, and Michael might be the least insecure person I’ve ever met. I think that it was just timing. It probably has more to do with the fact that he has young daughters.
He is a very private guy — he is not on social media and doesn’t do a lot of TV interviews. What was the most surprising thing you learned about him during the filming?
He was hands-on in the best possible way. He watched rough cuts and would recommend footage or games or moments that can enhance the story we were trying to tell. I was really surprised at how willing he was to aid the project by reaching out and booking people. I can’t call Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. There’s certain things that I couldn’t get done that he was willing to do for the project.
Read more from The Race Begins issue of TheWrap Emmy magazine.