How NBA got unprecedented access to Michael Jordan and Bulls for ‘The Last Dance’ documentary

If you want to know how film crews gained unprecedented access to the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, which turned into the highly-anticipated documentary "The Last Dance," it’s best to start with Andy Thompson.

"The germ of the idea came from Andy," said Gregg Winik, one of the executive producers on the 10-hour documentary which begins Sunday on ESPN and a former NBA Entertainment executive. "Andy had the relationship with Michael."

You probably don’t know Thompson. But you know his work. He is the the vice president of content production for NBA Entertainment. He’s often behind the camera or with a crew documenting the league for a variety of projects.

He is the brother of former NBA player Mychal Thompson and uncle of Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson. He also played college ball at Minnesota after his brother.

In NBA circles, it is known that if one cell phone has all the important numbers stored, it is Andy Thompson’s.

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"I was always involved in the championship videos that we produced at the end of the season, and we got tight in 1992 when I was shooting the Dream Team documentary," Thompson said. "I always felt we really never gave Michael his due in terms of following him for an entire season and really trying to uncover why this guy was so obsessed about winning and just the Beatle-mania that was always around the Bulls and Michael.

"After the '96-97 season, there was talk they were going to be broken up, and this was probably going to be their last season. I said, 'This is our last chance to get Michael documented for an entire year.' "

The NBA had to convince Bulls ownership, coach Phil Jackson and Jordan.

Enter a young NBA executive named Adam Silver, now the league’s commissioner but then the head of NBA Entertainment; a cameo from Jordan’s friend Ahmad Rashad; a family of filmmakers — the Winiks — who created NBA Entertainment; and of course Thompson.

This is the origin story of how "The Last Dance" was made possible, starting more than 23 years ago when Jordan and the Bulls ruled the NBA.

From then until now, the project had starts and stops, Silver told USA TODAY Sports. At one time, Spike Lee was in talks to direct the project. For almost a year, there were conversations with Danny DeVito to produce. And there were discussions with Ross Greenburg, the one-time president of HBO Sports, and film producer Frank Marshall, a longtime business partner of Steve Spielberg.

But Jordan also needed to be comfortable with the timing of the release, and Silver said, "I used to joke with Michael over the years about it. I think one of the reasons it didn’t get done over those years was because he was not all that excited about it happening. He’s remained a very private person over the years, and with a longer perspective on his career, he was able to come to terms with it.

"You see a side of Michael that everyone around the NBA was aware of. He has such a polished image, and there’s nothing in this that’s unpolished. But you see a raw Michael and how incredibly competitive he is. There’s a roughness to that and that may surprise a lot of people."

Said Dion Cocoros, an NBA senior vice president of content production: "It’s just great timing because there’s a whole generation of people who can look back and say, 'Now I remember what made that dynasty and that player so special and so great.' And think about the generation of the kids and young people who never have seen Michael play. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true."

Silver recognized the importance of the idea and greenlit the project after then-NBA Commissioner David Stern approved.

"We all understood at the time how special this was," Silver said. "We were the official archivist of the league. If this wasn’t made into a documentary or finished product, the raw elements were part of a critical part of our history and we needed to have them in our library. The decision was made almost entirely on gut. There were no spreadsheets or financial models."

Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson celebrate after finishing off the Jazz to win the 1998 championship. (Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY)

Silver first went to Bulls chairman and owner Jerry Reinsdorf. "He said, 'Absolutely. It makes sense to me. But you’ve got to talk to Phil and Michael. It’s a team decision. It’s not my decision,' " Silver said.

Then he had to convince Jackson, of whom Steve Kerr said, "For Phil Jackson, the locker room space with the team was always sacred. So it was kind of a surprise at the time when we were alerted to what was happening."

Jackson had stipulations.

"Phil said yes, with the understanding that Andy and his crew could be a fly on the wall, but if he ever needed them to step out, they would," Silver said.

Then Silver approached Jordan, getting an assist from Rashad, who at the time was the co-host of the NBA’s "Inside Stuff" program.

"It was well known that Ahmad had a strong personal relationship with Michael. I knew Michael a bit through NBA Entertainment, but I think Ahmad essentially vouched for me," Silver said.

That doesn’t mean it was easy filming. Tension was high knowing it was the final season for this iteration of the Bulls, a dynasty.

Thompson recalled the first road trip with the Bulls.

"We weren’t allowed to shoot the practice, and we were let in with the media," Thompson said. "We walked in with the crew and my sound man went straight up to Michael and started following him, and he turned and yelled at the camera and yelled at Phil, 'These guys ain’t (expletive) following me like this whole season, are they?' I was like, 'Here we go.' "

But Thompson and his crew earned players’ trust.

"Sometimes I refer to myself as a little bit smarter, black version of Forest Gump," Thompson said. "I’m in the right place at the right time. I love storytelling. I love people … just knowing how to deal with people, knowing how to manage a crew, when to push and be aggressive and when to pull back. We’re lucky. I’m lucky."

By the championship parade, the Bulls appreciated the film crew documenting the season.

"This process has been the white whale for NBA Entertainment and for Andy, and a lot of the sports industry has known about it and wanted to be involved in bringing it to life for 20 years," Winik said.

Winik knew they had something special on video, but like Silver, he didn’t know what shape it would take. A theatrical release was one idea. Regardless, the crew ended up with 500 hours of film, which is 3,200 cans of film — 250 miles if laid out end to end.

"There’s a mystique about it," Winik said. "Whether it be out of respect to the Bulls for giving us access, out of respect for Jordan or out of respect for the collection of players that are all fascinating, this is one we all wanted to get right."

The story can’t be told without the Winiks. Gregg Winik’s father, Barry, essentially started NBA Entertainment at the request of Stern in the early 1980s. Before that, Barry and a cousin, Richard, ran Winik and Winik Films, which shot sporting events.

Richard’s father, Leslie Winik, operated Winik Films and began shooting major New York sporting events almost 100 years ago, according to Sports Illustrated, which credited Leslie with filming the first complete sequence of a football game. Gregg’s brothers, Peter and Michael, also work for NBA Entertainment. The a family has dedicated its work to preserving sports history, especially the NBA, for video.

Winik made a key decision during the 1997-98 season to film the Bulls in super 16mm film — which allowed filmmakers today to convert the film to high-definition. It was an added expense but worth it because this is rare opportunity to see Jordan in HD.

"The picture quality and images just jump off the screen," Winik said. "Hopefully, it will be more than industry experts who can tell the difference. … It’s like painted pictures. It’s beautiful."

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.

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