CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In the unimaginably strange world we live in right now, a small piece of good news is more welcome than usual.
Here’s one for sports fans: ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary, centered on Michael Jordan and his 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, just fast-tracked its launch date.
Originally scheduled to debut in June, the 10-part documentary now will begin April 19 after expediting its arrival date to take advantage of all these captive eyeballs. This won’t be a Netflix-style, drop-all-episodes-at-once release: There will be two new hour-long episodes every Sunday night starting at 9 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN, for five consecutive Sundays.
I’m excited about this. I’ve already finished the extraordinary “Tiger King” on Netflix and am speeding through the third season of “Ozark” as Cam Newton quotes the series’ Darlene Snell on social media.
But Joe Exotic and Marty Byrde can’t last forever, and soon our family will need a new fix. You are probably scouting around for new content, too, as we socially distance together due to the coronavirus at least through the month of April.
A Jordan-centric documentary — one made with inside access to that 1997-98 season and put together by the same director who gave us the excellent “Andre the Giant” HBO documentary — has crazy good potential.
At the time of “The Last Dance,” Jordan was the best basketball player in the world, as well as the best shoe salesman in the world — and that’s basically all he was.
There was no “Incredibly Underachieving NBA Owner” tag to brand Jordan with in 1998 like there is now. Enjoying Jordan was more of a guilt-free pleasure back then. MJ was simply a dazzling player, first from Wilmington and then UNC, where he won a national collegiate title as a freshman in 1982, when he was still listed as “Mike Jordan” in the Tar Heels’ 1981-82 media guide. By ’98, he was on his way to his sixth and final NBA championship with a star-stacked Bulls team that included Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr and coach Phil Jackson.
One of the coolest things about the Bulls’ 1997-98 season, too, was how often Chicago and Charlotte overlapped. Jordan owns the Hornets now and has for almost exactly 10 years (he became majority owner in 2010). Back then he “owned” the Hornets, too, but only on the court.
In the 1997-98 season, Chicago and Charlotte played nine times — including five straight games in a second-round playoff series in May 1998.
It’s hard to remember, since the Hornets have been trapped in the quicksand of mediocrity or worse for all of the 2000s. But in 1998, the Hornets briefly became a mild threat to the Bulls’ reign. The Hornets had Glen Rice, Vlade Divac, Anthony Mason and Dell Curry and were coached by Dave Cowens, the former Boston Celtic.
Jordan made $33 million as a player that season, which was more than the entire Hornets’ roster put together ($28 million).
Cowens knew the Bulls were too talented to beat with a basic man-to-man defense. “If I try to play this team straight-up, I’m going to lose,” Cowens said during the playoff series. “So I’ve got to do something.”
He did do something in Game 2, putting the bulky Mason on Jordan and often double-teaming him. MJ had an off game, as did the Bulls, and the Hornets pulled off a road win to tie the series, 1-1. The next two games would be played before 23,000-plus fans in Charlotte.
Jordan liked to say back in the 1990s that the playoffs didn’t really begin for the Bulls each postseason until they lost a game. Chicago adjusted, and Jordan led the team to two straight 14-point wins in Charlotte (where he was cheered loudly, as usual) before capping off the 4-1 series win over the Hornets with one more victory in Chicago.
Chicago would edge Utah a month later for their sixth and final title. The Bulls broke up after that.
It’s a great story, and ESPN’s early release of the documentary is a canny move.
“As society navigates this time without live sports, viewers are still looking to the sports world to escape and enjoy a collective experience,” ESPN said in a statement. “We’ve heard the calls from fans asking us to move up the release date for this series, and we’re happy to announce that we’ve been able to accelerate the production schedule to do just that.”
ESPN did make one obvious error when announcing this Tuesday.
In the original ESPN.com story about the documentary’s moved-up release, Jordan was referred to as the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. The team officially changed its name back to “Hornets” in 2014. But I’ll forgive ESPN for that, as long as this documentary is as good as the Bulls of 1997-98 were themselves.
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