When Michael Jordan agreed to allow a camera crew to follow him around during the 1997-98 season, the Bulls legend reportedly was assured he would have final say over when the video would be released to the public.
Andy Thompson, who came up with the idea and pitched it to then-president of NBA Entertainment Adam Silver, told the New York Times that Silver told Jordan it could be “the greatest collection of home movies you can show your kids” even if he decided never to release it.
Fortunately for us, Jordan eventually agreed, and after a 22-year wait, “The Last Dance,” the 10-part ESPN Films documentary, is widely considered a masterpiece and a timeless piece of sports history — even after only two episodes have aired.
One thing that’s apparent from watching, however, is it is not a home movie by any stretch of the imagination. A professional film crew followed Jordan and his teammates around, and filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing when they caught the main characters in personal moments, whether it was Phil Jackson slamming a door or Jordan poking fun at general manager Jerry Krause’s height.
But if you’re looking for one of the greatest collections of home movies of a memorable sports team, there is one out there. Unfortunately, chances are you’ll never see it.
The producer/director/owner of those videos has them locked away and once told me they wouldn’t be released until he’s deceased.
“It’s going to be one of those things that I’m going to pass on, and my kids will be cleaning stuff out and they’ll find it,” he said. “And then they’ll be on, like, one of those Ken Burns baseball documentaries.”
The home movies were made in summer 2003. The amateur filmmaker was former Cubs first baseman Eric Karros, who has kept them private for 17 years.
“I’d love to have it,” former Cubs outfielder and Marquee Sports Network analyst Doug Glanville said Friday. “I know Jordan was in it too.”
It all started in September 2003, when the Cubs were in the stretch run of a wild season that included a cast of characters such as Sammy Sosa, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Moises Alou and Kenny Lofton.
Karros, who played the first 12 seasons of his 14-year career with the Dodgers, was in his only season with the Cubs. He enjoyed the ride so much that he told reporters “every player should be a Cub for one year.”
Eventually Karros, now 52, decided to bring his camcorder to the ballpark every day to record it for posterity.
“My original intent was just to do it for myself,” Karros told me during the 2003 postseason. “I’d always said I’d do something like this, whether it was keeping a journal or putting something on videotape. This is really the first opportunity I had because I wasn’t playing every day. Then you just get a couple minutes of film every day. Now all the guys are asking, ‘Can I get a copy of this at the end of the year?’ “
Karros knew he wasn’t going to re-sign with the Cubs and actually considered retiring after the season. (He finished his career in 2004, playing 40 games for the Athletics.) He wound up with about five hours of home movies on VHS tapes from the 2003 season.
“It wasn’t because I was trying to chronicle the Cubs,” he continued. “It was more or less, ‘I don’t think I’m going to play after this year, so I’ll just do the last month for the heck of it.’ That’s how it started.
“It has not only the players, but Eddie Vedder is on there talking and Michael Jordan spraying champagne in Atlanta (after the National League Division Series clincher) and acting like a little kid. And Ron Santo giving an emotional speech.”
General manager Jim Hendry and manager Dusty Baker gave Karros permission to bring the camcorder into the dugout, where it remained mostly hidden. Without really overthinking things, Karros quickly became the Martin Scorsese of the 2003 Cubs.
“The last month of the season, he literally had this camcorder on the bench,” Glanville said. “He’d take it into dog piles and filmed all over the place. He came up with what obviously is a gem of history. I remember clinching (the NL Central) and he had the camera above us and was jumping with us.
“He had that thing everywhere. There must be some serious gold on there. … It’s historic. It really is cool. He took it everywhere, in meetings. It was truly all-access. Think about that group. A lot of us were veterans and we were used to being starters before, and we had to tuck our egos in our back pockets and work with it.
“Then Karros’ filming reminded us of how much we were still fans, how much in awe we were of the moment. You feel it slipping through your fingers. You’re getting older and you just want to hold on.”
The 2003 season indeed proved historic for the Cubs, who beat the Braves in the NLDS for their first postseason series win since the 1908 World Series. Jordan, who was at the clinching game in Atlanta, became a reluctant part of Cubs history by joining in on the clubhouse celebration.
“He was a little embarrassed and shy about it,” Glanville said. “He felt like he was intruding on our celebration and he wasn’t part of the team. But he came in, and we doused him with champagne. He was just trying to chill and said, ‘No, this is your time.’
“We were happy to bring him in. He was Chicago to us. What we were wearing across our chest, it might as well have said ‘Jordan.’ He embodied the city’s greatness.”
The season, of course, included a tragic ending in the NL Championship Series that doesn’t need to be regurgitated. Suffice to say the Cubs lost their chance to break the so-called curse in dramatic fashion and had to wait another 13 years to have their parade.
But when the streak was at 101 years and counting in 2010, I ran into Karros at Wrigley, where he was working a game for Fox Sports. He stopped me before I could open my mouth.
“Don’t even get me going on that,” he said.
“On what?” I asked.
“You know what,” he replied.
I told him the tapes were becoming more valuable every year the championship drought went on.
“I will do something,” he said with a laugh. “And, no, I’m not waiting for the value (to increase). To be honest, I just haven’t had the time. I got into a stretch where I was watching it, transferring it (from VHS) to DVDs, messing around with it … but I’m not that technologically savvy, so that takes time.”
Still, Karros was adamant the tapes would not be seen by the public and were just for the players.
“Nobody sees the stuff,” he said. “That’s what I swore to all the guys when I took the stuff, that nobody would see it and that the teammates would be the first to see the tapes if I ever did (release it).”
Glanville said Karros kept his word, even if the tapes would be “gold” to documentary makers.
Nowadays teams have video crews recording almost every moment, and some players, such as Tim Anderson and Trevor Bauer, have YouTube channels. We live in a video age, and it seems as if every athlete is on camera all the time with no qualms about how they’ll appear to viewers looking back in 20 or 30 years.
Remember that innocent age while you’re enjoying “The Last Dance.”
Maybe someday you’ll be able to enjoy the Karros tapes … but don’t count on it.
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