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Hoop dream: ESPN's hit Jordan series builds on years of work in documentary world

Sports documentaries, once an afterthought, have become critical and commercial darlings.
New Jersey Nets v Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan during a game against the New Jersey Nets on March 16, 1998.Scott Cunningham / NBAE via Getty Images

Bob Costas covered a laundry list of historic sporting events during his illustrious broadcasting career, including Michael Jordan’s six NBA championship runs with the Chicago Bulls during the 1990s.

But even for Costas, ESPN's new documentary series, "The Last Dance," about Jordan's final season with the Bulls, ranks up there for must-see TV.

“I’m looking forward to this like few things I can remember,” Costas, a former NBC sportscaster said. “This is going to be epic.”

The first two episodes of the documentary aired on Sunday, and the timing couldn't be better. The coronavirus pandemic has forced most of the country to spend far more time at home in front of the television, with sports fans craving any new content since all professional and amateur leagues are suspended.

That pent-up demand showed up in ESPN's ratings for the first two episodes of the 10-part Jordan documentary, which peels back the curtain on the Bulls’ dynasty and provides unfettered access to the basketball player many consider the greatest ever. The episodes averaged 6.1 million viewers and was the top-trending topic on Twitter Sunday night, ESPN reported.

NBA stars were captivated.

It's a success that marks a new peak for sports documentaries, a niche genre once given little attention and less funding.

The high ratings generated by the first two installments of “The Last Dance” underscore how popular sports documentaries have become in the last 25 years, due in large part to the launch of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series in the late 2000s.

“I think two things have moved the sports documentary genre into prominence,” said Bentley Weiner, an HBO vice president who oversees documentary programming at HBO Sports. “Certainly ESPN’s '30 for 30' and the marketing plan behind it. It’s a brilliantly created idea. Also the evolution of networks, and the realization that these types of films have long-term value.”

Sports documentaries, though often critically praised, have struggled over the decades to gain much of a foothold in the broader media world.

Steve James had to persuade public television executivesthat there was value in chronicling the lives of two Chicago inner-city teenage basketball players, William Gates and Arthur Agee. His work would eventually become the critically acclaimed 1994 documentary "Hoop Dreams." James began seeking funding for the documentary in 1986 and began filming a year later.

“We had a difficult time getting any funding for it at that time, which may seem completely hard to believe. Thank God that's changed,” said James, 66, who lives in Chicago and attended Bulls games during Jordan’s 1990s reign. “But there was just a belief then that sports wasn’t a serious enough topic of inquiry for a documentary. We eventually got money from public television. Not a lot. Our budget was very small.”

Documentaries more broadly, however, remained a specialized part of filmmaking until recently, when the rise of video-on-demand platforms helped fuel funding and viewership in nonfiction content.

Sports documentaries in particular received a major boost when ESPN started the “30 for 30” documentary series in 2009, originally conceived by Connor Schell and Bill Simmons, who would later leave ESPN to found the sports-and-culture media company The Ringer.

The effort debuted with some major names in film, including director Ron Shelton, whose credits included “Bull Durham.” Shelton directed the documentary “Jordan Rides the Bus,” which was one of the first installments of “30 for 30” and chronicled Jordan’s stint playing minor league baseball.

Even before “30 for 30” made its debut, ESPN was already laying the foundation to expand into sports documentaries. In the winter of 2006, then-New York University film student Andrew Muscato and two other NYU friends pitched a documentary project to ESPN executives: The three would follow former Mets manager Bobby Valentine for the 2007 Japanese baseball season when Valentine managed the Chiba Lotte Marines.

ESPN Films gave Muscato and his pals the green light, and the result, “The Zen of Bobby V” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008.

“We were a trial balloon,” said Muscato, referring to ESPN’s pre-”30 for 30” documentary content.

While ESPN's business is still centered on live sports, "30 for 30" has emerged as its newest crown jewel. In 2017, "OJ: Made in America," a five-part look at the life of O.J. Simpson, won the Academy Award for best documentary feature.

And during the coronavirus pandemic, the series has also given ESPN content to air in lieu of sports highlights, games and discussions.

But with "The Last Dance," ESPN and the sports documentary have taken on a new cultural significance, thanks in no small part to the unprecedented access to Jordan.

Jordan gave his blessing to be interviewed for “The Last Dance,” and Costas said the docuseries will appeal to sports and nonsports people of all generations because of that access and the filmmakers’ ability to explore the person behind the legend.

“It’s so richly layered,” Costas said. “Think about it: If someone is 30 years old, they have no real first-hand recollection of what went on during that period of time. But they still know Michael Jordan -- he’s one of those names that will always be part of the discussion. It’s like Babe Ruth in baseball. Jordan is always going to be a point of reference.”

Alas, there is one person who says he probably won’t tune in for any of “The Last Dance” while quarantined. Not after witnessing the ultra-competitive Jordan up close for years.

“It’s kind of different when you’ve lived through it,” says former Knickscoach Jeff Van Gundy, now an ESPN commentator. “I watched him live. I know he was great.”