PHILADELPHIA — For years, Michael Jordan said no to everybody. Then he said yes to Mike Tollin.
Tollin is the executive producer of “The Last Dance,” the 10-part documentary about Jordan and his sixth and final championship season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-98. The first two episodes debuted Sunday on ESPN, setting ratings records. The success surprised nobody. Jordan is one of the greatest and most compelling athletes in history, and the drama behind the 1997-98 Bulls (Dennis Rodman takes a 48-hour Las Vegas vacation during the season! Scottie Pippen delays foot surgery because he did not want to mess up his summer! Jerry Krause wants to break up the Bulls to feed his ego!) only matched His Airness.
Yes, sports-starved fans are craving original programming during the coronavirus pandemic, which is why Tollin and company pushed the debut from June to April. But come on, this is Michael Jordan. People would have watched anyway.
Why is MLB.com writing about Tollin and Jordan? Well, because Tollin, 64, is a huge baseball fan who practically started his filmmaking career in the game. And Jordan’s brief stint in baseball in 1994 will be shown in the documentary, too.
Tollin grew up in Havertown, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. His first impactful sports memory: the 1964 Phillies, who blew a 6 1/2-game lead over the Cardinals with 12 games to play. His first sports hero: Dick Allen, who could make the Hall of Fame in December. Tollin’s second job after graduating from Stanford University in 1977: MLB Productions, where he worked from 1980-82. His first assignment for MLB: He wrote the script for the official 1980 World Series film, which Vin Scully narrated. Tollin was in the first-base dugout when his hometown Phillies won their first World Series.
A quick run through Tollin’s career shows his passion for baseball and sports. He worked on the first season of “The Baseball Bunch” in 1982. He produced the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream” and movies like “Varsity Blues,” “Summer Catch,” “Radio” and “Coach Carter.” He produced the Allen Iverson documentary “Iverson,” which Jordan brought up at his meeting with Tollin in 2016, and much more.
We talked with Tollin on Wednesday about “The Last Dance,” baseball and his next passion project. The wide-ranging, nearly 60-minute interview has been edited for clarity and length:
MLB.com: Why do you think Michael finally decided to do this? (The NBA shot 500 hours of film from the 1997-98 season, but it remained locked away because it could be used only with Jordan’s permission. Jordan previously said no to filmmakers like Spike Lee, Frank Marshall and Danny Devito, but finally said yes after he met Tollin in 2016.)
Tollin: It was always hard to get documentaries played on mainstream TV or feature films, a real specialty, a real challenge. Then in the last several years it changed dramatically with the advent of “O.J.: Made In America,” “Making a Murderer.” I think [ESPN’s] “30 for 30” certainly had an impact, too. People’s appetites changed dramatically, and they were willing to watch longform, multipart documentaries, which I think had a lot to do with Michael’s decision to finally agree to participate. He kept saying no, but the notion that we could see his motivation … it’s legendary how tough he was on his teammates. In a one-off documentary, in 90 minutes, he comes across as a little bit brusque, a little bit of a bully. When you see it play out over the entire dynasty, play out over 10 hours and you see what his motivation is, which is strictly to elevate his teammates’ games and give his team a better shot at winning. When he said with deep emotion, “I never ask my teammates to do anything that I didn’t do,” you believe it, you see it.
MLB.com: Have you heard anything about the documentary that has surprised you or delighted you since Sunday?
Tollin: Yeah, a lot. This is a great ride. This is a thrill ride. I speak for five entities: ESPN, Netflix, the NBA, Jump Inc. and Mandalay Sports Media. I don’t know anybody remotely associated with any of those entities that isn’t smiling broadly this week. We were able to accelerate the launch date. We’re so grateful to be in a position to do that, to have people thanking us for giving them something to watch, for giving them a distraction, for giving them a source of joy. How great can that feel for filmmakers?
We’re thrilled that people recognize how open and honest Michael was. I’ve heard people say, “We’ve never seen such candor, that depth and thoughtfulness. We’ve seen another side of Michael.” I think people feel they are getting to know the real Michael Jordan, which is very exciting for us. There is a great nostalgia for those who lived it, and there’s a great discovery for those who didn’t who are seeing it for the first time.
MLB.com: Michael retired from basketball and played Double-A baseball with the White Sox in 1994. There are a lot of stories and theories about why he left basketball. How much of that and his baseball career make the documentary?
Tollin: The challenge for us was establishing credibility, that this was going to be truthful and unvarnished and that we were going to go deep and hit the hot-button issues and not pull any punches. We really focused on it. So we have to address gambling and his late-night journey to Atlantic City in the middle of a playoff series with the Knicks. We have to address the events surrounding the tragic death of his father. We have to address his motivation, his decision to leave basketball at the age of 30, at the height of his career, to go play baseball. We have to address the issue of activism and his comment that Republicans buy shoes, too. We got into that pretty early. [Director Jason Hehir] was extremely prepared. I think Michael realized very quickly that Jason had done his homework, so he was leaning in and answering all the tough questions. Michael comes to play like no one else, and it became clear early on that he came to play. He didn’t shrug off any questions. He didn’t avoid any tough subjects.
Baseball was his first sport. You already saw Little League pictures of him. His dad loved baseball. Because of his incredibly unmatched competitiveness and intensity, he was just exhausted [from basketball]. We asked a couple dozen people probably about that era, the gambling controversies and Michael’s decision to leave the game. There’s not a shred of evidence of these conspiracy theories. There’s just nothing there. I just think it was his desire to get away from it and go back to one of his first loves. I think he’s described it as such a warm blanket, such a comforting landing spot, such a refuge. How lucky for him that he was able to land with a skipper like Tito [Terry Francona]? How great is that? It was convenient that [Bulls owner] Jerry Reinsdorf also owned the White Sox.
I think we do [his baseball career] justice. It’s funny, you think 10 hours, you can explore every angle of every story. Really, you can’t, because there are so many stories. I would have loved to spend two whole hours on baseball. You could have. You know the stats. He hit .202, but he had 51 RBIs. He had 30 stolen bases. When you talk to people who were there, everybody asks how good was Michael and where could it have gone? Tito says in the film he thinks Michael could have made the Majors. Jerry Reinsdorf says the same thing.
A lot of people feel like he would have come back in ’95 and he would have been light-years better, and he probably would have been playing at Triple-A and by the next year he could have been in the big leagues. The strike came and Michael wanted nothing of the labor unrest, and so he really didn’t have any baseball to go back to, which ultimately led to him returning to basketball at the end of the ’95 season with the Bulls.
MLB.com: Were the Phillies your favorite team growing up? Or were you just a Philly sports fan?
Tollin: My first year as a fan was 1964. I was one of those kids saying, “Goodnight, mom,” and putting the transistor radio under my pillow and having the little cord in one ear and kind of crying myself to sleep for those two weeks. They were my first love. We went to Connie Mack Stadium many times. We always hoped we wouldn’t get a seat behind one of the posts. I came back to Philadelphia after college in ’77. 1980 was my rookie year with MLB Productions. To get the plum job on the World Series and have it be our guys was pretty spectacular.
MLB.com: And Dick Allen was your favorite player?
Tollin: I was mesmerized by Richie Allen. I think a lot of people of my generation never saw a talent like that. There’s something regal about him. He’d stride to the plate with those short steps and baggy uniform and that war club and take those little, short downward cuts. Mike Schmidt talks about how when he came back [to the Phillies in 1975] as Dick Allen, he taught him how to hit. He taught him how to hit like you’re chopping wood. [Schmidt] gives Dick a lot of credit.
We tried to write a book together, and that didn’t work. And then I decided, let’s just make a film together. And I’ve been working on it for more than 20 years. He was in “Summer Catch.” He was a scout. “Scout in Black Hat,” it says in the credits. He was also in a movie called “Dreamer” with Kurt Russell. We became friends. We’ve shared a lot of really intimate moments just in terms of sharing stories about our families, actually commiserating a little bit about personal tragedies.
We really hope he gets into the Hall of Fame before he turns 80. (Allen is 78.)
MLB.com: He’s got to get in this year, right?
Tollin: He’s got to get in. I am going to make this film whether he gets in or not. I have hundreds of hours of footage. It’s going to be the most personal thing I ever do. I’ll be in it, because it has to do with our relationship. It has to do with hero worship and how different that was 50 years ago. I always talk about imprinting. It’s this term from psychology where at a certain point in your life, you have something visual or something that strikes you emotionally and it’s there for life. Let’s just say in an era before TiVo, mom calls you in for dinner, you can’t push pause. “Be right in, mom. Richie’s on deck.”
Whether he gets in or not will have something to do with a release plan. If the vote this December is successful, which we hope, considering he missed by one vote last time [in 2014] — I think there’s an awareness, not only of what he did on the field, but what he endured off it — then I would probably accelerate the post-production and try to get it out in 2021, around the time of his induction or at least before the end of the season. But the story needs to be told as an homage to a really special man. I don’t know anybody whose true self is farther away from the public perception.
MLB.com: Do you have a dream subject for another 10-part documentary, like Jordan?
Tollin: I don’t know that there are too many athletes dead or alive that really merit a 10-hour series. I hope people will think that by the end of watching this series that we could have gone longer. I’ve had people watch the first two and say, “I wish they were all up, I would have kept watching.”
The one that’s really in my heart is Richie Allen. The Michael Jordan film is for the whole world, literally. The Richie Allen film, maybe mostly for Philly folk and people in other cities where he played. Hopefully for everybody who loves a good emotional story.
MLB.com: Do you think your love of baseball shapes your filmmaking at all, maybe even in “The Last Dance"?
Tollin: You know, I miss watching the games less than talking about the games during this pandemic. For me, sports are currency. Sports are connectivity. Sports are a universal language that brings us together. It sounds like a cliché, but my grandfather put me on his knee and told me about going to St. Petersburg, Fla., and seeing Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and the Yankees. With this twinkle in his eye. My dad was a pitcher at Haverford College [in Pennsylvania]. It was such an intergenerational bond. And so, yeah, that’s what it is for me. And that’s what I’m hearing about “The Last Dance.” “I remember I was at Chicago Stadium for that game,” or, “I went with my dad to the 63-point game in Boston.” It’s such a source of passion, right? How many other things can draw people together that well or that deeply? Yeah, it’s definitely had an influence on the kinds of stories I gravitate to and want to tell.