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April 14, 2020

Jason Hehir

Steve Kerr

Connor Schell

Oakland, California

THE MODERATOR: Hi, everyone. Thank you again so much for joining. I'm going to kick it over to Connor Schell from ESPN who's going to give a brief introduction and then we'll get started.

CONNOR SCHELL: Thank you, Isabelle, and thank you to everyone for joining the call today. As Isabelle said, I'm Connor Schell. I oversee content at ESPN and I'm also privileged to have served as executive producer on "The Last Dance." We're thrilled that thanks to the work of Jason Hehir who's on the call here and his incredible production team, we're in a position to where we're able to expedite the release of "The Last Dance" and release it at a time when we're all missing sports and missing the NBA dearly and craving great content.

The first two episodes will premier on ESPN this coming Sunday, April 19th, at 9:00 p.m. eastern, with two more episodes debuting each week thereafter, so the 10 episodes will roll out over five weeks beginning this Sunday. And the series will also be available outside the U.S. on Netflix.

The project, as you all know, celebrates one of the great dynasties of one of the greatest athletes ever as the central figure. In the fall of 1997, as Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls began their quest to win a sixth NBA title in eight years, the team agreed to let a film crew follow them all season long. The resulting footage is the source material that Jason Hehir used to create a remarkable portrait revealed more than two decades later in "The Last Dance" of both the iconic player and the celebrated team and all of his teammates and coaches.

We're lucky to have the director of the project, Jason Hehir, and Steve Kerr on the phone with us today right now. I believe Dennis Rodman will be joining us, as well, and unfortunately Scottie Pippen had a late conflict and is unable to join.

So thank you to Jason for the incredible work and to Steve and Dennis for their participation in the series and for being here today, and I also want to give a quick thank-you to executive producers Estee Portnoy, Curtis Polk and Mike Tollin, who really helped drive this project forward and shape it creatively, and to Adam Silver, Greg Lennox, Andy Thompson, David Denenberg, and Dion Cocoros of the NBA and the entire ESPN and Netflix teams. It was an impressive collaboration by everyone involved on what is ESPN's most ambitious ever original content project.

I'm so proud of the quality of the work. I'm so grateful to everyone involved. I'm hopeful that the story will captivate the audience, and I'm thankful that all of you are interested in being here today and asking some questions and finding out more about it. With that, I'll open it up for questions.

Q. This question is for Dennis, Steve, and I guess Jason. During this era of Bulls basketball, we saw and heard from Michael Jordan all the time in terms of commercials and press conferences and stuff like that, and then I guess post-career we haven't heard as much. I'm curious, why do you think that is, and what do you think his sort of candor will mean to the general public, and what sort of level of candor did you see from him as a teammate?
STEVE KERR: I can't answer the part about Michael kind of being in the background these days, after being in the limelight his whole career. But I do know that I'm excited for this movie because I think there's a whole generation of young basketball players and fans who have only heard about Michael and who didn't really experience his dominance, and so to really see it up close, to see the impact he had on the game, to see not only the physical but the mental and the emotional dominance he carried with him on the court every single game I think will be really interesting and enlightening for an entire generation of young fans.

JASON HEHIR: I can't speak to why Michael hasn't been so much in the limelight since his playing days, but as you'll see in the series, as it evolves, that limelight and that pressure that Steve just alluded to weighed heavier and heavier on Michael both on and off the court as his career continued. As we all saw in '93 after the death of his father, with the 18-month hiatus that he took, it was a lot to bear, to be responsible for the on-court performance of the Bulls and to be one of the most prominent global icons, pop cultural icons of the era.

And as far as his candor today, I can tell you that from the moment that I first sat down with Michael to discuss the project, he was surprisingly forthcoming and candid and eager to discuss a lot of the topics that I think people are going to be interested in. Our first hour of conversations he went places that I wondered if he'd go in two years of shooting this doc. He was all in from day one. He was an active participant. He was very generous with his time and his candor and his emotion.

He gave notes on the episodes. He's watched all the episodes. He gave actually really great notes, first-person accounts of how he felt and what he would add and subtract from the episodes. But he never once censored us; he never once policed us; he never once said that any topic was off limits, so he was a perfect partner for this project.

Q. Steve, what was it like with the camera crews around all the time during that season, and what was sort of the team's collective reaction to granting that kind of access, and maybe looking back on it today, are you ultimately glad that there was so much being documented at the time so we could have this for historical context?
STEVE KERR: Yeah, it was definitely strange at the time. That was not an era where there was a ton of access behind the scenes. It was before all the "Hard Knocks" type shows came around, and you didn't have coaches' interviews and live mics in huddles or whatever, taped conversations in broadcasts between coaches and players, that kind of stuff.

And for Phil Jackson, the locker room and the team's space was always very sacred, so it was kind of a surprise at the time when we were alerted to what was happening. But I think everybody embraced it pretty quickly because we were well aware we were playing in a very historic era and playing for a historic team. And so I think we all understood that someday this would all be captured and it would be great for us to see it and remember it and show our kids and grandkids, all that kind of stuff.

And then, you know, nothing happened for 20 years, whatever it was, so it's great that it's coming out now. I've talked to several of my teammates, and everybody is really excited about it, and I think in the end, it's just an incredible thing for all of us. Obviously for the fans but even for the players, for those of us who were there, to be able to look back and have some of this stuff on film, it's going to be really fun to watch.

Q. Steve, obviously 20-plus years later there's always a feel-good vibe in Chicago to the championship run and all that went with it, but heading into that '97-' 98 season before the sixth title run, what do you recall about that lingering tension between the front office and Phil, the front office and Scottie and the dynamic that that sort of set at a time when the dynasty was still at its peak?
STEVE KERR: Well, it definitely felt like the last season. It wasn't something that was concocted by Phil when he called it the last dance. It was real. Everybody's contracts were up, basically had an entire team full of free agents, and it just felt like that was going to be it.

And so we wanted to make the most of the moment, and Phil being the coach that he was, having that sense of awareness of how to motivate a group, how to connect a group, he understood those dynamics well, so I thought that was one of the things that really drove us that year was full awareness that that was it; that was going to be our last dance.

Q. Coach Kerr, I want you to talk about the importance your Bulls had in the pop culture because this team became so much bigger than just basketball, and the obvious answer would be Michael Jordan, but I'm pretty sure he had a better one than just him.
STEVE KERR: In terms of the impact that the team made on pop culture?

Q. Yeah, yeah.
STEVE KERR: I'm sorry, what's the question, though?

Q. The question is can you talk about the impact that the team had on pop culture because it became much bigger than basketball, and you have ESPN and Netflix producing a documentary on it, so it's definitely more than just one of the best teams around. What made it so special?
STEVE KERR: Well, I think Michael was the driver of that impact in terms of the effect it made on pop culture, because of just how immensely popular he was and how many commercials he did and all the global awareness that people had of him. The '92 Dream Team opened more of that up, and then when he started really winning all those championships and people -- basketball fans really saw the true genius of that Bulls team under Phil Jackson, those first three years, '91, '92, '93, and then when Michael came back, it was just that combination of Michael's popularity and an incredible era of basketball.

Q. Steve, there's a story that Dennis missed the Bulls practice following Game 3 of the '98 Finals, a game the Bulls won by 42, to be part of world championship wrestling's television program "Nitro," which was held fittingly at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan. Considering you knew Dennis fairly well by that point, was it a shock when Dennis was missing at a team-related activity, especially a Finals practice during the NBA Finals in order to miss for a pro wrestling show?
STEVE KERR: No, I don't think anything was really that surprising at that point. I think the beauty of Dennis joining the Bulls was we had a really mature team. We had a lot of veteran players on that team, a really incredible coach who understood how to motivate teams and how to connect with individuals, and Phil had a beautiful connection with Dennis and so did his teammates. I thought there was a real connection that existed that gave Dennis the freedom and the space that he needed.

It wasn't a thing where we were all complaining about Dennis not making it to a practice. We just sort of understood that he was his own man. He did so much for our team that we allowed him to have that freedom.

But I think the point that you're making, that particular time to do it during the Finals, I think more than anything that was just an indication that it was all coming to an end, that there was just a lifespan on that team that was -- which wouldn't have allowed us to go on any further, even if players were still under contract. I think we all felt like that was it, and we were fortunate to win that last championship because there were plenty of difficult times along the way. But it definitely felt like the end, and that was one of the reasons for it.

Q. If Steph or a player or someone did that to you the past couple of years in the Finals, obviously I'm sure your admiration for Coach Jackson grew because as a head coach in the NBA Finals, I'm sure that puts the coach in an awfully tough position.
STEVE KERR: Yeah, it puts the coach in a terribly difficult position. But again, I think that was part of Phil's genius was understanding how to maintain authority and maintain the team's momentum, and in the face of adversity, whether it was something brought on by something unforeseen or something like a player missing a practice during the Finals. Phil always found the right tone, the right message.

Q. This is also for Steve Kerr. I'm just wondering, you mentioned at the beginning that this has the possibility of introducing Michael Jordan's greatness to so many other viewers, but obviously this Bulls team had a lot of great all-time type players. I'm wondering, what are you hoping that people take away after they watch this documentary about that team?
STEVE KERR: You know, I've never really given it that thought. What my thinking has been is it's going to be really great for people to see the inner workings of that team, because it was such a great team and a dominant team, and to see that kind of behind-the-scenes footage is really fascinating.

JASON HEHIR: I can jump in a little bit. I'm trying to give you a little bit of a break for a second. Steve actually hasn't seen a lot of the footage that is in this doc. He saw the cameras but he hasn't seen the actual footage that came out of it. I can say to answer the question that was just asked that I think from 35,000 feet, it's easy, and 20 years later, it's easy to see these teams as so dominant that it became simple for them to win. They won six out of eight years. Every time Michael showed up for the first day of training camp in the 1990s for the Bulls they won the title. So it got to look, even to me as a fan back then, it was like, well, it was a given: Death, taxes, and the Chicago Bulls are going to be in the Finals.

I think what fans will see over the course of 10 hours of this program is that it was never easy. It was never simple, and nothing that is that significant is ever easy, and that year after year they had a different cast of characters, they had inner strife between the team and management, they had new faces. When Michael left for baseball, he came back and had an entirely different cast of characters to play with besides Phil and Scottie.

My hope is that younger fans especially realize just how challenging it is to win one. Steve certainly can attest to how difficult it is to win two or three in a row, but to win six out of eight, I hope that's what's hammered home to everyone when they watch.

CONNOR SCHELL: I'll just jump in and say, one of the remarkable things that I think this footage and really the storytelling that Jason has accomplished here, one of the remarkable things it does is it really -- for those of us who lived it and grew up watching these teams, there's a level of nostalgia here, but it weaves together a narrative and makes connections and really brings to life everything he just said in terms of the struggle to win the title year over year and everything that went into that, and you really see that up close and personal.

So for those of us who lived it, it's an incredible experience where you really do feel like you're getting something new out of it. But then for fans say under 30 who -- I'm not sure that they need an introduction to Michael Jordan. I'm not sure anyone needs an introduction because I think they're certainly aware of Michael and aware of how good he was and how dominant these teams were and what these teams meant, but I'm not sure they really get it. And when you experience these 10 hours in the way that Jason has constructed them, it really comes to light how good Michael was, how dominant these teams were and what these teams meant to basketball and to popular culture broader, and it's really a remarkable achievement by Jason.

Q. Jason, could you tell us the time frame over which those three interviews with Michael happened and what was the total amount of time you sat down with him, and what was the most surprising thing that you heard come out of his mouth during those sessions?
JASON HEHIR: We interviewed Michael three times, as you said: June 2018 was the first, May of 2019 was the second, December of 2019 was the third. The amount of time we were rolling camera was about eight hours total of footage that we had with him. You know, it's tough to pinpoint the most surprising thing he said. I think that overall the most surprising aspect of it to me was his candor. Michael is probably more adept than any athlete in our lifetime at giving a rudimentary answer and answering anything put in front of him and wording it so if he wants to share something, he will, and if not, he won't. He's probably been asked the same questions however many thousand times. One of the challenges was that every question I asked him I knew that he has been asked in some way, shape or form at some point.

To hear -- I read over 10,000 pages of research on this. I've watched every documentary and every clip. We had over 10,000 hours of footage in our vault, in our project, and I'm not going to say I sat there and watched 10,000 hours, but I thought I knew all there was to know, so when we find out things that are new -- you know he went pretty deep on to the allegations, the gambling allegations against him in the '90s. He went pretty deep about what happened to his father and how that affected him on and off the court. And he went very deep into how he is perceived, how his intensity is perceived, how his competitiveness is perceived and his ambivalence about that. He has a certain pride in how competitive he is and how he's a win-at-all-costs kind of guy but also he's a human being and he was very respectful and kind to us, so it was interesting to see him grapple with the image that people have of him and the true person that Michael Jordan is.

Q. What was in that glass that was sitting next to him the whole time?
JASON HEHIR: That's a question for Michael.

Q. This is for Steve. I was actually just wondering if you had one personal favorite Michael Jordan story from that era of the Bulls.
STEVE KERR: Oh, man. Yeah, I'll tell you one. We used to have a contest. We'd shoot from the hash mark on the sideline at the end of every shootaround, about four of us, maybe five of us, and at the end of shootaround we'd start launching shots from there, and whoever made the shot first won, and Michael saw us doing it, and he just had to be involved. So he came down and started getting into the contest every day, and before you knew it, it was for money, and he was usually winning. That was sort of a typical Michael story, like he just craved the competition, and I think he loved the interaction, loved the whole idea of competing in any form. It's kind of what made him who he was.

JASON HEHIR: I can also add that the final competition that you guys ever had, Steve, from the hash mark after Game 1 shootaround of the Utah Finals in '98, that's what opens that 10th episode.

STEVE KERR: Really? Did he win? I'll bet he made it.

JASON HEHIR: I'll leave that as a cliffhanger, but I think your description was pretty accurate.

STEVE KERR: Yeah, that sounds right.

Q. Steve, at what point did you realize that playing with Michael was going to be different than probably any other teammate you ever had, and what was the difficulty, maybe the challenge of being with somebody who was that competitive in terms of just maybe the intensity and the way maybe he attacked his teammates?
STEVE KERR: Well, I think I knew before I even practiced with him and got to know him that it would be different just because I had played against him and heard all the stories. I mean, he was larger than life at that point. He dominated -- I think I said it earlier in the call. I mean, he dominated the league in every way possible. It wasn't just his play, it was his presence. He was emotionally dominant, too, and you could feel that as an opponent. When he came back to the Bulls and I was already there, there was that feeling right away, and there was a pressure that came with it when you were his teammate that I had never felt from anybody. It was a great test. You know, it was -- you had to step up and compete and perform every day. It was also an era where you had a lot more practices and more competition in practice, more scrimmaging than we do these days. I always felt that was part of Michael's genius was raising that bar, the level of competition and performance for our team every day just because of who he was. Nobody wanted to be left behind, and he constantly pushed everybody forward.

Q. Steve, I wanted to ask you please, was that last run, the last dance, the most difficult you had to face as a team and how so? And Jason, I wanted to ask you about the movie, how you constructed it, because it's not just the last dance, it's also about the flash-forwards, the flashbacks, about the whole career of Michael. I wanted to know more about the construction of the movie. Thank you.
STEVE KERR: Yeah, the third year was definitely the most difficult of the three, just from a fatigue standpoint. '96 when Michael came back, he was so motivated and so energized that it just felt like nothing would stop us, and that carried forward to '97. But by '98 there was just -- the wear and tear of the run started to show with injuries. I think Scottie Pippen had -- I think he missed quite a bit of the season with a back injury, and Dennis started to drift from the team some. We could just feel it, that it was coming to an end, and it was by far the most difficult. We had a really tough Game 7 against Indiana. It was the only Game 7 of that year's run, and then even the game that clinched the championship in Utah where Michael made his famed shot, I think we were down 17 or 18 points in the second quarter. So we were -- it felt like we were running on fumes by the end of that run.

JASON HEHIR: To answer the question about the construction of the series, we knew going in that the chronological spine of the whole series was going to be that '97-'98 season, but with 10 hours to fill, it was an opportunity to actually go in depth and tell the back stories of all the main characters who made not just that team what it was but that dynasty what it was. As things happened during the '97-'98 season, they would emerge as opportunities to tell the back story. So for instance, Scottie was out for the first 36 games of that season, 35 games of that season, came back in game 36, and he was having quite a hard time seeing eye to eye with management in the first couple of months. So early in the series, episode 2 is when we do Scottie's back story because it seemed like a good time to kind of tell Scottie's back story. Then when Scottie came back, Dennis Rodman kind of went off the deep end a little bit, took a little vacation for himself, and that seemed like a good time to tell Dennis's back story. Then Phil had to bring Dennis back and right the ship and manage all the different personalities on the team, so by episode 4, it seemed like a good time to tell Phil's back story.

Steve just mentioned that Game 7 against Indiana and that Pacers series, and Steve played exceptionally well in that series, so we waited until later on in the series to tell Steve's back story, but that comes in episode 9.

As that '97-'98 season progressed, we saw opportunities to go in depth with all the characters who made that team what it was.

Q. Did you leave anything out, like did Michael want something out?
JASON HEHIR: No, Michael never once said anything was off limits, and he never once asked us to omit anything. He asked us to add certain things, certain plays or certain games that he felt were important or certain moments in the evolution of that dynasty that he felt were important, but he never instructed us to take anything out, and from day one, he told me that there wasn't a question I would ask that he would not answer truthfully, so he was a pleasure.

Q. With the dearth of live sports programming, what did it take to accelerate the launch of the series?
CONNOR SCHELL: I'll jump in and then throw it to Jason. We were on track for the series to premier June 2nd, and we had built a production schedule accordingly, and the actual rollout of the series was timed to the NBA Finals, so this was going to air on off nights of the NBA Finals.

Obviously as the league suspended competition and circumstances changed, I'm not sure that there was any reason why we felt like, okay, we need to stick with the original air dates on this, and obviously with the dearth of live programming and really wanting to connect with sports fans and also an understanding of how good this series is and the material is, we got to work to try to figure out how to move this up and accelerate the production time and then the post-production timeline on some of these episodes.

In mid-March, episodes 9 and 10 were not just not done, episode 10 was not yet even assembled. Jason had in his head what scenes were going to go where and how it could be constructed, but all credit to Jason and his team for figuring out technologically how to do this at home and getting us to a place where we can start episodes 1 and 2 this week and episodes 9 and 10 have finalized by the time they air in mid-May. Jason, do you want to pick up the ins and outs of that?

JASON HEHIR: Yeah, like you said, in early March when all of this started to really accelerate in terms of COVID and shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders, we were just heading around the corner to finish the rough cut for episode 9, and then we were going to spend roughly the next month beginning episode 10 and assembling that.

And then when you finish your rough cut, you get notes and there's a picture lock and then there's a few weeks of fine-tuning, finishing that happened in multimillion dollar rooms that are at this really nice facility where we're editing this thing, this series.

So all of that now has to be done from home, and luckily all of the specialists and the artists who do this, the colorists and the sound designers, they all have home studios, and our editors all had setups that were professional enough at their homes where they could edit individual segments, and just through technology where through Zoom meetings and text conversations and FaceTime conversations and email chains, we're kind of doing this piece by piece, sometimes out of sequence, but they'll mail me their segments and I'll put them together and I'll watch it here at home. I'm in my apartment right now, I'll watch it on my laptop or my desktop, give my notes and send it back and we're assembling it that way.

So it's a credit to the entire team that I don't think one ounce of quality is going to be lost in the final product here. So the biggest challenge was the lack of collaboration because the best moments and the joy of making this is having the whole team together sitting in a room together discussing ideas, trying things out with each other and having those late nights where all the best ideas are born. We're all working on our own now, but I'm proud to say that I don't think we're going to lose any quality on the final product.

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