The Last Dance

The first two episodes of ESPN’s The Last Dance premiered Sunday night and, just as Awful Announcing’s Ben Koo said in his review, the documentary is living up to its advance hype. (Ben’s seen many more of the episodes than the rest of us have, however.)

But while we watched the first two hours of the documentary, remembering (or for some viewers, learning about) the early days of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, I kept thinking about Andy Thompson.

No, you didn’t miss anything. Andy Thompson wasn’t mentioned at any point during those first two episodes. He wasn’t one of the people interviewed for the film, like “former Chicago resident” Barack Obama. But Thompson played a key role in so much of what we’ll see over the next five weeks as The Last Dance plays out and with the documentary now showing, he’s receiving due credit for it.

As Ramona Shelburne explains in a piece for ESPN.com, Thompson was a producer for NBA Entertainment in 1997 (he’s now NBAE’s vice president) who pitched the idea of chronicling the Bulls’ campaign, knowing it could be Jordan’s final season. It was his idea to follow the team around with a camera crew to capture all of the off-court, behind-the-scenes happenings and the drama that occurred with them.

Without those 500 hours of footage recorded, Last Dance director Jason Hehir still probably could’ve made a strong documentary. But would it have been as in-depth, compelling, and epic in its scope?

Yet the deal Adam Silver, then in charge of NBA Entertainment, made with Jordan was that none of the footage would be shown, no documentary would be made from it until he gave approval. And he took more than 20 years to do so. Thompson waited for the day his work would eventually be shown. Executives and producers like Connor Schell and Mike Tollin knew what they had. In 2016, Jordan was finally persuaded.

“Every year for the last 20 years, it’s like, ‘When is this gonna be released? I’ve heard so much about this documentary and have been hyping up for 20 years,” former NBA player Mychal Thompson, Andy’s brother, told the OC Register‘s Kyle Goon. “My brother is so good at his job, as good as Giannis [Antetokounmpo] is at his job. It’s good to see him finally get some recognition for it.”

Imagine being a witness to history with a camera crew, but hardly anyone besides the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls team, NBA Entertainment, and family and friends knew about that work. What if the footage never been seen? It might be the sports documentary equivalent of Dougray Scott being cast as Wolverine for the first X-Men movie, but having to give up the role to Hugh Jackman because his work on Mission: Impossible 2 hadn’t been completed. Validation was out of his control.

Fortunately for Thompson, that’s no longer the case and now he’s receiving proper acknowledgment for those efforts. Jordan and the Bulls aren’t the only ones taking a victory lap these days.

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a writer, editor, and podcaster. You can find his work at Awful Announcing and Asheville's Mountain XPress. He's written for Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation.