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ESPN Captivates Sports-Hungry Fans With Jordan Documentary 'Last Dance'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Sports fans only have two left. We're not talking about games. Those aren't happening right now during the pandemic. We're talking about two episodes left of the basketball documentary "The Last Dance." It's been airing Sunday nights on ESPN for the past month and Monday nights on Netflix, and captivating sports-hungry fans with an in-depth look at hoops legend Michael Jordan and his six-time NBA champion Chicago Bulls. NPR's Tom Goldman has been watching and joins us now. Hi, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: OK. So Tom, what do you make of this series?

GOLDMAN: It's been a hit, Rachel, it really has. You know, the first two episodes were the most viewed ESPN documentaries ever. And the interest has kept up, with millions of live viewers each Sunday. Personally, I think it's really good - the new footage no one's seen, the storytelling. And I know this story because I covered it in the 1990s. You know, the behind-the-scenes stuff has been really great, reliving things like the Bulls versus the Detroit Pistons, a real rivalry where players hated each other, and they still do. That's been really entertaining.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the highlights from last night's episodes. Seven and eight, right?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. There are a lot. There's tragedy - Michael Jordan's dad being murdered in 1993. There's Jordan's shocking retirement that year, which prompted a tweet from LeBron James last night recalling how he cried as a 9-year-old when that happened.

MARTIN: Wow.

GOLDMAN: There's Jordan's jump to baseball. And he actually wasn't bad even though he was ridiculed for it. And then the '95 NBA playoffs after Jordan returned to basketball but could not lead the Bulls to a title. You know, he loved to get fuel from defeat or perceived slights. And those '95 playoffs fueled him for the next season, which is considered the Bulls' greatest.

MARTIN: So you talk about that fuel. And, you know, those who know Michael - fans - have heard about his focus, his intensity, his competitiveness. How does the documentary treat that state of mind? Because oftentimes, he was really criticized for just sort of being an egomaniac, for being kind of a jerk?

GOLDMAN: Yeah (laughter), exactly. I think that word might have been used in the series as well. You know, there's a really dramatic moment at the end of last night's Episode 7. Jordan explains his hard-edged attitudes toward winning and leadership that have caused some to label him a tyrant, as you say. And it's the one time that he tears up. And he actually cuts off the interview.

It was a riveting moment. But critics say it illustrates one of the documentary's shortcomings. It brings up controversies. And it lets Michael Jordan explain his side. But there's no pushback. Like in this case, do you have to be that way? Other great players have had success without intimidating or ridiculing teammates.

MARTIN: Right.

GOLDMAN: And as one NBA writer put it, were the Bulls great despite Michael Jordan's approach rather than because of it? The documentary, as good as it is, it doesn't ask that.

MARTIN: So we're all living in this sports vacuum. And it just so happens that this show comes along at this time. It's really helping all of us, you know, find stories that help fill that void in our life right now. I imagine this is giving the series just all kinds of mileage.

GOLDMAN: Oh, it sure is. You know, it's kind of like there's this entire news ecosystem surrounding "The Last Dance." You've got stories and analysis and reaction and conversation on social media. I think it is benefiting from the vacuum you mentioned right now without live sports. But honestly, the more I watch, the more I think, this would grab people even if we did have sports right now.

MARTIN: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thank you, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINITUS TEMPO'S "A STROLE THROUGH SAIGON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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