‘Holy (expletive)! That’s Michael Jordan.’ A behind-the-scenes look at ‘The Last Dance,’ the documentary that rescued sports fans in 2020.

©Chicago Tribune

Michael Jordan works his magic as he shoots over Bryon Russell to seal the win and the Bulls' sixth NBA championship. - Phil Velasquez/TNS

CHICAGO — As the sailboat pushed away from North Cove Marina at 6:45 p.m. on a perfect New York Tuesday last August, director Jason Hehir took in the ambience, the collective energy, the relaxed smiles of those around him.

For Hehir and the team he’d worked so hard with for years on “The Last Dance” documentary series, that evening’s cruise on the Hudson River qualified as their moment — a long-overdue reunion and a three-hour celebration of the group’s conquest.

Four months earlier, the team’s grand project — a 10-part series exploring Michael Jordan’s rise and the Chicago Bulls dynasty through the lens of the 1997-98 season — became appointment viewing, launching on ESPN with eye-popping ratings and drawing instant critical acclaim.

For five consecutive Sunday nights, starting April 19 and concluding May 17, “The Last Dance” offered two hours of refuge from the COVID-19 pandemic, providing a reentry into a sports landscape that was otherwise desolate.

The project was a well-timed slice of entertainment and a badly needed diversion, creating connection at a time when so little existed. In Chicago in particular, the series provided a time machine back to a sports fan’s Shangri-La. “A vessel to nostalgia,” Hehir called it.

“Everyone was looking for a safe place to go to,” he said. “And nostalgia is safe. It takes us back to a place that was warm and joyous. … People wanted something that was easy and fun to watch and brought them back to a happier time in life.”

Now, as Hehir felt the boat gliding away from the dock — and the doc — he again felt profound pride in his team, a group that rallied under extreme pressure to deliver relief during such a taut period. Hehir remains gratified at what they were able to achieve, particularly with the film’s launch date moved up six weeks to help ESPN fill the sports programming canyon.

On the boat that night, it also wasn’t lost on Hehir that earlier in the spring he had been a regular at the park near this marina, an almost nightly visitor to a bench from which he conducted hundreds of interviews about the film. During many of those sessions, at 7 p.m. sharp, a clamor of pots and pans amplified from the windows and balconies in Tribeca, a tribute to first responders and essential workers. A local trumpeter routinely performed Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Meanwhile, in the distance, the shrill howl of ambulance sirens echoed on a loop.

“Ghostly,” Hehir said. “You knew why those were constant.”

That was always a sobering backdrop, a reminder that, as Hehir was finishing the most demanding film project he has ever tackled and was pontificating about it publicly, the world — and New York in particular — remained largely paralyzed by the pandemic, awash in fear and illness, uncertainty and isolation.

Reflecting on those extreme circumstances, Hehir stepped onto that sailboat last August and again felt fortunate for the team he had been blessed to work with and the massive scope of their project.

There was also a sense of wonder. How in the hell did they pull it all off?

First impressions

“I was late.”

The text vibrated in on a Wednesday evening in September 2017 with Hehir in his living room and in his gym clothes, readying to head to the boxing gym where he often blew off steam.

Sudden change of plans.

Estee Portnoy, Michael Jordan’s manager, had reached out with a last-minute invitation. Park Hyatt, Midtown Manhattan.

How soon can you get here?

Jordan wanted to chat.

Only problem? It was after 6 o’clock and Hehir was without a helicopter or teleporting device to get around rush-hour traffic. He took a deep breath.

I’ll be there.

Quick change of clothes.

“I threw on a suit with no tie and pretended I had somewhere else to be.”

Hehir sat restless through a seemingly snail’s-paced Uber ride along the West Side Highway.

“Stewing,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do.”

He reminded himself to stick to the plan. Keep this encounter casual but brief.

“One drink and leave. I needed this to be a short meeting and to leave with Michael having confidence in me.”

On the ride over, a friend of Hehir’s texted.

What drink do you order when meeting Michael Jordan?

Great. As if he needed another thing to fret over. “Obviously I can’t get in there and order a Woo Woo or a cosmopolitan,” Hehir said.

Now he was thinking about Jordan’s enjoyment of wine and his own allergy to reds. “With this alpha male,” Hehir said, “I wanted to make sure the first impression I left wasn’t, ‘No, Michael. Sorry. Red wine really makes my throat tickle.’ ”

Eventually, Hehir settled himself with a nod to his Irish heritage. Jameson on the rocks. Done.

Then he jumped out of the Uber and sauntered into one of the most pivotal and pressure-filled pitch meetings of his career.

“Honestly,” Hehir said, “it was like when you were a kid playing video games and you had to beat all the henchmen before you get to the big boss. Coming off that elevator and walking into that room, I’m thinking to myself: ‘OK, we’re in the boss’s lair here. This is the last person I have to defeat to win this game.’ ”

This is how “The Last Dance” made it to the runway, with Hehir taxiing the 10-part documentary series from the gate that night in Manhattan but needing Jordan’s clearance for takeoff.

There were no cameras and no formal interview during that first encounter. Still, Hehir needed Jordan’s buy-in. He needed Jordan to understand how much research he had done to position himself to accurately and responsibly tell the story of the Bulls dynasty and the star who led it. He needed to show he knew in great depth and detail the tensions that permeated that team’s final season together.

Hehir also planned to test Jordan, wanting to make clear that the film couldn’t be a puff piece and that it would be necessary for Hehir and his team to cover some of the less polished corners of Jordan’s narrative. His gambling habits. The conspiracy theories surrounding his first retirement. The murder of his father. His past reluctance to devoting much time or attention to social issues.

Early in that first encounter, Hehir probed Jordan on his much-maligned acceptance speech at the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, an address Jordan hoped would carry a grateful tone and shine a light on those who helped catalyze his basketball journey. Instead it came across to many as acerbic and petty.

In the back of his mind, Hehir wondered if that lightning-rod speech might be the perfect opening for “The Last Dance.” But that’s also when the seemingly disarming and inquisitive 54-year-old across from him morphed into “Air Jordan.”

“Michael has an ability to snap from normal dude into statue at the drop of a hat,” Hehir said. “And he knows that. He knows the power he has over people with the ability to do that.”

Defending his Hall of Fame speech, Jordan raised his right hand and pointed toward Hehir, stabbing at the air with his index finger. His voice rose to a commanding volume. The light was suddenly glinting off his hoop earring.

For the first time, Hehir felt every ounce of Jordan’s presence.

“It was almost cinematic,” Hehir said. “He stuck that finger across the table, and to me it looked like it was two feet long. All of a sudden, I was like: ‘Holy (expletive)! That’s Michael Jordan.’ That was the first time that occurred to me.”

As the conversation evolved, Jordan expressed initial concerns that the behind-the-scenes footage of the 1997-98 Bulls that much of the documentary would be built around might be taken out of context, that his intense drive and the machete-sharp edge he used to push teammates would be misinterpreted. Hehir worked to convince Jordan that the film would be raw and genuine but would paint a comprehensive picture.

After an hour or so, with Jordan’s approval in his back pocket, the director exited.

“If you do this right,” Jordan later told him, “I’ll never have to do anything like this again.”

Hehir left the hotel that night “floating on air.” Naturally, the first thing he did was call his dad.

Board meetings

If you do this right …

From the moment “The Last Dance” became a possibility for Hehir in 2016, he recognized what a privilege it would be to be trusted with the story of the 1997-98 Bulls season; of the organization’s six-championship run; of Jordan’s transcendent excellence.

“I have always seen this as a story revolving around the pursuit of greatness and the price of greatness,” Hehir said. “That’s what I’m fascinated by. What does it take to achieve greatness? And what has to be sacrificed to achieve that?”

He also understood such a massive undertaking would require sturdy structure as his team went through its exploration. That’s what the corkboard hanging in the director’s office was for.

Four feet high by six feet wide and covered in color-coded notecards pinned into 10 columns, one for each episode.

Hehir stressed that the highway for the series had to be the 1997-98 season — Jordan’s final year with the Bulls and the organization’s sixth and final championship run. Yet off that highway, the film would necessarily veer onto specific exit ramps, chronicling the Bulls’ rise from 1984 to 1998 while also illuminating the back stories of key characters.

Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr. Toni Kukoc, Jerry Krause and, yes, even “The Sniff Brothers,” Jordan’s loyal security team.

“We can stop to eat,” Hehir often told his team. “But we can’t stay overnight.”

It’s apt, then, to consider that large corkboard the GPS for the series.

“The mother brain of the entire project,” Hehir said. “Our North Star.”

Added producer Matt Maxson: “We were constantly on the quest to make that whole thing resemble a Rube Goldberg machine where one thing feeds into the next, which feeds into the next, all channeling toward this big awakening.”

Even now, almost a year after the final episode of “The Last Dance” aired, the mere mention of that note-cluttered board gives producer Jake Rogal both an adrenaline rush and a surge of anxiety.

There was always pressure with the board, an obligation to tell such a complex story in a way that was factual, detailed and entertaining for the masses all at once.

In some ways, Rogal joked, the board felt as if it belonged in a high-profile FBI investigation, needing strings of yarn to link people and places to other places and people.

“There were times,” Rogal said, “when we were so stuck that it seemed like we were never going to figure it out. … I’d go in by myself just to stare at that board sometimes. And a lot of times I would go in that room alone and notice someone else already sitting in there staring at it too.

“Sometimes you’d plan to go in there for five minutes and you’d end up staying for three hours.”

For “The Last Dance” team, some of the project’s most fulfilling moments came as they gathered in front of the board in total silence. Just staring and waiting for someone to voice a discovery that sparked a discussion that activated a fountain of ideas.

The notecards were rearranged frequently. Each small change had a potential ripple effect on several other storylines and episodes.

— Should Jordan’s curse-punctuated farewell to Larry Bird after Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference finals launch Episode 10 or conclude Episode 9?

— What’s the easiest way to navigate through Rodman’s story so the audience doesn’t feel a confusing overlap between his Pistons days and his time with the Bulls?

— How will everything squeeze neatly into the 50-minute-per-episode television allotment?

The corkboard, Hehir said, was like a Jenga tower. “But that’s how you know the story works. Because if you take one thing out and everything else falls, then it’s in the right place.”

Editor Devin Concannon had the idea to take the Bulls’ sentimental bonfire montage, set to Pearl Jam’s “Present Tense,” and shift it from its chronologically appropriate place in Episode 6 to the end of the final episode. Concannon made that suggestion without speaking. Just walked to the corkboard, pulled the pushpin from the green card that read “Coffee Can Ritual” and tacked it into the penultimate opening below Episode 10.

That one small shift, Concannon thought, could provide incredible storytelling impact, intensifying the audience response to how much that final season meant to Jordan and his teammates.

“Devin just looked at us,” Hehir said. “It was like that scene in Season 1 of ‘The Wire’ where (Bunk and Jimmy) solve the murder just by saying ‘(Expletive). (Expletive). (Expletive).’ ”

The team all knew the full story behind that green card, how under Jackson’s direction, each Bulls player shared aloud what their last dance together meant and dropped those written sentiments into a coffee can. Ultimately, Jackson set the contents ablaze in a dark room. “One of the most powerful things I have ever seen,” Kerr said in the series’ closing minutes.

During creative breakthroughs like those, the documentary team could just feel that click.

Down the stretch of the project, however, when the pandemic forced the group into isolation in their respective at-home workspaces, those moments became rare.

Walks for coffee, lunch breaks, informal brainstorming sessions that produced new ideas ceased. Scheduled Zoom meetings just weren’t as organic or fruitful.

“We couldn’t tinker anymore,” Rogal said. “In order to tinker with something, you’d have to edit it and then send it to everyone else. And then they’d have to upload it and then watch it and then send you their notes. We then had to make sure everyone was checking their emails.

“You no longer had the luxury of experiencing that whole process on the same screen in the same room in a five-minute time window. It was definitely less fun and we definitely became much more methodical and calculated.”

Change of plans

In March 2020, as COVID-19 smothered New York and local government orders turned the final stages of a demanding 10-hour film series into a work-from-home production, the brainstorming process wasn’t the only thing disrupted. Like everyone else, “The Last Dance” team was learning how to be most productive and resolve workflow issues as everyone began working remotely.

Producer Matt Maxson remembers one of the earliest requests from above after the pandemic hit, a nudge from executive producer John Dahl alerting “The Last Dance” team that the original June launch date — timed to coincide with the 2020 NBA Finals — would have to bump forward.

What’s the soonest we can deliver this?

The pandemic had pulled the plug on sports. All sports. Every level. Everywhere.

“We need to push this back,” Maxson thought. “There’s no way we can even hit our original deadline. And now you want to go early?”

Suddenly, that highway the team had been cruising down was littered with potholes and bright orange construction barrels. Yet they were simultaneously being asked to speed up.

To be clear, when much of the country shut down in mid-March, the first four episodes of “The Last Dance” were completed with two others in the closing stages. But a significant amount of heavy lifting remained, and the technological obstacles were significant.

For one thing, the film team no longer had access to its home base, the postproduction facilities on the second floor of an office building near the Holland Tunnel.

That shifted Maxson temporarily into an unexpected troubleshooting role, called on to copy and deliver the hundreds of hours of footage his teammates needed on hard drives that they could utilize where they lived.

Before he knew it, Maxson was practically living on his Cannondale bike, pedaling from his home in Harlem to the residences of as many “Last Dance” team members as he could get to. One delivery at a time. Repeat. (The 35-pound, 32-terabyte G-RAID drives were too bulky for Maxson to transport multiple drives at once.)

Adding to the intensity, Maxson had constant reminders of how pervasive and suffocating COVID-19 had become in New York. As he rode, the streets were eerily free of traffic. Pedaling through Central Park, Maxson stared at the softball fields on which he so often played. They were now grounds for hospital tents.

His tears spilled out.

“Straight out of ‘I Am Legend,’ ” Maxson said. “That’s not an exaggeration. It’s easy now to forget just how traumatic those first days really were.

“I’m thankful that during that time I had this work to pour myself into. But I remember taking breaths and looking around and just thinking, ‘This is (expletive)!’ With a capital F.”

When Episode 1 of “The Last Dance” aired on April 19, 2020, the team was still underwater assembling and editing Episodes 9 and 10. Many of the other episodes, meanwhile, still needed finishing touches. Sound mixing. Color correction. All of it from home.

Producer Nina Krstic plowed through the stretch run of her duties — suggesting and upgrading archived footage and licensing every second of the film through the major networks and newspapers and local TV stations the series borrowed from — all while juggling at-home responsibilities with her infant daughter.

Said Maxson: “Talk to anyone in TV production and they’ll tell you remote editing has been a concept that has been in the ether for a long time. But if you had asked me at the beginning of 2020 how far away that was, I would have told you three years. Maybe five.

“As it turns out, it was less than three months away.”

‘With the clock winding down’

In some ways, the accelerated deadlines and new premiere date brought on by the pandemic became a blessing in disguise. For one thing, Hehir said, it brought the finish line of his ultramarathon into view.

He also felt blessed that most of his team had been working together for a couple of years when the pandemic hit, offering valuable momentum and synergy that wouldn’t have existed if COVID-19 had sprung up in the project’s earliest stages.

On top of that, in a strange but rewarding way, Hehir regularly found himself drawing on direction he gained studying the 1997-98 Bulls.

“It was very meta,” he said. “There were lessons I was learning as I studied that team that became directly applicable (to our project). How to overcome challenges and still keep your group motivated. How to exude confidence when you think everything is falling apart. How to use a common enemy to bring a team tighter.”

It’s impossible to put into words how all-consuming Hehir’s studies of the inner workings of the Bulls dynasty had become for the better part of four years, how much investment he had put into examining Jordan’s DNA and Jackson’s leadership approach.

Among the many pertinent takeaways Hehir packed away as he surfed through “The Last Dance” was just how damn demanding and exhausting the journey to six championships in eight seasons had been.

He gained a deeper appreciation for the combination of focus, endurance, unity and fortitude that the Bulls needed to turn every potential crash into a triumph. In their own world, “The Last Dance” team took note.

In the end, most people remember the six shiny gold Larry O’Brien championship trophies more than the stress, fatigue and dysfunction the Bulls had to overcome to collect them.

“It was on a razor’s edge several times throughout that decade,” Hehir said.

The Bulls, though, had a knack for digging deep, for finding extra reserves, for making a steep and treacherous climb look easy.

Look no further than the final song of their last dance, that now-legendary 87-86 win over the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.

With a badly wrenched back, Pippen somehow gutted through 25 minutes, contributed four buckets and gave his team a sorely needed presence.

The Bulls trailed by three points on the road with less than a minute remaining. To that point, Jordan had missed 20 of 33 shots. On gelatinous legs.

Yet in the final sequence of his Bulls career, with history hanging in the balance, Jordan hit a driving layup, stole the ball from Karl Malone and, finally, elevated for his iconic 19-foot go-ahead jumper with 5.2 seconds to play.

If viewers of “The Last Dance” were reminded of that adrenaline rush, of how inspiring Jordan’s purpose and competitive will could be, imagine the rush Hehir felt down the stretch as he pushed his team across the finish line.

On a much smaller scale and on a far different stage, Hehir could relate to the exhaustion, the pressure, the grand expectations. He had seen the strains of unexpected adversity. He made certain to keep pushing himself and the group around him.

“I learned that I loved being a coach and putting people in place to win,” he said. “I loved drawing up plays. As a coach, as an overseer, you had to know who was talented in what spots.

“For us, what were Episodes 9 and 10 other than plays we drew up in a huddle with the clock winding down?”

Talking points

Inside a mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., Michael Jordan’s commanding voice began to crack, tears welling in both eyes. Less than an hour into his first formal interview for “The Last Dance” in June 2018, Jordan had reached a state of passion-filled introspection.

Hehir wanted to measure Jordan’s ambivalence on how he is widely perceived as a win-at-all-costs assassin — so much so that it can come at the expense of also being portrayed as a well-liked, caring and respectful guy.

Jordan, however, felt obligated to defend his approach to competition, life and the pursuit of greatness.

“Look, winning has a price. And leadership has a price,” he said. “So I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. And I earned that right. … You ask all my teammates: ‘The one thing about Michael Jordan is he never asked me to do something that he didn’t (bleeping) do.’ When people see this, they’re going to say: ‘He really wasn’t a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.’ Well, that’s you. Because you never won anything.

“I wanted to win. But I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well. … I’m only doing this because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, then don’t play that way.”

With watery eyes, Jordan called for a break. He rose from his chair and walked away.

Hehir knew instantly his documentary had elevated. The film had a signature scene, the goosebump moment that became the exclamation point for Episode 7.

“It was like a big game and you hit a couple of 3s in a row and the other team has to call timeout,” Hehir said. “Not that Michael was an opponent. But here you are in the first quarter as a bit of an underdog and you’re hanging in there with this (giant). All of a sudden they become more human.”

That break, for what it’s worth, lasted about six minutes. For the first 90 seconds, Hehir retreated to a bathroom and grabbed a sip of water. His adrenaline was racing.

“I just couldn’t wait to continue having a conversation,” he said. “Whereas we had been conducting an interview up to that point, now it was a dialogue.”

During three sessions with Jordan and eight hours of on-camera conversation, Hehir was struck by how fervid Jordan became when explaining his drive.

“It was illuminating to me that of all the things we discussed, that’s what gets him the most raw,” Hehir said. “That was him saying, ‘This is who I am.’ And it was a staunch defense of, ‘Like it or not, I brought all these people along with me.’ To me, it was very important to include that it brought him as much joy to see other teammates winning titles as it did to see himself win it, that he’s in for that. It’s compelling.”

Those tears? That break? Was that in some way an acknowledgment that Jordan, while intensely proud of his alpha wiring, was also slightly embarrassed by it?

“I don’t think embarrassed is the word,” Hehir said. “And it’s not bashfulness. But if a guy like Michael Jordan has an insecurity, one of them is that he can be perceived as one-dimensional. And he’s smart enough to know that there are so many facets and many dimensions to his personality.

“He is well aware that he has the reputation as the most competitive athlete to ever lace it up. But I think he’s conflicted. He is immensely proud of that and cognizant that that (wiring) has brought him all the accolades and all the championships and all the achievements in his life. But there is also a more human, kinder side to him that he wishes would be examined more deeply as well.”

As scorching as Jordan’s competitive fire was, he was also blessed with the ability to stay present and the stamina that allowed him to retain his charisma and equanimity through the relentless demands of his unique existence. Producer Nina Krstic still can hear the echoes in her brain from the thousands of hours of behind-the-scenes footage she combed through for the film project.

“Michael! Michael! Michael! Michael!”

In the locker room for postgame interviews. Coming off the team bus. Walking into or out of a hotel.

“Michael! Michael! Michael! Michael!”

Every door Jordan opened, he left a moment of peace and was instantly engulfed. Take that scene from Episode 5 of “The Last Dance,” of Jordan descending on a quiet elevator. After the warning ding and the doors opening to the lobby, Jordan swam into a tsunami of commotion, adulation and demands.

That, as much as anything, gripped “The Last Dance” team in its exploration of Jordan’s success and survival, the dynamic he faced of being constantly surrounded yet maintaining the grace and enthusiasm to overpower exhaustion.

“He took something that was extremely difficult,” Krstic said, “and somehow turned it into fuel.”

‘OK, that was it’

As they always are, Hehir’s family was alongside him in April 2018 when HBO held its lavish premiere for his “André the Giant” documentary at the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. “That whole thing probably cost more than the movie itself,” Hehir said. “I’m not kidding.”

Between the glitz of the red carpet, the buzz of the premiere and the nightclub after-party at Lure, Hehir was blown away by the extravagance.

Lure had been transformed into a French countryside landscape with vintage French cars on display and many of André Roussimoff’s favorite French foods and drinks catered. André the Giant’s statue had been flown in from WWE headquarters in Connecticut.

Hehir took it all in and shook his head at his mother, Mary.

There’s never going to be anything bigger than this.

Mary offered her perspective. “With you,” she said, “there’s always something bigger.”

But after “The Last Dance”? After Hehir spent years pouring himself into all things Michael Jordan and the Bulls?

After he packaged more than eight hours of content into an epic 10-episode series? After he partnered with ESPN, Netflix, the NBA and Jordan’s team at Jump DC?

After the documentary series became a global hit, catering to a sports-starved audience during some of the most trying moments of the coronavirus pandemic?

“OK,” Mary said. “I think that was it.”

“Even my mom knows,” Hehir said.

Hehir isn’t boasting when he refers to “The Last Dance” as his “obituary project,” the career milestone that will be mentioned in the first paragraph of his obit. He simply is emphasizing that he never again will tackle a high-profile project with so much volume, so many demands, so much pressure attached.

He also remains mindful that he never again will have the stage in front of such a vast and eager audience.

“I am hyperaware of why this film resonated the way it did,” Hehir said. “We were bringing a distraction to people. And we were bringing a shared experience. I’m incredibly proud of that. Because at that time, the only other shared experience we all had was going through this pandemic and going through sheer terror.”

For more than a year now, Hehir has been careful to choose his words carefully, averse to furthering the idea that “The Last Dance” and the film team that worked on it benefited from the pandemic. Framing it that way feels awkward.

Still, it’s undeniable that the series had a larger stage, a more engaged audience and deeper resonation because of its fateful timing. Not only was it a captive audience, it was one that didn’t have so much as a neighborhood Little League game to feed its fix.

There had been no NCAA Tournament, no opening day, no Masters. The NBA season had been suspended, the Stanley Cup playoffs postponed. The Kentucky Derby was canceled.

For so many, the sports famishment proved intense.

That’s why, even amid the anxiety of finishing the project under a much tighter deadline and in an at-home capacity, “The Last Dance” team felt satisfaction in its chance to uplift others, even in a small way.

“To have this increasingly rare monoculture moment was incredibly satisfying,” Hehir said.

Added editor Chad Beck: “We knew what this was. And we knew that this was no longer just our project.”

On April 19, 2020, the first two episodes premiered on ESPN, and suddenly the essence of sports conversation returned. Social media discussions exploded. Articles about the film flooded the internet. Sports talk radio hosts devoted hourlong blocks to dissecting the film.

Each Sunday night for five weeks, at the conclusion of the show, “SportsCenter With Scott Van Pelt” became a review forum of every nook and cranny of the series. Said Hehir: “They were breaking down 25-year-old Bulls games we had referenced as if those had just been played that night.”

The first episode, according to ESPN, drew 6.34 million viewers. By the end of May, all 10 episodes averaged 5.648 million viewers during their live broadcasts, with those numbers doubling and tripling through on-demand viewing.

The series was recognized with an array of honors: an Emmy for outstanding documentary or nonfiction series, plus nominations for outstanding directing and picture editing; an NAACP Image Award for outstanding documentary; a Television Critics Association award for outstanding achievement in news and information; a Producers Guild of America award for outstanding producer of nonfiction television.

Those honors meant something. But the film’s status as a Sunday night meeting post during such a taxing period carried at least as much significance.

“It was rewarding to bring people a shared experience that was one of joy rather than one of fear and impending doom,” Hehir said. “That was a privilege. It made us all work harder. It kept us going. It gave us our second, third and fourth winds.”

All in

Naturally, when the final two episodes of “The Last Dance” aired May 17, Hehir’s giddiness was accompanied by overwhelming relief. Two days earlier, he had put Episodes 9 and 10 to bed.

The exhaustive notes process finally was complete. No additional requests or suggestions from the partners on the project.

“I felt like Andy Dufresne, coming out of that tunnel and raising his hands to the sky with the rain falling on me,” Hehir said, referencing “The Shawshank Redemption.”

No one, Hehir said, could ever fathom how intense those finishing stages were as he fought to protect his team’s work and creative artistry amid requests for tweaks and changes and cuts and rearrangements from four powerful partners: ESPN, Netflix, the NBA and Jordan’s Jump DC team.

“That’s a different sport,” he said. “These are all multibillion-dollar entities. And none of them are used to compromises. Everyone wants to tell a great story, but they all want to tell it their way.”

By the end, Hehir’s exhaustion was indescribable. His vocal cords were shot. And that was just a snapshot of the toll that came at the end of a grueling project that finished amid the undertow of the pandemic.

“I always immerse myself in every project I’m doing,” Hehir said. “These jobs become my life. It’s part of your identity. But everything on this project was exponentially bigger.”

From the start, Hehir’s heart-and-soul investment was both obvious and contagious.

Producer Nina Krstic, for example, started on the project not long after finishing “O.J.: Made in America,” a five-part, nearly eight-hour series for ESPN Films. Krstic had zero intention of pouring herself into another complex and exhausting series.

“Those take everything out of you,” she said. “I told myself that, for a little while anyway, I was only going to do regular-length documentaries.”

Then she met Hehir. She heard his ideas, listened to his music suggestions, grasped the depths of the research he had done. She could feel his infectious confidence.

“That passion is contagious,” Krstic said. “Then just watching him walk into our office every morning with his energy. ‘I couldn’t sleep last night!’ He always had another idea to try but always with a spirit of collaboration.”

As fate would have it, Hehir’s first date with his now-fiancee, Erin Perez, came on his second day as a paid employee on “The Last Dance” in January 2018. He’s still not sure how they navigated their way to an engagement this past winter after the first two-plus years of their relationship were slowed by that ubiquitous third wheel.

Early on, Hehir warned Perez that if he appeared distracted or detached or utterly dazed, it was almost certainly something to do with “The Last Dance.” A new idea. Another nasty curveball to try to hit. Two or three items to add to his to-do list. A ’90s song he wanted to pair with a specific scene.

“Every time Erin saw me for the better part of 2 1/2 years, I was on my last nerve,” Hehir said. “Any little thing could result in World War III. I spent two years on my last nerve and either expressing that or trying to suppress it.”

‘The strength of the pack’

About a year into the project, Hehir consistently stressed to Perez that when “The Last Dance” crossed the finish line, an immediate and lengthy getaway was in order. An escape.

At one point he told Perez they would count to three and then shout out their preferred destination.

1 … 2 … 3 …

“Kilimanjaro!” Erin piped in.

“Caribbean!” Hehir said.

A negotiation became necessary.

“I’m on Kilimanjaro already,” he told Erin. “This is my Kilimanjaro. I really don’t need to go poop in a bucket on the side of a mountain somewhere and get altitude sickness. What I need when this is all over is to relax with a cocktail that has an umbrella in it.”

As it turns out, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted those plans too. The whole nonessential air travel thing.

Thus at the end of May 2020, Hehir and Perez jumped in the car and drove to his cousin’s house near a beach in Cohasset, Mass. The couple planned to be there for a long weekend. They stayed for five weeks.

On many of those days, Hehir gravitated to the porch swing with a can or two of Fishers Island spiked lemonade and plowed through whatever books he pulled off the nearby shelf.

“Shopgirl” by Steve Martin. “The Summons” by John Grisham. “The Woman in the Window.” “The Lovely Bones.”

“I’d had enough nonfiction,” Hehir said.

In those early stages and even now, a year later, Hehir admits he was left a bit “woozy” from “The Last Dance,” aftereffects from working so long and hard on a series of such significance. He has likened the project to a grueling prizefight that changes a boxer forever.

“I’m a little nervous to dip my toe back in,” he said. “There’s a little bit of an internal fear there of how draining it all is and how much of a toll mentally it takes on you.”

Still, for as much as Hehir emphasizes that he has not fully decompressed or refueled, it’s worth noting he already has wheels in motion on more than a half-dozen future projects. At this stage, he is not at liberty to divulge specifics. But, he noted, there will be at least one more sports documentary with his fingerprints on it.

He is also venturing into new territory, exploring social justice projects and true crime stories. He’s eager to dive deeper into the music world too. Many new doors, he said, have opened because of “The Last Dance.”

Hehir has felt a certain liberation in knowing his “obituary project” is complete. “But,” he said, “it’s also a reminder that, for me, the joy is always in the making of the film.”

And the unparalleled thrill of “The Last Dance,” he stresses, was enhanced by the talented and cohesive team that worked so closely together to get it done right.

Producers Jake Rogal, Nina Krstic and Matt Maxson.

Editors Chad Beck, Devin Concannon, Abhay Sofsky and Ben Sozanski.

Associate producers Jillian Moossmann and Zach Rothfeld.

“We all hit the wall at different times,” Hehir said. “But I can speak for myself in saying that it was my devotion to my teammates that kept me going.”

Unfortunately, that group never got the usual festive closure on the project.

The originally scheduled May 2020 premiere of “The Last Dance” at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts? Canceled when the pandemic hit.

There was no wrap party either.

Awards shows? Online only.

Go figure.

The team never even got its final day in the office together, that sentimental and congratulatory “This is it” departure.

“There are never cherubs and trumpeters for that,” Maxson said. “But it is always a moment. It puts a button on a project. Just to look everybody in the eyes and say, ‘This has been a great ride.’ Even that small moment was taken from us.”

Instead? When each member of the team finished their respective contributions to the final episode?

“You closed your laptop. ‘OK. Episode 10 is done,’ ” Maxson said. “And then you’re just there in your apartment. Alone. For months.”

The closest Hehir and his team came to a collective celebration was a toast on the night Episodes 9 and 10 aired. Over Zoom.

But then came that Tuesday evening last August, that cruise on the Hudson. For three hours, the team had its equivalent of a Bulls rally in Grant Park.

“That was the first time in months any of us had seen each other in the flesh,” Hehir said. “So the hugs were twice as tight and the energy twice as high.”

The group that teamed to deliver “The Last Dance” knew immediately when the boat pulled away from shore why the occasion felt as special as it did.

Said Beck: “When you reflect on everything, you realize something much deeper happened here. And I think there’s that part of it where you owe it to each other to fully recognize, ‘Holy (expletive)! We made that!’ ”

Added Hehir: “I love to see people I care about happy. And I work very hard to make sure they experience the same happiness through these projects that I experience. … That’s what that night was all about.”

In a turbulent, taxing and often exhilarating 2020, Hehir considers that cruise one of his favorite moments of the year.

“I hope I do projects in the future that I am as proud of or more proud of than ‘The Last Dance,’ ” he said. “But nothing will be bigger. I know that. And I feel incredibly lucky to say that.”

The Bulls starting lineup in 1998 are, from left, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, Ron Harper and Toni Kukoc. - Nuccio DiNuzzo/TNS
Michael Jordan heads up court during a game at the United Center in 1997.. - Patrick D. Witty/TNS
From left to right: Dennis Rodman, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Ron Harper and coach Phil Jackson hold the five championship trophies in 1997.. - Charles Cherney/TNS
Michael Jordan after Bulls practice in Miami in 1997.. - Nuccio DiNuzzo/TNS
Michael Jordan flies to the hoop during the NBA Slam Dunk Contest Feb. 6, 1988, in Chicago. - Bob Langer/TNS
Fans go wild for Michael Jordan after his game-winning shot for the Bulls in a win over Atlanta. - Charles Cherney/TNS
Michael Jordan reacts after chatting with Phil Jackson with seconds on the clock and a Bulls victory in hand in 1998.. - Phil Velasquez/TNS
Michael Jordan looks to defend against Sacramento's Mitch Richmond during the first quarter in 1998.. - Phil Velasquez/TNS
Michael Jordan has a chat with the Lakers' Kobe Bryant during free throws in 1997.. - Phil Velasquez/TNS
Bulls coach Phil Jackson walks off the Delta Center court amid falling streams as the Bulls lost Game 1 of the NBA Finals to the Jazz on June 3, 1998. - Nuccio DiNuzzo/TNS