It was before the 1997-98 NBA season, and former Gophers men's basketball player Andy Thompson was working for NBA Entertainment. The head of that company, someone named Adam Silver, was asking for ideas on how to cover the upcoming season.
Thompson raised his hand.
"The Bulls are probably going to break up after the season," Thompson said. "We should follow Michael Jordan and the Bulls the entire year. You can't let this guy go off in history and not document one of the greatest players in NBA history without spending a year trying to see what we can do with this."
Silver, now the league's commissioner, agreed. He used some contacts with the Bulls to arrange it with Thompson — the brother of Mychal Thompson, also an ex-Gopher — on the ground to document every move of that season with a camera operator and sound producer.
Most of the 500 hours' worth of footage Thompson obtained has never seen the light of day, but NBA fans will finally get the chance to do that. It serves as the foundation for ESPN's highly anticipated 10-part documentary series "The Last Dance," which begins airing Sunday.
"I find it just mind-boggling that we were able to pull this off in a time and era when teams weren't used to giving anybody access the way they gave us," Thompson said. "I wonder how we did it."
Thompson played three seasons for the Gophers from 1979-82 after Mychal had made his mark on the U. Andy Thompson never played in the NBA, so how did he find himself documenting one of the most historic teams in NBA history? His brother's legacy and former Vikings receiver Ahmad Rashad laid the groundwork.
After a knee injury ended his playing career overseas, Thompson landed a job at NBA Entertainment. He had a background in art and photography and he learned the ins and outs of TV and film production. Most important, he knew his way around locker rooms, and he had relationships with a lot of players in the league.
"This gave me a distinct advantage dealing with NBA players — how to talk to them, when to back off," Thompson said.
One of those players was Jordan, whom Thompson had met while working alongside Rashad when Rashad was the host of the program "Inside Stuff." In 1991, Rashad introduced Thompson to Jordan when the show was doing an interview with Jordan.
Rashad made sure to tell Jordan that Thompson was Mychal's brother. Immediately they connected.
"He said, 'Man, I used to love your brother when I was a kid. He was the No. 1 pick, he had these cool puka shells he wore around his neck,'" Thompson said. "I was like, 'Man, you're not kidding.'"
Thompson said Jordan told him he even went so far as to try and convince his parents to let him spell his name Mychal.
This helped Thompson when he worked on a documentary that followed the Dream Team in 1992, and it helped he had such a good relationship with Jordan when he was following around the Bulls that season.
"That really helped my relationship with Michael develop because of what Ahmad did that day," Thompson said. "From that point on, Michael and I developed a really good relationship over the years, which culminated in 1998."
So why has nobody seen most of the footage until now? Thompson said that's for a few reasons. First, in the immediate aftermath of the Bulls' run, another film, "Michael Jordan to the Max," came out. So NBA Entertainment decided it didn't want to release its footage so soon on the heels of that. Then Jordan came back to play with the Wizards, so the timing wasn't right for a retrospective on the Bulls' run.
Then Jordan transitioned to ownership of the Bobcats, now Hornets. The timing wasn't right then, either.
Time needed to pass before Jordan and others around the team felt open enough to discussing what went on during that time. The time was right about 20 years later, when producers secured interviews with nearly everyone they asked for the project, including Jordan.
"All of the guys now are older and they can speak with I think a little bit more conviction about what they were feeling back in the day," Thompson said. "Whereas if we did the interviews right after the fact, people are a little more guarded."
The fruits of that labor will be on display over the next few weeks. ESPN moved up the airing of the series from its original schedule in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
"You're getting a way better product," Thompson said. "Because like wine, it's matured in its cask for all these years."