Celtics

Inside the Michael Jordan-Larry Bird dynamic with 'The Last Dance' director

Celtics

You know Michael Jordan respects you when he calls you a b****.

Episode 9 of “The Last Dance” gave us an incredible moment between Jordan and Larry Bird, who coached the Indiana Pacers to within minutes of upsetting the Chicago Bulls in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals.

“You b****, f*** you,” Jordan tells Bird in the hallway after Game 7. “Y'all gave us a run for our money.”

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There was plenty of history behind that line – history that Jason Hehir was uniquely positioned to tell.

The director of ESPN’s 10-part documentary series on the 1997-98 Bulls grew up in Newton, Mass., as a fan of the 1980s Celtics and later watched Jordan's Bulls become a dynasty from his dorm room at Williams (Mass.) College.

The first time he saw Jordan in person? Game 2 of the first round of the 1986 NBA playoffs, when Jordan dropped 63 points on Bird's Celtics.

“I was there with my dad sitting in Loge 13 at the Garden," Hehir told NBC Sports Boston. "I vividly remember that day. I was spoiled after that. He averaged 63 points in games I saw him play in my life, because I never saw him play again."

Jordan earned Bird’s respect that night. The Celtics legend famously described MJ as "God disguised as Michael Jordan” after the game – a line he redelivered to Hehir in Episode 2 without any extra prompting.

"He gave it to me before I even asked him to recreate it,” Hehir said. “I thought I was going to have to tee him up, but he was there ready to say it. We got it in one take.”

 

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Over the course of several interviews with Jordan, Hehir uncovered what a young MJ thought of Bird and Magic Johnson, who both won multiple championships with the Celtics and Lakers, respectively, during the 1980s.

“(Jordan) revered and appreciated them," Hehir said. "Michael is a student of the game. Magic and Larry are almost contemporaries of his, but if you talk about older guys in the league at that point too, he has an enormous respect for the players who came before him. 

"He also envied the mountaintop that they were on, and if you give Michael a goal, he’s going to monomaniacally attack the achievement of that goal. And that’s exactly what he did."

Bird’s success in Boston fueled Jordan to raise the bar, to the point where he famously told writer Mark Vancil the only reason he wasn’t retiring after the 1991-92 season was so he could win three straight NBA titles, something Bird and Johnson had never done.

Fittingly, it was Bird who nearly derailed Jordan’s second three-peat as a first-year head coach of the Pacers in 1998. And while he cursed out Larry Legend after Game 7, Jordan admitted to Hehir that Bird’s Pacers gave him the “toughest time” out of any team outside the Detroit Pistons.

“He has enormous respect for Larry,” Hehir said. “You can still have reverence for somebody and view them as an equal.”

Jordan went on to win his sixth NBA title while becoming arguably the greatest player of all time. But you can’t tell MJ’s story without Larry Bird – especially if you were raised on the 1980s Celtics.

“It’s a cool subplot, especially as a Boston kid growing up, to see the arc of Larry and Michael's relationship evolve," Hehir said. "In Episode 2, you have the young, second-year Michael Jordan as a kid going into the Garden and scoring 63.

“In Episode 5, you have Larry coaching Michael in his final All-Star Game as a Bull at Madison Square Garden. And then in Episode 9, you have these two going at it as fierce competitors again. 

"So, it was a kick for me to see Larry appear in this story as much as he did."

Hehir also joined Mike Tirico on Monday on NBC Sports' "Lunch Talk Live" to discuss how he was able to get Jordan to open up about many sensitive topics. Check out that interview below: