There was this treasure trove of NBA video that had remained in the vault for nearly two decades.
Before immense production could begin on the “The Last Dance” – the 10-part documentary that followed Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls during the 1997-98 season – Zach Rothfeld was tasked with watching and logging 500 hours of footage that was filmed exclusively by NBA Entertainment. The way he described the process, Rothfeld was practicing social distancing long before it was fashionable.
“For six straight months [beginning in January 2018], I would sit in this white room with no windows,” said Rothfeld, who produced over 500 pages of notes based on the fascinating storylines that Jordan and the Bulls produced during a season that culminated with the franchise’s sixth NBA title.
Rothfeld was on the ground floor for a behind-the-scenes look that in many ways has helped quench the country’s thirst for quality sports programing during these pandemic times. It was his attention to detail that helped pave the way for what has become a Sunday night staple over the past few weeks.
Not too shabby for someone who per the credits for “The Last Dance” is recognized as one the documentary’s two associate producers. Keep in mind that for parts of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Rothfeld earned his keep as an intern with the Pawtucket Red Sox where he did a little bit of everything – from video production to dressing up as one of the mascots.
If you’ve paid close attention to “The Last Dance,” no doubt you’re familiar with the scene when a young female fan is interviewed on the concourse of the United Center – the building that served as the home for many of Jordan’s triumphs. The fan is asked about the choice she had – a Christmas present or the chance to see Jordan in-person.
“I logged that particular scene but wasn’t sure if it would get used,” said Rothfeld. “To be frank, I didn’t have the skill [to be selective] when I started this project, but I felt good about what was going to be used. It was about going through everything with a fine-tooth comb.
“It’s gratifying to see areas where you had some kind of impact.”
Another famous scene that might have remained under wraps had it not struck a chord with Rothfeld came when Jordan was in his so-called private room in the United Center. The competitive juices were flowing as Jordan took on his hand-picked security team in a game where quarters were tossed towards a wall to see which one could get the quarter closest to the wall without hitting it.
The entire sequence created a narrative in Rothfeld’s mind, thus it deserved to be logged for consideration.
“Michael Jordan is one of the most famous individuals on the planet and this little room is one of the few escapes where he can be himself,” said Rothfeld. “The footage of him pitching quarters against the wall is a great example of that.”
A 2017 graduate of Emerson College, Rothfeld didn’t go into this project blind. Any Jordan-related book he could find … he was reading them on the train ride from Boston to Providence during his internship with the PawSox.
“Having a base knowledge of where the story was going to go by researching the characters … it’s definitely awe-inspiring when you think how many hours of footage there was,” said Rothfeld, who officially started working for Mandalay Sports Media – the sports media company that worked in collaboration with the NBA and Netflix on “The Last Dance” – in July 2017.
“I was interested in sports documentaries and kept flooding [Mandalay’s] email box. I was able to get an interview and intern for them,” said Rothfeld. “I knew the Jordan documentary was being developed. Before I knew it, I had a role.”
It was a rush to the finish line to complete “The Last Dance” after the premier date was bumped up from a previously-announced June release to mid-April in response to the coronavirus-related sports shutdown. When reached Tuesday, Rothfeld noted he was only a few days removed from wrapping up Episodes 9 and 10.
“It was definitely a mad dash, but I think some of the most recent episodes have featured some our best work,” said Rothfeld.
For Rothfeld, his time with the PawSox allowed him to tap into his creative side. With the blessing of team president Dr. Charles Steinberg, he worked side-by-side with current Director of PawSox Productions Joe Jacobs to produce in-house content that was featured on television and on the McCoy Stadium video board.
“We were pretty much given the keys to the kingdom,” said Rothfeld. “Going to work on the Jordan documentary was good in the sense that I was able to come in with confidence in myself based on my time in Pawtucket.”
Stated Steinberg, “He’s a talented young man. I’m not surprised he’s doing well. He became the knowledge base from where all the best shots were [in The Last Dance].”
Jason Hehir, director of a documentary that has shown Jordan in the rarest of lights, would concur with Steinberg’s assessment of the vital role played by Rothfeld.
“There are certain things in this business that you can’t teach. We talk about five-tool players in baseball. Zach is the proverbial five-tool player in filmmaking,” said Hehir. “He was asked to play the role of a full-fledged producer. Outside of the NBA, his eyes were the first ones in the world to see this footage. To come up with the vernacular that we could all use – what was the most important footage to show and what categories it fell under … I could say to Zach that I need a shot of Jordan acting upset after a loss. Because he’s come up with this workflow, he can immediately give me a dozen shots that may work in that slot.”
“We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Zach [and fellow associate producer Jillian Moossmann] because that’s where all the hard work goes,” added Hehir. “Any shot that catches your eye, thank Zach because he’s the one who found it.”
Check out Adam Finkelstein’s interview with former Bull Scott Burrell to get an inside look of “The Last Dance” season on The Upside Podcast.
Watch “The Last Dance” Episodes 9 & 10 this Sunday on ESPN