Of all the Pearl Jam songs that could have concluded “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s documentary miniseries about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, most would expect something more iconic than “Present Tense,” a deep cut from 1996’s “No Code.” But for director Jason Hehir, that sequence was the culmination of 24 years of patient waiting.
“I remember thinking, when I heard that, that would be such a cool song to cut highlights to,” says Hehir in a telephone interview. “This is long before I even became involved in the industry.” Indeed, when the Seattle band released “No Code” and Hehir first listened to it, he was a college student spending a semester abroad in Galway, Ireland.
Over the ensuing decades, “No Code” has gone largely overlooked by mainstream audiences, and “Present Tense” is buried in the album’s back half. But Hehir never forgot it. “I started with ‘Present Tense’ and came all the way back to that” when editing began, says the director. By then, the selection was all the more fitting.
“Michael’s a mystic,” says writer Mark Vancil in the opening of the finale episode, which aired May 17. (In the U.S., all 10 episodes of the miniseries are available on the ESPN app.) “His gift was not that he could jump high, run fast, shoot a basketball. His gift was that he was completely present, and that was the separator.” Vancil imagines Jordan asking, “Why would I think about missing a shot I haven’t taken yet?”
Cue Eddie Vedder, intoning over Mike McCready’s vaporous guitar line, “Have you ideas on how this life ends? / Checked your hands and studied the lines?” In the refrain, he embraces the futility of those very questions. “Makes much more sense,” sings Vedder, “to live in the present tense.”
Those words are set to the Chicago dynasty’s formal dissolution, in 1998, after Jordan and the Bulls had won their sixth NBA championship in eight years. As the song plays, coach Phil Jackson — who left the Bulls in ’98 along with Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr — describes an emotional farewell ceremony, where players read reflections about the team and then burned what they had written.
The music builds from those meditative verses to an instrumental crescendo, accompanying one last highlight reel: dunks, triumphant fist pumps, hoisting the championship trophy and weeping in disbelief. Beneath the montage, Pearl Jam is hammering out the song’s climax — but still, it’s the tranquil opening section that hits harder. Floating, as if weightless, that intro is the sonic equivalent of Jordan paused in midair, halfway between his launching point and the rim.
Though Hehir’s original inclination was to close with “Present Tense,” he did consider other possibilities. He was guided by a brief, if vague, dictum. “We need ‘Dream On’ but not ‘Dream On,’” Hehir remembers saying, as he sought a less hackneyed alternative to the 1973 Aerosmith hit. He tried cutting the final sequence to U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” another song that evokes flight both musically and lyrically. He wondered if he could do for that song what “The Sopranos” finale did for “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and forever change its association. But it didn’t seem to work.
Part of the challenge was finding something that would fit, in context, with the rest of the soundtrack. To great acclaim, “The Last Dance” had paralleled the rise of Jordan’s Bulls with the rise of hip-hop in the 1980s and ’90s. Highlights from Jordan’s early days, for example, were memorably narrated by Rakim declaring “I Ain’t No Joke”; as Jordan revived a pair of vintage sneakers later in his career, A Tribe Called Quest asked, “Can I Kick It?”; and as a young Kobe Bryant angled to dethrone the older Jordan, Nas and Lauryn Hill amplified that power struggle with “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That).” Hehir considered using Pearl Jam’s “Animal,” a headbanger from 1993’s “Vs.,” in one of these highlight reels. The song would’ve captured the frenetic intensity of Jordan’s dominance, but it also would’ve set a strikingly different tone.
These “needle drops,” as Hehir calls them, elevated “The Last Dance” from a sports documentary to a celebration of African American culture, a look back on the growing global prominence of both this game and this music. Rock supplanting hip-hop in the final scene — prime cinematic real estate — could risk jarring the listener, if not complicating the series’ racial politics.
“I did have a concern about that,” says Hehir, and that’s partly “why U2 didn’t feel right to me.” The director says he searched for a hip-hop song to use during the final scene, but ultimately “couldn’t find” one “that met the moment in the way that I wanted to.” So he returned to “Present Tense,” by Pearl Jam who — unlike U2 — rose to fame in the 1990s, and could claim close connections with both the city of Chicago and the ’90s Bulls. Vedder, a native of the Chicago suburb of Evanston, is famously friends with Dennis Rodman, and appears in footage that Hehir reviewed, but ultimately didn’t use. (A voicemail that Rodman left for Vedder can be heard on the Pearl Jam song “Black, Red, Yellow.”) Hehir says he also wanted to interview Vedder for the documentary, because the singer “was behind the scenes for a lot of that stuff, but the schedules just didn’t work out.”
It’s a shame, because Vedder probably would’ve had quite a bit to say.
In fact, on May 16, 2006, during a Pearl Jam show at Chicago’s United Center, he shared these thoughts about the iconic Bulls teams that played there, and how they embodied a certain song of his: “Even though music and athleticism, it doesn’t really seem like they cross over — but this song in particular, it seems like it does. And I think about those guys. This song’s called ‘Present Tense.’”
Intuiting Jordan’s ability to stage an odds-defying comeback through sheer strength of mind, the singer made a slight amendment to his comments a moment later, after the music had started. “It’s called ‘Fourth Quarter,’” whispered Vedder, as a guitar began to chime through the arena.