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Some might say producer and director Mike Tollin has the magic touch.
The Havertown, Pa., native made waves from the very start of his career, when he convinced Philly basketball superstar Wilt Chamberlain to participate in the “Greatest Sports Legends” series, which was produced on City Avenue in Bala Cynwyd.
Just shy of 40 years later, Tollin would be convincing the man many call the greatest athlete of all time to take on another one of his media projects. No geographic connection this time — Michael Jordan doesn’t have direct ties to the Philadelphia region. But it was Tollin’s Philly cred that ended up making the difference.
Tollin, 64, is the executive producer for “The Last Dance,” a 10-episode docuseries that chronicles Jordan’s career and especially the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls championship season.
What he calls the most anticipated work of his prolific sports and entertainment career might not have happened if not for Tollin’s moving “Iverson” documentary.
In an interview with WIP radio, Tollin recounted the moment in 2016 when he scored a precious face-to-face with Jordan himself.
Flipping through the lookbook presented to pitch the “Last Dance” project, Jordan took off his reading glasses quizzically, Tollin said, describing the pivotal interaction. “He saw the photo of ‘Iverson,’…and he looks up and says, ‘You did that?'” Turns out Jordan was a fan.
“Watched that thing three times, made me cry. I love that little guy,” Jordan said to him, Tollin recalled. “That was kind of the clincher.”
Originally planned for June 2020 release, “The Last Dance” was rolled out months ahead of schedule, a switch Tollin said was in response to fans’ requests for sports to watch during the coronavirus lockdown
The 10-part series has been airing two episodes a week on Sundays on ESPN. The final episode airs Sunday, May 17. You can also stream the censored or uncensored version of the series on ESPN.com.
When your dad’s a locally famous athlete
Tollin’s Philly-area roots run deeper than his intense sports fandom.
Some of his earliest memories are of baseball games at the now demolished Connie Mack Stadium in North Philly. But it was almost destined that he would get into Philly sports — they run through his veins.
Mike’s dad was Sol Tollin, one of the region’s best-known Jewish athletes.
Sol, who died in 2006, was raised in nearby Chester County. He was a Chester High baseball player (check out the team pic) and basketball star. He went on to have a standout run at Haverford College. In high school, the senior Tollin played both basketball and baseball.
Sol was posthumously inducted into the Haverford Athletics Hall of Fame in 2018.
That induction followed another milestone: in 2009, the father-son pair were inducted in the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
By then, Mike had produced a diverse laundry list of acclaimed shows, movies and documentaries. His love for Philadelphia has been threaded throughout.
From ‘Smallville’ to the Baseball Hall of Fame
Just a few years after graduating from Stanford University in 1977, Tollin wrote the script for the Phillies’1980 World Series film.
He directed “Centennial: Over 100 Years of Philadelphia Phillies Baseball,” and enjoyed a run on late 90s/early 00s Nickalodeon with work on shows like “Kenan & Kel,” “All That,” “Good Burger” and “Cousin Skeeter.”
You also have Tollin to thank for gritty sports triumph stories like “Varsity Blues,” “Hardball,” “Radio” and “Coach Carter.” Not to mention young adult cult-favorite dramas “Smallville” and “One Tree Hill.”
He’s earned a couple Sports Emmys, and an Emmy and Peabody Award for his executive producer work on the ESPN docuseries “30 for 30.”
After dropping the most extensive look into the mind of the GOAT Michael Jordan for all the world to see, what’s next?
It could be something with a more niche viewership. Tollin told MLB.com he’s thinking about making a film about Dick Allen, the Phillies All-Star who’s still awaiting his chance to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
This project, Tollin said, would be “mostly for Philly folk,” plus, of course, “everybody who loves a good emotional story.”