Interview: Tom Smithburg Talks ‘The Last Dance,’ Helping Scottie Pippen Escape the United Center, and Jordan’s Legacy


Peter Elliott, Editor-in-Chief

He was with the Chicago Bulls for the entirety of their decade-long run of dominance in the 1990s, winning six championships and establishing a culture that drove the success of the greatest dynasty in sports history.

In the spring, he starred in The Last Dance, and garnered significant reappraisal as one of the best to ever do it.

Oh, wait, did you think I was talking about Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen?

No, I’m talking about a scrappy media relations manager who graduated from Lake Forest High School.

Sure, Jordan was great, but he never facilitated an overcrowded press room, and he certainly never snuck Dennis Rodman out of the United Center with 300 media members trying to hunt him down.

Tom Smithburg may not have seen any action on the floor, but he helped run the show behind the scenes, managing the insatiable off-the-court frenzy that enveloped the most in-demand team in the world from 1991 through the end of the team’s dynastic run in 1999.

Bulls general manager Jerry Krause always said that “organizations win championships,” much to the chagrin of stars like Jordan. But there’s a kernel of truth to that self-indulgent statement.

Without Smithburg, would the Bulls have escaped the countless media frenzies that Dennis Rodman ensnared himself in? How else would broadcasters know how to pronounce Toni Kukoč’s name without the phonetic spelling in the media guide  Smithburg helped produce? His work may not have been as public-facing as the team’s starting five, but he kept the show running behind the scenes.

Over quarantine, Smithburg spoke with The Forest Scout for a wide-ranging conversation that touched on everything from his career trajectory to his role in the Bulls miniseries that captivated the sports world for five weeks with the world in lockdown. 

A 1987 graduate of LFHS, Smithburg went on to attend Northwestern, where he pursued a degree in Economics. 

Just before leaving Evanston after four years, Smithburg landed a fortuitous internship in 1991 with the Bulls that started just days after they had won their first championship. After outworking 16 other interns, he moved through the marketing department, before eventually finding himself in the team’s press shop by the end of the dynasty.

Smithburg served the team’s assistant media relations manager, and oversaw everything from approving press credentials to preparing the pregame meal.

In 1997, Smithburg added another job to his resume: documentary film producer. 

With all signs pointing to the 1997-98 campaign being Jordan’s last, NBA Entertainment had the foresight to assign a film crew to follow the team around for the whole season, from the preseason to the Finals.

He was to be the crew’s liaison with the team, coordinating practice times, scheduling interviews, and arranging exclusive access to the team.

But due to a myriad of reasons, the footage never saw the air. The footage sat dormant in an archive somewhere in Secaucus, New Jersey for almost two decades.

What eventually became of those dusty film reels was a result that neither Smithburg or anyone else involved with the production could have ever imagined.

What’s the deal with the Bulls locker room? Smithburg briefly appeared next to Jerry Seinfeld in Episode 5 of “The Last Dance” while Seinfeld toured the team’s locker room before a game.

In May 2018, ESPN announced the manifestation of all that footage: “The Last Dance,” a ten-part miniseries which was to run in conjunction with the 2020 NBA Finals. (That programming dream was dashed when the pandemic shut down the season.)

With a barren calendar of live sports and a captive audience at home, ESPN rushed the production. Miraculously, Jason Hehir and his team managed to create a unifying work of documentary storytelling became appointment viewing for five weeks in the middle of a global pandemic.

Unbeknownst to Smithburg, he would appear in the miniseries twice, making brief cameos in Episodes 5 and 10.

“I had absolutely no idea that I would be in front of the camera at any time, period,” said Smithburg. “It was as of a surprise to me as it was to everyone who was watching.”

He also likely never expected to share the silver screen with Jerry Seinfeld. But there he was in Episode 5, guiding the biggest comedian in the world through the locker room of the biggest sports team in the world. (There has to be a scrapped Seinfeld B-plot in which Constanza gets called down from the stands to coach the Bulls.)

Like Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman, the ’97-’98 season was also Smithburg’s “Last Dance.” Though his time with the Bulls drove the majority of our conversation, he has long since left the team.

In 2000, he helped found TeamWorks Media, a marketing agency that specializes in sports brand campaigns and video storytelling.

Smithburg’s experience working with big time basketball stars has made working with major clients like the Big Ten Network, ESPN, and the Baseball Hall of Fame seem like nothing.

As his bio on the company’s website says, Smithburg has a “million good stories.” 

We think he shared a few pretty good ones.


The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.