I’ve loved basketball since I was eight years old. Basketball grabbed my attention back then, and it’s never let go. The sounds of squeaking sneakers and swished shots give me chills.
Early on, I internalized one core tenet of NBA fandom: Michael Jordan (aka MJ) is the greatest basketball player of all time. I absorbed that view as if it were a scientific fact as proven as the laws of gravity or special relativity.
I vaguely remember watching MJ play for the Wizards, but unfortunately I did not experience the full breadth of MJ’s incredible career. I learned about him by reading and hearing from others who had and could not help but feel blessed. People talk about watching MJ the way they talk about seeing The Beatles.
In that sense, Air Jordan has always felt like a mythical figure, a dominant force of nature mentioned in the same rarified air as Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali. People revere these all-time greats not just for their athletic accomplishments but for what they represent. And to me, MJ represents a lot.
MJ the ruthless competitor
The world got an inside look at the man himself over the last few weeks. At long last, ESPN released a 10-part documentary series centered on the 1997–1998 Chicago Bulls season, MJ’s last campaign with the Bulls that coach Phil Jackson aptly nicknamed ‘The Last Dance.’ I watched the documentary attentively, eager to see a new side of MJ.
I learned some new things but overall, I knew much of what was covered in ‘The Last Dance.’ The documentary only reinforced my take on MJ’s greatness: it came at an unnecessary cost to both himself and the people around him.
MJ’s ruthlessness and pettiness know no bounds. He would famously invent slights to stoke his competitive fire. Refer to his Hall of Fame speech as living proof of his fiercely competitive nature. Instead of thanking the many people who helped him reach unimaginable heights, he listed every single person in his life who fueled that fire.
Some other manifestations (among many) of MJ’s unrelenting competitiveness:
- He punched at least two teammates (Will Perdue and Steve Kerr) square in the face.
- He repeatedly made abrasive jokes belittling general manager Jerry Krause’s height, weight, and appearance.
- He disparaged a crying teammate (Joe Kleine) during a championship parade by saying: “Why are you crying? I’m the one who went out and won it for you.”
- He allegedly told flight attendants to not serve a teammate (Horace Grant) who had a bad game.
- He tackled his son into a glass table while playing tackle football indoors with his kids.
- He may have ruined a teammate’s career (Rodney McCray) by riding him hard in post-practice shooting games.
- He may have ruined an opponent’s career (Muggsy Bogues) by calling him a ‘f***ing midget’ during a game.
Should winning have a price?
In MJ’s mind, his teammates needed to strictly follow his exacting standards. Since the burden of leadership fell on his shoulders, he felt empowered to operate like General Patton.
“Winning has a price,” Jordan said. “And leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged.”
MJ’s relentless drive consumed him to a dangerous degree. Perhaps MJ would have never attained those remarkable heights without his fierce competitiveness, but I think he could have been great while being nicer. Maybe the ends MJ and his Bulls achieved did not justify the means he often forced on himself and those around him.
B.J. Armstrong won three championships with MJ. During ‘The Last Dance’, Armstrong addressed the question of whether MJ could have been a more benevolent leader. He asked and answered his own rhetorical question:
“Was he a nice guy? He couldn’t have been nice. With that kind of mentality he had, you can’t be a nice guy.”
Jordan proffered that some may misinterpret his leadership approach as more fitting for a tyrant. The way he describes it, he seems happy with his six rings and thinks those who throw rocks at his house can literally kick rocks.
“When people see this, they’ll say, ‘Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.’ Well, that’s you. Because you never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted [my teammates] to win and be a part of that as well.”
Why MJ might have regrets
At the end of Episode 7, as he describes the mentality that carried him to six titles, MJ chokes up as he rips open the wounds of his competitiveness. His emotions consume him so much that he is rendered speechless, telling the production team to break. We’re left to wonder what might have motivated this rare display of vulnerability from a seemingly invincible and impenetrable human being.
I think when he reminisces without a camera in his face or a doubter pushing his buttons, MJ looks back on his career with a tinge of regret. Before the documentary aired, the director recounted that MJ feared he would come across as a “horrible guy.” Some called that yet another genius marketing play.
To me, it reflected a man uncomfortable with the public perception of his leadership style. This documentary aired because MJ wanted it, and I think he wanted a forum to attempt to defend his mentality and leadership style. He wanted to paint his belligerence in a good light.
Deep down, MJ probably regrets the vindictiveness and rage that he felt justified to deploy in his pursuit of greatness. Was all of that winning worth the price he paid, the ruined relationships with teammates, family members, and many others in his life? Did he go too far in his pursuit of greatness? Could he have won without carrying an assassin mentality on and off the court?
Maybe MJ is the only person qualified to answer those rhetorical questions. But many other hypercompetitive Hall of Fame athletes have won just as many titles or risen as high as Air Jordan, achieving similar ends without similarly ugly means. Look to other greats like Tim Duncan and LeBron James or Tom Brady and Peyton Manning or Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols. None of them developed a reputation for abusing their greatness. As ESPN’s Pablo Torre said, “a legendary leader does not have to be a legendary jerk.”
Don’t Be Like Mike
In 1992, at the peak of MJ’s fame, Gatorade aired a commercial featuring MJ with a simple yet enduring tagline: Be Like Mike. One of the most famous commercials ever made, it symbolized MJ’s appeal (and his marketing prowess) quite succinctly. People around the world desperately wanted to emulate MJ, both on and off the court.
I say Don’t Be Like Mike.