In Cocktail, a great ‘80s movie, Tom Cruise’s character, Brian, has one of the greatest movie lines ever. After a break-up, he states “Jesus, everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end.” As I finished watching The Last Dance on ESPN, I was reminded of how true this quote was to the end of the Bulls dynasty. It had to end badly or else Jordan might still be out there playing.
I already knew this. I loved basketball in the ‘90s, and I loved the Bulls, so I can still remember this entire story arc. What I also knew, but the depth of which caught me by surprise, was Michael Jordan’s competitiveness.
Now, I have always believed Jordan was the greatest competitor I would ever get to witness in sports. His game winning shots and outstanding performances in the playoffs are all a high school kid needed to see to cement that image. The only other athlete for me that even comes close is Derek Jeter.
It’s like I knew Jordan’s competitiveness in theory, but watching The Last Dance made me realize the practicality and the depth of how much he wanted to win.
“I’m competitive, too. I just didn’t have the talent to back it up.” Steve Kerr
I loved watching the Steve Kerr interviews, especially in the last couple of episodes. Here was a guy in the NBA, hitting game-winning shots and winning championships, who defines himself as lacking talent. Steve Kerr is the ultimate Try Harder athlete. He trained himself into the role he could fit, and it’s one of the reasons he is a great NBA coach now. His story was a perfect juxtaposition to Jordan’s.
Jordan’s combination of competitiveness and talent was unique. I loved listening to Jordan and others describe how he took everything personally and used it as tackling fuel (a reference to another movie — The Waterboy).
Didn’t shake Jordan’s hand? He’s pissed. Shook his hand at the wrong time? He’s pissed. Big-timed him at dinner? He’s pissed. Won an MVP that he felt he should have won? He’s pissed. Media compared someone else’s to his talent level? He’s pissed. Questioned his decision to quit one major pro sport at the top of his game and try another pro sport, and then come back to Sport #1 two years later and have the audacity to wonder if he would ever win again? Now he’s really pissed.
And he used it with everybody: the media, other players, coaches, his teammates. Nobody was immune from causing Jordan to explode with a 40 point game or an NBA 1st Team All-Defense award.
Michael Jordan’s competitiveness was next level. He was able to continue to find ways to stay motivated. Speaking of another movie, who knew it would permeate into Space Jam?
I am so intrigued and wish I was a fly on the wall during the filming of Space Jam. Jordan made Warner Brothers build him a basketball bubble so he could practice. And he called all the big-time players to show up and play pick-up games with him. Could you imagine getting the call?
“Hey, it’s Mike, you busy? Come to LA, let’s run.” How could you NOT say yes to Jordan calling you for a pickup game? How awesome would it have been to be a janitor at Warner Brothers and stumble upon an NBA pickup game after filming had wrapped up for the day?
I think about the energy it took for him to work all day filming and then play basketball until 11:00 or Midnight every night and then do it all again the next day. Cycling players through, teammates and competitors, people he respected, and people he didn’t. He just needed to learn, to compete, to play.
Remember, that was after he retired once and went to baseball. He wasn’t young anymore. Jordan knew he needed to up his practice and up his game to get back to the level he had been. He knew it and he did something about it. I respect that competitiveness so much. I respect that preparation and attention to detail so much.
“They can’t win til we quit!” Michael Jordan
I loved the scenes during The Last Dance when Jordan was being interviewed and was lacing up his shoes before the basketball game. Several times, there were scenes from the 1998 season of Jordan meticulously pulling each lace through the bottom two holes. He made sure both were exactly the same length before plugging through the next two holes, and measuring each for exact length. He did it by rote, by memorization, by heart as he was being interviewed. It was second nature to him.
This process makes sense to me. Jordan took such pride and such effort at preparing to win, that even the little details like shoelaces matter. I assume if you’re Michael Jordan and have lots of shoes named after you, you get lots of shoes. I bet he had a new pair for every game and practice, if he wanted them. I can see him meticulously measuring each lace for each practice and each game. This process was part of the reason he was able to come back and get his second three-peat. The way he laced his shoes and prepared made it so “they can’t win til we quit!”
Jordan’s shoes make me think of a John Wooden lesson. Wooden, the former UCLA head coach and possibly the greatest teacher in modern sports history, started teaching his players, on Day 1, how to put their socks on and tie their shoes. Wooden explained that he had seen players miss practice because they had blisters on their feet. Therefore, he needed to teach them how to properly smooth socks and tie shoes, and then there would be no more preventable blisters that distracted his players from their goals. Wooden did not overlook the simple stuff that needed to be taught — even how to tie your shoes.
John Wooden and Michael Jordan understood the importance of preparation as it pertains to competing. Wooden wrote a book about it and basically all coaches in America use his pyramid in one way or another. Michael Jordan was able to manufacture anger to propel him to six NBA championships.
Maybe we should all pay more attention to our shoes.
Watching The Last Dance made me sad. It made me feel old to watch the great Hero’s Tale that was the Bulls. It made me miss the Bad Guys to the Bulls — The actual Bad Boys Pistons, the Lakers, the Jazz, the Trailblazers, the Pacers. I spent most Saturday afternoons watching the Bulls play on TV and hearing the voice:
“A 6′ 6” shooting guard from North Carolina, Michael Jordan!”
I can still hear this announcer’s voice, ringing in my ears. Soon after came the “And YOUR Chicago Bulls!” It was impossible for a high school athlete like me to watch those games and not be inspired. I didn’t like basketball very much but I LOVED it on the Saturday’s the Bulls played.
While I was a high schooler lounging at home, in Jordan’s first practice back from baseball, he punched Steve Kerr. I didn’t know about this at the time, but in The Last Dance, now I see how much it cost Jordan to be that competitive. Competitiveness can be a negative, too, and his frustration spilled over to his teammates. I’m sure there are former Bulls who don’t think Jordan is a nice guy.
To this day, I bet Jordan still doesn’t care what people thought about him. Leadership is a lonely, isolated position. All that mattered was winning. All that mattered was that everybody gave as much as he did — which was everything.
And maybe more than everything if everything wasn’t enough in Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
I haven’t paid attention to basketball since Jordan retired. I don’t like it that much, especially the version I see of it now. I like team sports and the NBA I see isn’t team oriented.
In fact, the only other team I paid attention to is when Phil Jackson went to the Lakers and cemented himself as the best coach the NBA — and maybe all sports — has ever seen.
But that’s another essay. And this isn’t a great ending, but remember — everything ends badly, or else it wouldn’t end.