There are legends and then there is Michael Jordan. And if we needed any reminders a Netflix documentary called The Last Dance came at us detailing the man’s incredible reign at Chicago Bulls. I will say this; He is not the most successful Basketballer. Bill Russel has 11 championships including 8 straight ones from 1959-1966, while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has more MVP’s. And yet none of these luminaries carry half the influence of Michael Jordan.
Americans are usually ridiculed for equating their local competitions to world championships. The NBA finals, therefore, becomes the World Championship, even if there might be a more talented competition in Croatia. But exceptions can be made of the NBA. It became and continues to be a competition of truly global appeal. And it can thank Michael Jordan for that.
He used his skill and consistency to endear the game to many. Everything he touched turned to gold. Yes, they made him the world’s first billionaire athlete, but isn’t that an under-compensation when you consider how much Nike and the NBA grew by association? They were American and he gave them the world.
And to the rest of us, he gave beautiful memories. Mine are from the late 90’s and all-nighters in Ange-noir waiting for games he won at the death. The Last Dance brought back these memories – the same man, year after year, buzzer after buzzer, jump-shot after jump-shot.
But what is it that gave an individual in a team sport such singular appeal? Barrack Obama in the documentary says, “there are great players who don’t have an impact beyond their sport, and then there are certain sports figures who become a larger cultural force”. Yes, Michael Jordan needed Basketball to become a cultural force, but his individual love and drive for the game were greater than the game itself. That is why he stood out.
And that drive made him a nasty perfectionist as are most top performers. The documentary is littered with incidents in which he fails to hide his contempt for mediocrity whether that arose from managing director or teammate. It is that viciousness that sets the stars and the laggards apart. It’s also clear this fussiness didn’t endear him to many. He expected everyone to be as good as he was which was very unreasonable.
But the one thing his teams could always rely upon was his ability to deliver. He never took what he couldn’t give.
And he gave with unflinching super-human levels of concentration for a decade. Michael Jordan himself attributes that to his hyper competitive nature. But the narrator in Episode 10 sums it well; “Many of us lose focus by projecting the past onto the future. Michael Jordan’s gift wasn’t that he could run faster, jump higher or shoot a basket. His gift was that he was always present. He was never anywhere else. And that was the separator.”
Never for him to worry about a basket he hadn’t missed yet. That fear of failure that limits us ordinary souls, never applied to him.