Jordan the Hall inductee as competitive as Jordan the player
October 2009 Basketball Times
Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser. —Vince Lombardi
Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player. Ever. He was – and still is – the greatest competitor in sports, in trash talking, in business, in just about whatever he does. That’s just how Michael is wired.
By any measure, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2009 was extraordinary. It was headlined by Michael, but included David Robinson, John Stockton, Vivian Stringer and Jerry Sloan. They all gave beautifully sentimental induction speeches, setting a warm and appreciative tone. Then it was Michael’s turn.
Michael could have been humble, but he doesn’t do humble. Remember the movie Broadcast News, which featured a brash and talented anchorman who wondered, “What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?” The response: “Keep it to yourself.” Michael's real life probably hasn't exceeded his own lofty dreams (as mindboggling as that may seem), but the point is still valid: Big egos might not play well among the politically correct, but is a common trait among superstars in any profession.
Perhaps Michael should have stayed in character for his induction speech and followed the P.R. playbook that brought us, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Thankfully, we got the real Michael; the one who can be brashly honest, the one who carries on grudges ranging from good natured (Dean Smith keeping him off the Sports Illustrated cover) to nasty (Jerry Krause). [Even I have a tough time saying nice things about Crumbs.)
His speech has become basketball’s own Rorschach test, of sorts. The reaction reminds me of what happened when Stephen Colbert performed at the 2006 White House correspondents’ dinner. The brunt of many of Colbert’s jokes was President George W. Bush who was on the dais. Many who were there, including old-time media and politicians, cringed at Colbert’s performance and immediately panned his routine. Then the video found its way to the Internet, and, upon further review, Stephen Colbert killed. Comedy and appropriateness are certainly in the eye of the beholder.
As much as I like to make convincing arguments, it’s not worth trying to sway opinion here. You either liked Michael’s speech or found it petty and inappropriate.
"That was just Mike being Mike. To know him is 2 love him, 2 hate him is to be a hater. I didn't take it as a diss at all." —Bryon Russell
To me, Michael is the most interesting athlete alive. Here’s the greatest basketball player ever, yet he has always wants more. Needs more. M.J. serves as fascinating study to those interested in understanding performance and competitiveness.
How much of Michael’s basketball abilities was genetics? And how much was hard work, discipline and competitiveness? He also received outstanding coaching throughout his journey.
Much of what I know about sports and the athletes who play the game is the result of watching the Chicago Bulls and Bears firsthand. Admittedly, Michael Jordan has been a huge influence in my life since he arrived in Chicago when I was in high school. I never viewed M.J. as a perfect human being (who is?), but I always thought he was the closest thing to a perfect competitor.
Growing up in a Chicago suburb, I played ball at the same health club where the Bulls practiced. During the offseason, several Chicago Bears players played pick-up games with us – and I have scars and broken bones to prove it. I even did some workouts with Bulls players.
On many occasions, I was fortunate to observe Bulls practices. They were mesmerizing mostly because of Michael Jordan’s legendary practice habits. It was one thing to see his magic in front of sellout crowds of 17,317 at the old Chicago Stadium. But it was more impressive to witness Michael practice just as hard against second- and third-string teammates as he played against the NBA’s best.
When it comes to observing elite athletes, you realize they are a rare breed. They are off-the-chart competitors who do whatever is necessary to win. They are supremely confident. And they talk trash. In Michael’s case, he hasn’t stopped trash talking.
In sports, these elite athletes have a near-perfect outlet for their competitive fires. In other areas of life, including business, investing and even relationships, the same traits that work so well in sports, can have the opposite effect.
Michael Jordan’s late father, James Jordan, summed it up best when he was asked, “Does your son have a gambling problem?” He replied, “(Michael) doesn’t have a gambling problem … What he does have is a competition problem. He was born with that. And if he didn’t have a competition problem, you guys wouldn’t be writing about him.”
Maybe it’s true that skills that are taught in sports are transferable to success in other areas. Or maybe it’s not as clear cut as advertised.
Michael’s reputation as the most ruthlessly competitive NBA player was well earned. But his passion for the game – not money – drove him to succeed.
Michael Wilbon, a Jordan insider, liked M.J.’s Hall of Fame speech, especially the good-natured ribbing. Wrote Wilbon, “Without that specific personality trait – the need to win at everything all the time, forever – he’s somebody else, probably not in the Hall of Fame, probably accepting of Leroy Smith and Bryon Russell.”
Playing college or NBA basketball is awesome. But the process of chasing championships is often completely insane. It might look good on TV, but every championship team is the result of hard work, sacrifice, pain and even turmoil. Losing teams can go through a similar experience, but with far less joy.
Michael’s ultracompetitive streak created a mechanism to use these innocent and perhaps even misread slights as motivation. An NCAA championship, two Olympic gold medals and six NBA championships should sooth his competitive soul, but Michael is seemingly never satisfied. And if he was, he might have been just another basketball player.
Michael Jordan is probably an unrealistic standard to measure athletes. No one will ever again win like Mike. But today, many more are competing like Mike.