The figure of Michael Jordan has been the epitome of excellence, relentless competitiveness, entrepreneurship and self drive for almost four decades – and for a good reason.
His accolades come from all walks of life – from philosophy, being regularly referenced as the ideal self motivator; to the business world where he accomplished more than any athlete in the history of sports, eventually pushing his signature shoes to become its very own brand, Air Jordan, the Nike affiliate which still is the reference for pop culture and basketball sneakers around the world; and obviously in the hardwood from his playing days, when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, two of the best to ever lace a pair of sneakers up and step on a basketball court, were already calling him the greatest of all time while he was still in his twenties.
To further prove this statement and put a stamp on it, we’ll take a look at his journey and some of his most famous stories from Netflix and ESPN’s co-production brand new series The Last Dance, directed by Jason Hehir, in which Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls is beautifully chronicled along with his interesting and successful career.
Starting out his journey in sports out of high school as a top basketball recruit for colleges all around the US, Jordan chose the University of North Carolina UNC as his alma mater and quickly became the star he was destined to be. Immediately impacting his team’s results on the floor, the skinny kid from Brooklyn, New York, surprised the coaching staff with his confidence and tireless work ethic.
His drive and determination to always get better was already showing signs of life on the court after practices, where he would take his god given talent and exponentially explore it through relentless shooting sessions and overall training. Jordan never shied away from the challenge, never hesitated when taking the last shot. Well, it’s no surprise that he eventually went on to become National Champion with the Tar Heels in 1981-1982.
After a couple of successful years at UNC, he declared for the NBA and was selected to join the Chicago Bulls in the 1984 NBA Draft. Quickly after, Jordan vehemently made clear what his intentions were when coming into the Windy City: “I’m going to make this team the best team in the NBA”. And as time would tell, he did so.
THE OFFICIAL INTRODUCTION
One could say that the first seven years of his career were the most important ones – this is the time period where he had to learn how to win, by losing a whole lot. The team which he was drafted to was subpar – to put it nicely. He struggled through coaching staff changes, mediocre teammates and overall lack of investment from the front office for years, all the while putting up huge individual numbers – and boy, did he put up huge numbers. Rookie of the year, Scoring Champion, NBA All Star, All NBA First Team, Defensive player of the year, Steals Leader and Slam Dunk Champion were among the individual accolades he collected along those first years.
Note that in the mid 80s, team ball wasn’t at its peak as it had been in the 60s and 70s, and individual highlight reels were becoming more and more prevalent, with audiences directly responding to that. Don’t get me wrong, the NBA was still known for its powerful duos who wreaked havoc throughout the conferences – Magic and Kareem, Bird and McHale, Dr. J and Moses Malone, and so on – but Dr J’s reverse dunks, Magic’s flashy passes, Bernard King’s dominance of the boroughs and Bird’s clutch shots were more and more starting to be seen as the new standard for the league, whose entertainment value was at an all time high. So as the 80s went on, Jordan’s introduction to the world of major league sports was as an individual beast, who couldn’t post much threat to everyone else without a competent pack.
EASTERN CONFERENCE NEMESIS
MJ as the late 80s Bad Boy Pistons – a group of misfits from the same Eastern Conference, whose success came from physicality, sheer will to win and literal beat downs on Jordan as their modus operandi. Isaiah Thomas’s led Pistons gave Jordan a great dose of humility and tested his motivation for three straight years. This was his first big lesson in the NBA – resilience. Season after season getting ready to face the Pistons in the playoffs and eventually losing after a hard fought battle made Jordan stronger. He was learning to be a leader, a winner.
Well, after everything he had to go through, it finally happened. As the saying goes, those who persevere will be saved – and Jordan was saved. Legendary head coach Phil Jackson joined the team and helped Jordan take the next step in the life of a leader – letting go of the selfishness – inherent to superstars – and making everyone around him better.
After finally beating the Pistons in the playoffs of the 91 season, Jordan and the Bulls never looked back! They went on to win the NBA title against the league’s sweetheart, Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers.
FINALLY CHAMPIONS AND THE DREAM TEAM
The years following the first title were marked by new challenges. As kings of the hill, Jordan and the Bulls had to learn how to handle being targeted by everyone else – how to hold the belt now that they had got it, and this wasn’t going to be easy – or so it seemed.
Well, in hindsight, the challenge seemed bigger than it really was, because after the first title they won two more in a row. With the team getting better year after year and Michael finally walking the walk as the undisputed greatest, the path to the finals every year was almost a given walk in the park – and neither Clyde Drexler or Charles Barkley could stop this well oiled machine called Chicago Bulls.
During this period, as if the successful runs in the NBA weren’t enough, Michael led the american national team to the gold medal during the 1992 olympics in Barcelona – and the sheer stardom of the roster, along with the way they beat everyone they faced with such ease and power, propelled the world to nickname them The Dream Team – further settling MJ’s position as NBA’s new sheriff. It was during this time in Spain that Magic and Bird called him the greatest basketball player of all time – and they call him that still.
Of course, with great power, comes great responsibility, and with Michael becoming the wonderboy of american sports, the media, the sponsors and the public were all over him – And that shook him a little bit, sometimes causing him to lose focus, to vent in non really conventional ways – and when it came to Michael Jordan, getting away from reality while still feeding his competitive hunger was through more competition, but for that purpose his vice of choice was gambling.
GAMBLING AND FATHER-SON RELATIONSHIP
It wasn’t uncommon for MJ to gamble hundreds of thousands of dollars with his teammates playing cards, playing golf or even playing silly games with the Bulls’ staff for money. Competing for him was never enough. This behaviour was getting a lot of attention from the media and the league itself, but although for some this could be considered a distraction, for Mike it was just another activity.
There’s a very well know episode when, during a playoff battle against the New York Knicks, Michael went to Atlantic City with his father and gambled till very late in the night, 17 hours before the game, and suffered the consequences for this supposed lack of focus and certain lack of sleep – he had a good game himself the next day, putting up 36 points at Madison Square Garden, but a failed to get his team to win. He would eventually destroy the Knicks in the upcoming games, but things were starting to look out of place for the man.
It’s important to mention this escapade happened with his father by his side, as Jordan Sr. was an extremely important piece of the puzzle in Michael’s journey – His father was his safe haven when he found himself in the shadows. All throughout his son’s early days, James Jordan had been an avid basketball fan, having gone semi-pro himself in the past – and now, more than ever his support was paramount in keeping Michael’s focus in the midst of the attention bombardment his son was getting daily.
This partnership between father and son amidst the struggles he was having to keep his motivation up and deal with all the buzz outside the gym was so important, that when disaster struck and his father was killed in a robbery turned murder and this ink got broken, the unthinkable happened…
FIRST RETIREMENT AND BASEBALL
Eventually, all things come to an end and even though there’s always been a conspiracy which blames the NBA office for suspending Michael for gambling uncontrollably and forcing him out of the league, the truth is that after the ongoing success over the past three years, getting up in the morning to play basketball didn’t make sense for MJ anymore. Grieving his father’s death put things in perspective for him and he dropped everything altogether and decided to go away and play baseball, something his father had dreamed of happening in the past.
The Chicago White Sox signed MJ to their minor league team, and the man started working tirelessly in this new career – but as you can imagine, the same success didn’t really happen as planned. Baseball required a different mindset, a different body, and when things weren’t going great for him in the field, he would always go back to port, the Bull’s basketball gym, to work out and get his mind off of the drama. You can imagine what happens next.
After a year and a half struggling to find his place in the field, there was a player’s strike in baseball – and the possibility of being called to play in the major league loomed too close for his comfort, for he was not confident enough exposing himself in this arena, so he decided to look back at his decision to quit the game he dominated and gift the world with another stunt at the basketball court.
THE RETURN OF THE KING
Enough was enough. Michael Jordan announced his return to basketball with a simple, yet powerful statement in the papers: I’m back!
After joining the team just before the 95 playoffs, still pondering his father’s passing as a crucial influence in his life, Jordan decided to wear the number 45 as a symbol of a new beginning. It had been super important for him that his father got to watch him as he won his 3rd title, wearing his famous number 23 jersey, so he felt that maybe that number had to be eternalized.
Yeah, that didn’t last long. After being provoked by Nick Anderson, Orlando Magic player that helped his team beat the Bulls, and realizing that #45 just didn’t feel quite right, Jordan took the loss in the 95 playoffs, worked on his game and sparked the formation of the best team in the history of the sport – the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls.
The following years are best described by a single word: domination. There was nothing holding him back this time. From 1995 to 1998 Mike showed the world he could do it all over again and through talent, grit and will, went on to win three straight titles again.
A few facts that perfectly represent this era of extreme successful competitiveness are his battles against Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in the east, where physicality and mind games were as big a part of the game as the shooting and dribbling themselves; the dethroning of Hakeem Olajuon who had led his Houston Rockets to two straight titles while MJ was out of the league; the constant closed door battles with the Bulls’ front office; and on top of all that, the way he treated his new found teammates, with actual physical fights at team practices, when thrown punches and the good old trash talk was a common occurrence. According to him, it was all part of the plan, as motivation sometimes needed to be forced down their throats in one way or another.
OH, AND THERE WAS ALSO THE INFAMOUS FLU GAME!
Picture this: Game 5 of the NBA Finals, June 1997 – the series tied 2-2. The whole world watching… and Michael seems drained. There’s rumor that he’s got the flu, and his performance seems to corroborate that. The first quarter is a disaster – The Utah Jazz build a 16 point lead. It seems the flu really got Mike cornered – but you know what greats do when backed up against the wall – they fight back. Michael fought back, left everything on the court and overcame, leading his team to the win and on to their 5th title in five years with him on the roster.
The interesting, albeit conspiracy theory-like story behind it, at least according to the Netflix and ESPN’s show is that he might have not had the flu – he might have been poisoned!
Having ordered pizza the night before the game from the only pizza place opened at the time, Michael had a terrible night’s sleep and the next day his stomach was shut down, his energy was low and dehydration was a major problem. Would a die hard fan of the Jazz purposefully poison a man to weaken his adversary’s strongest weapon? Who knows, but nothing is out of the question when it comes to sports.
The Utah Jazz with Karl Malone and John Stockton were the closest to ever beat MJ out of his throne, but close didn’t mean anything when the title banners were being raised up the rafters in Chicago.
END OF THE ROAD
We mentioned Phil Jackson in the beginning of this article, as the missing ingredient in the late 80s, early 90s Bulls. The legendary coach who would go on to win 6 titles as a coach of the Bulls and 5 more with the Lakers in the Kobe – Shaq Era, the guy who managed to make Michael take the next step and become the leader he was meant to be.
Well, his presence becomes once again relevant now at the late stages of Jordan’s career, for the partnership they had developed during all those years, especially after MJ’s father passed away was coming to an end.
The Chicago Bulls’ front office had enough of Phil Jackson and his polemical management ways, and
made clear throughout the 1998 season that this was going to be Phil’s last year as head coach – and that did not sit well with Michael. How could they take the best thing to ever happen to the franchise and break it up just like that? The whole season was filled with speculations, and after the deed was done and they went home with yet another Larry O’Brian Trophy, the rumors were confirmed and the skinny kid from Brooklyn decided he was done.
It was a bittersweet feeling, because they were ending a beautiful journey on a great note, but the idea of not having Michael on the court left a hole in people’s hearts.
RETIREMENT AND LIFE AFTER BASKETBALL
And that was it for his playing days. After six titles, six finals MVP trophies, absolute dominance all around, MJ decided it was time to hang the cleats up for good (he would eventually come back for two seasons with the Washington Wizards a couple of years later, but we are gonna speed past that, as any true Michael’s admirer should).
His legacy was set – and now he could move on to new challenges in life.
Mike went deep into his partnership with Nike, helping promote the Air Jordan brand to the fashion giant it is today, and kept himself close to the game he loves, eventually buying the Charlotte Hornets when the opportunity presented itself. Today he is not only the retired legendary player, but also one of the few and selected people who get to call themselves NBA Franchise Owners.
In sum, Michael Jordan accomplished in his career what the vast majority of players never did in the history of basketball, and cultivated a world of followers in the process.
Aside from his influence in the sport, Michael revolutionized the way people looked at athletes, not just as pieces of a bigger cause anymore, but as independent brands themselves. He transformed the NBA into the monster money making league it is today, he popularized the game of basketball to far corners of the world and he made everyone around him feel small.
Michael is also big on charity work, constantly donating millions of dollars to groups and institutions who work with the unprivileged youth, preparing the next generation to face the problems his own generation couldn’t solve. For someone who has done it all, still striving to be better in everything he does and helping people in any way he can should be constantly praised.
In other words, Michael Jordan is always going to be the MVP in our minds.
After looking back at his journey, it’s safe to say that Michael Jeffrey Jordan transcends his accolades and accomplishments in the sport of basketball. He absolutely represents those few rare occurrences when the real life icon is exactly what his legend portraits him to be.