Over the last few months sports buffs, me included, have grappled with the reality of life without live sports as major sporting events and sports leagues have been cancelled in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The producers of The Last Dance (a sports documentary miniseries) moved the airing of the docuseries forward and boy, what a void it filled!
Watching all ten episodes has given me a deeper insight into the career of Michael Jordan, the greatest athlete who ever lived, the stellar leadership of Coach Phil Jackson and the quirks of the Chicago Bulls team of the 1990s. Since I no longer have the pleasure to watch exhilarating NBA games late at night, I have catalogued my takeaways from the show below:
There is a price to success: You may have read elsewhere that you can achieve anything as long as you are willing to pay the price. Michael Jordan earned laurels, wealth and fame by complementing his natural athletic gifts with hard work and continuous learning during his years at the University of North Carolina under the tutelage of Coach Dean Smith. As a professional player, he was noted for long practice hours and never shying away from a challenge. He sacrificed his body, comfort and at times, personal relationships to be a winner. The result; 6 NBA Championships with 6 NBA Finals MVP Awards and 5 MVP Awards to mention a few. –Also, MJ is worth US$2.1 billion (Forbes) and he’s one of the most famous people on earth.
People rarely succeed if they do not love what they do for a living: The greatest sportsmen, professionals and businessmen are people who exhibit an insatiable drive to win. It was love for basketball that elicited this legendary response from MJ to a question from the Bulls’ owner regarding the risk of playing with an injury “If you had a terrible headache and I gave you a bottle of pills and 9 of the pills would cure you and 1 of the pills would kill you — would you take a pill?” “It depends on how f—ing bad the headache is”. You know who ignored symptoms of food poisoning and flu to score 38 points in the pivotal Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz? – There’s no trophy for the right answer.
Have a Breakfast Club (Strong Work Ethic): MJ and later his teammates; Pippen, Harper and Brown met daily as early as 5a.m to undertake a grueling pre-practice regime focused on strength and endurance testing led by Tim Grover, MJ’s personal trainer. MJ knew what it took to succeed in his chosen profession and was willing to learn and work hard every day. In the documentary, Jordan famously said his innate personality is to win at all costs. What kind of routine do you need to build into your life to put you ahead of competition?
Master the Fundamentals: MJ’s most iconic play was not a buzzer beater from the logo or Steph Curry’s razzle dazzle dribble through Clippers defenders to get himself out of the paint to hit a 3-pointer in 2015 – It was an ‘elementary’ pull-up jumper. One dribble, a one-step crossover on Russell to create space followed by a mid-range shot to win the 1998 NBA finals for the Bulls’ sixth title in eight years. MJ’s biggest strength was not in being able to do one particular thing better than anyone could, but in being able to do whatever is required of a basketball player as well as anyone.
There are obstacles everywhere on the path of life: Before MJ and the Chicago Bulls began to dominate the NBA, they painfully lost a number of playoff battles to the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics team, one during which he scored an all-time NBA playoff record 63-points. In 1988 and ’89, the Bulls fell to the ‘Bad Boy’ Detroit Pistons who negated MJ’s torrid scoring using their ‘Jordan Rules’ which involved playing a highly physical form of defense against Jordan, in addition to throwing double and triple-teams his way. The Bulls swept the Pistons (4-0) in the 1990 Eastern Conference finals en route to winning their first NBA title but not before they lost in five and six games the two prior years.
Wisdom is never too far away: In episode seven, MJ recounted him getting suspended from school often. His father, James Jordan admonished him after his third suspension in a year saying he would have to forget about sports if he continued to get into trouble. Since Jordan went on to play professional basketball and baseball, we can only presume he did not get into trouble after that. MJ averaged 33.2 points per game in the four and a quarter seasons before Phil Jackson became head coach. The Zen Master and his assistant, Tex Winter, then introduced the sui generis ‘triangle offence’ which MJ initially hated as he would not have the ball as much as he was used to; he quickly adjusted when Coach Phil explained the rationale behind the system and how it will help them win. The rest, as they say, is history.
Great leaders accommodate peculiar characters: Can you imagine your boss’ reaction if you were to go to him ahead of an important deadline to ask for an extra hour of lunch time with your girlfriend? Yes, Coach Phil Jackson gave Dennis Rodman, the team’s best rebounder and premier on-ball defender, permission to go on a weekend bender in Vegas in the middle of the season. MJ had to go get Rodman out of bed with his girlfriend Carmen Electra after the player had returned to Chicago to extend his vacation. Coach Phil, and to an extent MJ, knew Rodman was not always motivated to play and so to get the best out of him, gave him some room. Rodman however, did not escape a fine when he missed practice during the NBA finals to partner Hulk Hogan in a WWE fight.
When all is said and done, we are human: If you’ve only ever watched the Last Dance, you’re forgiven for thinking MJ was metaphysical save for his obsessive gambling habits. I bet you think he never missed free throws and potential game winning shots -he did. In a betrayal of his well-polished public disposition, he broke down and wept in remembrance of his father after the last game of the ’96 final which happened to fall on Father’s Day.
It is better to leave the party too early than too late: In the final episode, MJ appeared to express regret that the team broke up after the ‘98 Championship run. Many analysts believe that the Bulls would have won another title in 1999 or perhaps eight straight titles had Jordan not gone on his first retirement in 1993. While these scenarios were possible, they were not guaranteed. After all, the biggest reason given in support of the argument of MJ as the ‘GOAT’ is his 6-0 – 6 MVPs finals record.
Every employee is underpaid: By the last year of the Bulls’ dynasty, Pippen was a 7x NBA All-Star, an All-Star Game MVP, 6x NBA All-Defensive First Team, a 5x NBA Champion and USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year (1996) yet his salary was ranked 122nd in the league. Heck, it wasn’t until the 1996/97 season that Michael Jordan became the highest paid player in the NBA when he had been the best player for almost a decade. My theory; unless you take the risk and organize the factors of production for any enterprise, you will be underpaid. If it is any consolation, you hopefully will get a big paycheck one day if you continue to make valued contributions. (the owner of the business still smiles all the way to the bank for the lion share J)