By MIKE HERNDON
Things that lit Michael Jordan’s fuse:
- Anyone else winning MVP.
- Anyone having a hot night against him.
- Failing to speak to him in a restaurant.
- Asking why he took so long to come back from “retirement.”
- Drafting some hotshot from Croatia.
- Claiming you defended him well.
- Isiah Thomas.
- Literally anything. Whether it actually happened or not.
The 10-episode epic that was ESPN’s The Last Dance shared once again what most of us Gen-Xers already knew – that Jordan, who propelled the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships, was a ruthless assassin who could steal a man’s soul on the basketball court anytime he felt like it. And he felt like it often.
The documentary was clearly a Michael Jordan production designed to not only give us something to watch with live sports on hiatus due to COVID-19, but to introduce himself and make his case in the “Greatest Ever” debate to younger generations that didn’t grow up watching him play. We did not get both sides of any story here, and likely didn’t get the unvarnished truth about much of what went on behind the scenes – particularly the “Flu Game” against Utah, which Jordan now claims was the result of intentional food poisoning by a Utah pizzeria and which that pizzeria’s former manager has refuted as hogwash.
What we may not have completely grasped before sitting through The Last Dance, however, was the lengths to which MJ often went to put himself in that assassin’s frame of mind – the fabrications he told the media, and himself, that gave him the extra motivation he apparently felt he needed to make an example of whatever sad opponent found himself in his crosshairs.
We already knew the animosity he and Scottie Pippen held toward Toni Kukoc – which had nothing to do with poor Kukoc himself and everything to do with Jerry Krause’s attempts to look beyond them toward the future – while avoiding paying Pippen what we was worth. We knew Jordan and Isiah Thomas have never been chummy.
But Charles Barkley and Karl Malone caught MJ’s wrath in the finals solely for having the audacity to be named MVP. Former Sonics coach George Karl, Jordan claims, didn’t say hello to him in a restaurant one night before their teams met in the 1996 Finals. Byron Russell, whom Jordan famously did or did not push off before hitting his series-clinching shot in the 1998 Finals, had ill-advisedly asked Jordan why he hadn’t come back from retirement sooner so he could play against him.
And poor LaBradford Smith had the misfortune of watching every shot he threw up against Jordan and the Bulls go in one night, only to have Jordan go nuts on him in the next game. In The Last Dance, Smith was said to have fueled that fire by telling Jordan “Nice game, Mike,” after his big performance – something that never happened, according to multiple reports.
Here was the greatest player on the planet at that time – a player many of us consider the greatest ever — who still needed to manufacture some disrespect, if only in his mind, to push himself to that extra level of dominance.
Cruel? Yes. Petty? Most definitely. Effective? Absolutely.
In sports, disrespect – whether real or imagined – is undefeated.
In two-plus decades as a sportswriter, I saw this phenomenon played out more times than I can count. One coach openly asked me to predict each week that his team would lose, so he could use it to fire up his players. When a star running back was asked who had hit him the hardest and answered that it was his twin brother, his team’s rivals wrote that brother’s name on their wrist tape the next week, a reminder of the “slight” to both themselves and him.
Once, after a semifinal win at the state tournament, a high school point guard told me he and his teammates had been fired up all season because the newspaper – mine – hadn’t even picked them to win their own area. But we didn’t make preseason predictions, I told him. We didn’t make any basketball predictions at all. He shrugged. What had made them feel so disrespected? We had done a feature story on one of their area rivals before the season, and their coach had obviously used that to imply that we favored that rival to win the area.
Even teams we did predict to win conveniently forgot or ignored those predictions to play the disrespect card. A prep football team from a small town once came to the city and pulled out a close playoff win over a city school and the assistant coaches poured out of their box, jubilant, toward the elevators to join the celebration on the field. “NOBODY THOUGHT WE COULD DO THIS,” one of them yelled to no one in particular, as several writers waited nearby for the elevator. “Most of us picked you to win,” I said. Undaunted, he replied: “YEAH, BUT NOBODY ELSE THOUGHT WE COULD DO THIS.”
The idea that someone, somewhere, doesn’t believe in you is a powerful, if overused and cliched, motivational tactic. Time and again, it works.
The most successful coaches in the county still regularly find a way to convince their players they have been disrespected. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney asserted over and over last season that “they” didn’t want the defending champion Tigers in the College Football Playoff. Dynasty-builders Bill Belichick of the Patriots and Nick Saban of Alabama routinely seize upon the inevitable hot takes that the “dynasty is dead” and turn those doubters into fuel for the upcoming season.
And yes, even Air Jordan apparently needed the extra juice. Like Nigel Tufnel in This is Spinal Tap, he needed that “extra push over the cliff,” an amp that went to 11.
Does that diminish his greatness? Is it a mark against him that he needed to make up stuff about other players and invent slights to motivate himself? Or is that just the mark of an alpha competitor who understands, completely, what makes himself tick?
I leave that to all of you who feel the need engage in the ultimately pointless debate of whether Jordan or LeBron is “the greatest ever.” I, for one, did not need the reminder of Jordan’s greatness, after having lived through it in real time. It is a bit sad that he even now can’t seem to let certain things go. But in a profession where we measure worth in championships, whatever it took to bring that greatness out at the time — however cruel, heartless, petty and manufactured — was fair game.
Disrespect is a weapon that practically all athletes and coaches use. Jordan may have just wielded it more effectively and more often than anyone else.
(Photos by mccarmona23 & Kip-koech/flickr)