By now it’s clear that Michael Jordan is one of the greatest—if not the greatest—basketball players of all time. His focus, discipline, dedication, skill, and matchless competitive spirit created the perfect mixture to catapult him to a superior level—one this generation may never see again. But if there is anything we learned from episodes seven and eight of ESPN and Neftlix’s series The Last Dance, it’s that Michael was and is tragically human, no matter how much fans attempt to deify him.
We also learned the costs associated with “winning at all costs,” as Jordan put it. Our society adopted this philosophy long before Michael Jordan dominated basketball courts. He is but a manifestation of what our country aspires to achieve in virtually every facet of our civilization. But winning at all costs exacts a tragic toll most of us can’t afford to pay, and even those who can afford it, find they pay too high a price to obtain what they truly desire.Amid all of Jordan’s anguish and aspersions we can better understand his drive for excellence.
Before the series aired, Jordan warned that viewers might think him a jerk after watching The Last Dance. However, whether the intent was to soften his image or not, one would most likely walk away with an understanding of Jordan’s intentions. After winning his third NBA Championship with the Chicago Bulls, MJ was exhausted from the constant tumult and grind of stardom and training to remain the zenith of the NBA. Furthermore, months following his third straight NBA Finals MVP, Jordan’s father was murdered.
Though MJ planned to quit basketball all along after he led his team to a three-peat championship, the devastation wrought by his father’s death reinforced his decision to retire in 1993. But he didn’t retire from sports. Michael then chose to play baseball (as his father always wanted him to and even encouraged him to before being murdered) and proved talented enough to sign with the Chicago White Sox organization. He brought the same determination, will to learn, and athleticism to the baseball diamond that had made him a great basketball player on the hardwood.
Early on, Michael was successful in the AA minor leagues, hitting runs in his first 13 games. But when teams started to discover his weaknesses, he struggled. This incentivized Michael to tighten his game. But it also provided sports pundits the commentary fodder they desired in an effort to pull the seemingly transcendent Michael back down to human size. “Bag It Michael,” was the title of Sports Illustrated’s cover with a picture of Jordan wildly missing a pitch. And from here, we’re provided more of an in-depth picture of what motivated Michael Jordan to remain an elite competitor.
“They come out to critique me without understanding what my passion was at the time,” Michael said of SI’s negative assertion that he was unfit to be a baseball player. “I said, ‘no problem, fine. That’s your opinion. I’m not doing what everyone else thought I should be doing. My father already told me I was doing the right thing…’” And if there’s anything we’ve learned about Michael Jordan thus far from the docuseries, it’s that he will do whatever is necessary to make doubters believe in him. SI’s decision to publish negative critiques about MJ’s baseball play (without interviewing him about it) motivated him to scale up his work ethic. He pushed through the pain, sacrificed his time, and literally shed his blood to improve his baseball skills. By the end of the season, Jordan hit a .202 batting average and drove in 50 runs for his team, which isn’t bad for a first-year baseball player who had transitioned from basketball.
But the hardwood was calling. Jordan returned to basketball after a season and a half, nearly leading his Chicago Bulls back to the NBA Finals after all signs indicated they were no longer legitimate contenders without him in the 1994–95 season. The next season, he did get his team to the NBA Finals, but this time without his dad by his side. The humanity of Jordan is front and center when cameras invade his personal space as he bawls uncontrollably, alone and prone, face first on the floor of the training room floor. Jordan clearly missed his dad; his heavy sobbing was likely a mixture of joy and mourning. This was the first time his father was not by his side to celebrate a championship with him.
Amid all of Jordan’s anguish and aspersions we can better understand his drive for excellence. Nonetheless, it is not an unfair discourse to question if his means always justified his ends. Of course many will look at MJ’s six NBA titles and MVPs along with a laundry list of other accolades and exclaim, “Of course!” But, as Paul Putz remarked, there are two things “Christian athletes should try to hold in tension when it comes to MJ: His work ethic and competitive greatness is inspiring…[and] His success was driven in part by toxic, unhealthy obsessions that we should not try to emulate.”
Christian athletes and coaches have more reason to work and compete harder than any others on the planet—for we know that we work to glorify God and make Jesus known in the superiority of our work. The way Jordan trained and vied for the top spot should urge us to press forward without regard to who or what tries to stop us. And this goes beyond sports. Our work—as teachers, engineers, nurses, custodians, chefs, lawyers, soldiers—should indicate and provide a glimpse of the greatness of our God. We mustn’t back down from a challenge simply because it is challenging or because someone says we’re inadequate. Like Jordan when criticized for his poor baseball performance, we don’t have to do what other people think we should be doing. We have affirmation from a Heavenly Father who already told us we are doing the right thing if our aim is to glorify Him and serve others.
Though he did it imperfectly, it’s perceived by many that Jordan’s intent was to serve others also. In episodes 7 and 8, his objective is justified by former teammates and trainers. Jordan is described by teammates as being difficult, a jerk, and an “asshole” but they relegated the harshness of his methods to his desire to make them better. Jordan also told a team trainer once that if people were going to sit down and watch him play for three hours of their life, then the least he could do is give them his absolute best.
“My mentality was to win at any cost,” Jordan said. And that cost included the dignity of his teammates as he would sometimes go beyond scolding them for their mistakes to sometimes assaulting them to get his way. When head coach Phil Jackson agitated Michael by calling “ticky-tack fouls,” as Jordan describes, MJ punched teammate Steve Kerr in the nose, turned to Jackson and said, “Now that’s a foul.” Kerr retaliated by punching Jordan in the chest and Jordan punched Kerr in the eye and was then thrown out of practice by Jackson. Jordan apologized and admitted he crossed the line, but it left an indelible fear of failure and a fear of Jordan. In the end, it worked for the Bulls; they won. But in the grand scheme for most organizations, it does not work; battering people for poor performances is wrong, regardless of the outcome, and it only intensifies a pattern of brokenness.
As a former athlete and a current coach, I look at these interactions with an uncomfortable grimace—not because it’s Michael Jordan, but because of the inevitable attempts some coaches and players will make to emulate his footsteps. They will excuse the denigration of their players and teammates as “trying to make them better.” But what if there’s a way to push players and teammates without snatching their dignity in the process?
Joe Ehrmann, a former defensive lineman for the Baltimore Colts in the 1970s, outlines a better way players and coaches can achieve goals in his book Inside Out Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives. He details two different avenues we can choose to take. We can be transactional or transformational in our interactions. “You either transact with people for your own personal needs,” Ehrmann says, “or you invest in the lives of people to help elevate them.”
This also brings to mind wise words from hip hop artist KB about how we can responsibly build and wield influence rather than irresponsibly chasing fame at the expense of others. KB says, “Influence and popularity are not the same. Aiming to be popular is more about what you want ‘from’ people, aiming to influence is about what you want ‘for’ people. Popularity should be an unnecessary [byproduct] of influencing people for good.”
We can compete alongside teammates and coworkers and pull from them the excellence they have within, but there is a good way to go about it. The toxicity of Jordan’s method got him what he wanted—his players improved their performance and he won championships. But it also left many of his teammates fearful of him.
So before we think we can simply follow Jordan’s formula for success, we should consider the impact of our influence. The majority of athletes and coaches will not be able to accomplish what Jordan achieved, so emulating his methods has only a small chance of getting what most of us want. However, it will certainly create wounds that will last for a lifetime. And some of those wounds will extend beyond practices and games. The hurt will inevitably spillover and manifest in other arenas of life. There is a hefty cost to such tactics.
As episode seven concludes, with tears in his eyes, Jordan shares, “Winning has a price. And leadership has a price.” From what we can gather through episode 8 of The Last Dance, MJ was willing to pay that price at the expense of being a “nice guy” and in exchange for exacting the best from his teammates. Though he possibly could have gone about it another way, he got what he paid for.
Each of us must determine if the cost is worth what we get in return. The determinants of our prices, however, are embedded in our motivations. As Christians our motivations are layered, but the base of our performance is the glory of God and the good of others through transformational interactions rather than superficially transactional exchanges. For Jordan, his motivation to win and lead was driven by his father’s acceptance, his will to prove people wrong, and an overwhelming spirit of competitiveness, which can be good, but should never be ultimate.
It’s important we keep Jordan’s pain and suffering in view when dissecting his life on and off the basketball court. After all, he is human. But it shouldn’t diminish nor excuse his flaws. It only helps shape and color his experiences as we praise his accomplishments and try to learn from people like him.
As tears welled in Jordan’s eyes as he reminisced about his legacy, we’re prompted to wonder why. Why the tears? Perhaps it was his overwhelming love for the game and the overbearing burden of being misunderstood in his pursuit of greatness. Or maybe he realized the price was a little too high. For now, we simply don’t know.