“There is no I in team, but there is one in win”
I am pretty sure everyone’s heard of this name even if you are remotely interested in sports or pretend to have one. He is a very popular internet meme too. It has almost the same ring to it as Beckham when it comes to swag, Tendulkar when it comes to stats and Messi when it comes to simply being the GOAT. Sorry, Cristiano!
But why so? Most of us have only seen his highlights and he just looks like another black dude who played NBA. Yet everyone would reminisce about his Chicago Bulls Jersey with number 23. For the uninitiated folks out here, Chicago Bulls is an NBA team. NBA is like the IPL of Basketball in the USA. And they are similar to Rajasthan Royals who won back in the past, but no one cares now.
1981 was a significant year because we saw one of the legends, Muhammad Ali, retire and hand over the baton to someone who would be a part of the GOAT debate. Mike would not have known at that point, that his name would be spoken in the same sentence and breath as Ali. Jordan’s emergence was like a concluding Mic Drop statement to an ongoing debate, the greatest baller. You had greats like Bill Russell, Oscar, Wilt, Jerry West, Kareem, Magic, Bird, Dr. J who either ruled this world or were about to make it their kingdom. Little did they know that there is a college player who would not only make his way to the Mt.Rushmore of Basketball, but arguably the Mt. Rushmore of all sports globally.
Call me a bandwagon fan and I don’t disagree. But boy, if you see someone miles above the rest, like a Superman amongst the mortal men, you would be in awe as well. And this Superman had no Kryptonite. Please exclude his baseball years, Space Jam, Wizards stint, we can cut some slack there.
He dominated the college basketball by winning coveted NCAA title. He put on an MVP calibre performance, made the clutch shot which won his team the title. He had dunks in competitive matches which would put exhibitions to shame. Naturally, the names like Air Jordan and His Airness started floating around. Looking back now, nothing new, right. This was just a preview of what was supposed to come the following years and decades. He was drafted by Chicago Bulls in 1984.
Ever heard about this shoe called Jordans or Air Jordan, owning one of which isn’t only rare but also breaks your bank account. Let me just shed some light on it. A rookie who has not played enough games, signs a deal with Nike. Mind you, Nike wasn’t a giant like now at that time. Michael was interested in signing with Adidas and Converse but reluctantly signed with Nike. Nike was hoping to sell 3 Mn $ worth of Jordans but ended up with 126 Mn $ sales. Wait, you think that’s something. The colorway of Air Jordan 1 was banned by the NBA for having very little white as per the dress code rule. But since “His Airness” wasn’t going to bow down, he said fuck you. He paid a fine of 5000$ every match he played in that shoe. That’s being a badass.
He was just this raw talent who was also the hardest worker in the room. He achieved almost everything someone would wish to achieve at an individual level in the 80s. Don’t believe me, just stop me when you feel the list is getting long:
Rookie of the Year, League MVP, NBA Scoring Champion, Defensive Player of the Year, NBA All-Defensive First Team, Slam Dunk Champion, All-NBA First Team, NBA All-Star Team and All-Star Game MVP, NBA Steals Leader
Just to add to it, he won multiple of these in the same year itself. You can say two things, either the competition is shit or you are that much better than the rest. Brad Pitt in the movie Moneyball says there’s the champion team, then 50 feet of shit, then us. Exactly my point. 80s was a tough decade with hand checking and “Jordan rules”, the buckets were that much more valuable. Yet he averaged 35 with a Player Efficiency Rating of 31.89 (still unbeaten). Beat that, James Harden. He dropped a mean 63 in The Garden in a playoff loss against Bird and the then Celtics which had 4 Hall of Fame players. It’s still a playoff record. Bird famously said after the match “It was God disguised as Michael Jordan”. Wise man, Bird.
If this was me, I would have packed my bags and be done and dusted with this shit, but his ambition was matched by none. He was still eluded by the greatest prize of all, the NBA championship. He felt short one too many times because of the Bad Boys. Not the Will Smith movie, the Detroit Pistons. They invented “Jordan Rules” which in simple language meant, beat the shit out of Jordan so that he doesn’t score. This continued for a good 2–3 years, till Jordan said I have had enough.
Come 90s, Jordan said if it’s going to be physical, let me put on some muscles. He was asked to change his playing style where instead of just being the lead scorer, he went on to become a leader who involved his teammates. He initially didn’t like the idea of it. Imagine someone telling Messi that we like you scoring 91 goals but the team needs something else. Instead, give us assists. This Messi says “I will do you one better, I will give you the assists but will still score 70–80 goals”. The results started coming in with Bulls finally sweeping the Pistons and never looking back. He faced the Lakers in the first finals, and Magic and the squad were getting cocky after winning the first match. The next match, Jordan switches hand mid-air and rest everything is history.
With the ’91 Finals win, the first chip and the Finals MVP, Jordan had now won everything. But the lion has just tasted blood and wasn’t going to stop. ’92 Finals, made record 3 pointers in a finals match and shrugs implying “Guess I can do this as well”. ’93 Finals, completes the 3 peat. In doing so, he did what Magic and Bird could never do, win a 3-peat. He said to the duo during Dream Team days, while smoking his Cigar “You had your run, but there’s a new sheriff in town”.
Everything good comes to an end and it came in the form of a great personal bearing for him. His father was murdered and it took a huge toll on him. He retired and went to play Baseball. He was craving to come back because people started saying, he wasn’t that great and he could not do it again. Anyone who knew Michael would dare not say it to his face, else he would make his life mission to destroy that person.
He planned to come back and the press wanted some bite. He simply said as only he ever could “I’m Back”. Just go print that. Every other team is shit scared now as if they have seen a ghost from the past. What does he do after coming back? Takes his team to a regular-season record of 72–10 and wins the chip. He haunted the competition for another 3 peat. It was a full stop cementing him as the greatest ever.
There were many emotional moments throughout like winning the ’96 title on Father’s Day. Performance of a lifetime in the Flu Game. Taking his last shot for Bulls which won them the 6th title, probably the most memorable shot in Bulls history.
You must be wondering why all this fanboying about Jordan? Why now? Because I saw “The Last Dance”. Phil Jackson and the squad knew that 1997–98 season was the last time “the team” would be playing together and hence he termed it. They allowed media unprecedented backstage access during this season. Oh, what scenes. This documentary was supposed to be released earlier, but it came at the right time. First, the lockdown, so any content is welcome. Second, it just put the end to Jordan vs LeBron debate. For God’s sake, Lebron has lost the same number of finals Jordan won. I would say it put the end to “Jordan vs anyone” debate. Remember, 6 chips, 6 finals MVP, 2 3-peat. Period.
Even the late great Kobe Bryant doesn’t come close. Kobe’s gameplay was like a frame by frame replica of Jordan. The Mamba Mentality was matched by none, not even Jordan. If you would meet Jordan after the game, he would be smoking cigar in the dressing room, cruising off in his Ferrari to a nearby golf course and losing thousands of dollars on a bet while playing. But during the practice, he would challenge the entire team, trash talk everyone, even go on to punch someone he felt wasn’t working as hard. Jordan made sure he was getting better and in turn, made his team the best.
I am saying all these wonderful things about him, but there’s always a great supporting cast. Pippen, Rodman, Kukoc, Harper, Kerr. Kerr was the guy Michael punched btw. Kerr was this skinny kid just starting his career and Michael Jordan was this phenom. Jordan apologised but Kerr admits now that Jordan made him better. Kerr is still the most efficient 3 point scorer. Maybe he is not letting Steph in on all the secrets. Kukoc was the guy who was bullied by Pippen and Jordan in Dream Team’s match against Croatia in 1992 Olympics. Bulls ownership had an eye on recruiting Kukoc but the guy could not play for his life in that match. Jordan and Pippen guarded him to show the team ownership that we are still the best.
Rodman was a freak, to be honest. He was eccentric off the court but his vision on the court was unmatched. He dominated both sides of the court with his rebounds. Probably the most underrated piece of the Bulls’ second 3-peat. He even dominated Shaq during their matchups, during a time Shaq was laying waste to any and every player. But if we talk about the most underrated player, people could never appreciate Pippen anything more than Jordan’s shadow. Jordan has said during numerous occasions that 6 rings weren’t possible without Pippen. Jordan’s stature made it easy for everyone to look past Pippen’s achievements on the court. To an extent, some even calling him over-rated. I don’t talk to such people, rest assured.
You would think a guy who achieved all this must be full of himself. Arrogance and self-loathing should just drip from his chin. Hmm, maybe. Oh, who am I kidding, definitely. He is the best trash talker who could back it up. Let’s revisit some of his stories:
- Bulls are playing Cavs and Lacy, Kent and Sam from the media said Cavs win the best of 5 series in 3,4 and 5 games respectively. Jordan before the series decider said to Lacy “We took care of you”, turns to Kent says “We took care of you” and then says to Sam “Today we take care of you”. Jordan scores jumper over Ehlo to win the series.
- He banned Isiah Thomas from Dream Team selection. USA somehow lost in the 1988 Olympics. Seeking revenge, NBA said we will be sending our best players. It was like a FIFA PRO XI. Isiah ticked all the checkboxes to be a part of this team. His only mistake, his team didn’t shake hands with Michael after Bulls swept Pistons. Just to add here, Michael shook Isiah and his team’s hands the previous year when he lost. To rub salt to the wound, the coach of Dream Team also coached Isiah when Pistons won during ’89 and ’90. Who is the real boss you ask?
- Dikembe Mutombo famously wagged his finger saying “No, No, No” to the scorers after blocking them. He bragged to Michael during All-Star game that Mike didn’t posterize him yet. Michael even said that let’s not go there for your sake. Later that season, Michael dunked on him and wagged his finger in the same style.
- Michael rolls up in his Ferrari and asks Byron Scott before the match “Who is guarding me tonight”. “Anthony Peeler”. Michael laughs and says “50”. Byron says to Anthony “Listen, he is about to go for 50, don’t piss him off”. Michael scored 54.
- Reggie Miller, another brilliant player and equally good trash talker said to Michael Jordan in an exhibition match “Who do you think you are, the great Michael Jordan, yeah you are right, there is a new kid on the block”. At that point he had 12, Michael had 4 points. End of the game, Bulls won, Michael had 44, Reggie had 14. Michael said to Reggie “Be sure you never talk to Black Jesus like that”
- Michael dunks on John Stockton, a 6’1” guy and someone on the sideline says “Why don’t you pick someone your own size?”. Jordan dunked on 7 feet tall Mel Turpin, turns around and says “Was he big enough?”
- A young Kevin Garnett, who will be inducted in Hall of Fame this year, talked trash with his teammate Isiah Rider. Garnett who had a decent match towards the end was saying I am killing Jordan today. Michael overheard when Bulls were trailing by 2 points with him scoring 18. Bulls ended with a lead of 25 and Michael scoring 40. Michael just gave a hard look to Garnett who pantingly apologised to Rider saying “I am sorry, my bad!”
- Karl Malone was named season MVP in 1997. Jordan said good for him, but he is not better than me. He had a good season you can reward him but I will show everyone who is the best. Cut to the finals, Jordan defeats Malone to win the title and Finals MVP.
- New York Knicks were the favourite target of Jordan. Their coach Jeff Van Gundy said in an article that Jordan is a con-man who befriends his opponents off the pitch only to torch them in-game. Jordan took revenge and dropped 51 points in their game against Knicks cursing Jeff the entire time. At the end of the match, Jordan replied “Some choice words”.
There are many more, but you get the idea. Go listen to his Hall of Fame speech, you will understand what I am talking about. Jordan’s policy was simple: “Thou shall talketh the talk because thou can definitely walketh the walk”.
Why is he such a role model and a loved athlete? Because during all these years, he has given more off the court than on the court. You can praise him for his business acumen and different ventures. Go ahead, call him a rich brat if you want, with a 2.1 billion dollar net worth to boast of. But you cannot deny the fact that he indeed might be the black Jesus for many people out there.
He has been an advocate of equal rights, a charitable donor with millions in donations to different organizations, institutes and built hospitals. He has been one of the very few people in the NBA to hold an executive position as people of color. No one can be credited more than Jordan for basketball being the global game as it is. If not for his participation in the 1992 Olympics, NBA would not have seen hundreds of international players from around 40 different countries. Hell, I was able to watch an NBA match in India, thank you Jordan.
He might have shied away from such responsibilities early in his career. This one time a Black Democratic representative asked Jordan to support him against a white republican. Jordan didn’t oblige, simply saying “Republicans buy sneakers too”. The only chink in his armour, he didn’t voice his opinions as much as people would have wanted a Black man of his stature to. Kareem Abdul Jabbar once said it’s “commerce over conscience” for Jordan. Yet, the league had no problems as lesser the controversies, better it was for their global image. He did his part by being perfect on-court and inspiring the generations to come.
I know this love letter has got a bit too long. As someone who has not experienced that magic live during those days, every highlight reel of this guy gives goosebumps as if it’s happening now. People might have different idols and may not consider this sport altogether while debating or discussing. The one thing you cannot ignore is the magnitude of hard work, talent, passion, ambition, achievements and success of Michael Jordan.
His legacy will be remembered forever as the kid who once said he is going to bring titles to Chicago and eventually won everything en route. That kid might not have known who Michael Jordan will be but he definitely made sure no one will ever forget. To the kids reading this out and aspiring to be a baller, I would simply say what his Gatorade commercial said, “Be Like Mike”.