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Step 1. Start with the greatest player in the history of the game.
Step 2. Have that player work harder than anyone else. Not only in games, of which he never takes off more than a few minutes let alone an entire contest due to "load management," but, possibly more importantly, during spirited, energetic practice time.
Step 3. Surround that individual with a few talented accomplices along with a bench full of guys who most people wouldn't recognize if they played on other teams.
Step 4. License that star player to cajole, bully, badger, fight, challenge, insult, and intimidate his teammates.
Step 5. Monitor the situation to make sure it doesn't get out of hand.
These are the ingredients of the style that Michael Jordan portrayed in the seventh hour of director Jason Hehir's 10-hour marathon The Last Dance. The masterful docuseries reveals so many themes, not only of a team that won six NBA championships in the 1990s, but of human nature, attitudes, marketing, values, and relationships that apply to a world far removed from professional athletics.
But for the time being, let's stick with leadership, a topic that occupies a prominent place in this Pandemic Age.
"People were afraid of him," said Jud Buechler, a member of the Bulls during the second three-peat. "We were his teammates, and we were afraid of him," added Buechler, a perennial NBA sub who started just 29 games during a 12-year career.
However, this aura and notoriety took time to develop. Jordan's first three years with the Bulls, with a few exceptions, were uneventful. The team finished below .500 all three seasons without winning one playoff series.
But things began to change in 1987-88 with the arrival of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. Jordan played 40 minutes a game, averaging 35 points, resulting in a 50-32 record along with a first-round win over Cleveland before the bad boy Pistons dispatched them in five games.
In earlier segments, Hehir does a marvelous job of weaving the story of the Bulls' struggle to finally overcome the Pistons en route to becoming NBA champions in 1990-91. By that time, Jordan had a strong supporting cast, arguably the greatest coach in league history in Phil Jackson, and the credibility as the greatest player of his time.
And his mentality and makeup erupted as he basically took over the team. If Reggie Jackson thought he was the straw that stirred the drink, Michael Jordan was not only the straw but the Martini, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, and any other libation that requires stirring.
If he hurt feelings or demeaned a teammate, so be it.
"My mentality was to go out and win at any cost," said Michael in hour seven. "I'm going to ridicule you until you get on the same level as me."
Of course, no one reached that plateau although at times guys like Pippen had their Michael Jordan moments. While the interviews and comments of the documentary are intriguing and providers of so much depth and honesty, the clips of the Bulls' plays and patterns remind us of what a meticulous machine they became. The uncontested layups, the result of crisp passing and the vaunted triangle offense, occurred at an alarming rate.
As an example, Jordan averaged just 1.7 three-point attempts per game for his career compared to guys like Stephen Curry (8.2) or James Harden (7.7).
The beating Jordan took going to the basket - he also could dish it out - enhanced his legend as he'd rise from the floor to continue wreaking havoc on his opponent after completing yet another three-point play.
"His theory was," said Steve Kerr, "if you can't handle pressure from me, you're not going to be able to handle the pressure from the NBA playoffs."
Kerr was one Bull who stood up to Jordan, culminating in a fist fight between the two during practice. The present-day Golden State coach received Michael's respect after the incident.
Last Sunday's segment highlighted the treatment Jordan gave fringe player Scott Burrell, who played just one season for the Bulls, the last of the six championships.
"He became my guy to keep pushing," revealed Jordan. The consistent bullying and nagging is well-documented in the show. "I tried to get him to fight a couple of times. [But] he's such a nice guy."
Which was something not all of Jordan's teammates thought about Michael.
"Was he a nice guy?" asked B.J. Armstrong rhetorically. "With that kind of mentality, you can't be a nice guy."
Will Perdue put a tag on that comment, saying, "The fear factor of MJ was so, so thick. He was an asshole. He was a jerk. He crossed the line numerous times, but as time goes on, you think back to what he was actually trying to accomplish. He was a helluva teammate."
Pippen's reaction to Michael's treatment of Burrell was, "He took it like a man." Oh? Burrell certainly appeared to keep his composure and even in some scenes joyfully responded to Jordan's taunts. He also played decently that year, logging 13 minutes a game and averaging 5.2 points and 2.5 rebounds.
But how does a man take it? By not breaking into tears? By not losing his temper and taking a swing at Jordan? Would some unmanly guy leave the team like NFL player Jonathan Martin did when he was harassed by Richie Incognito?
Did he take it differently than a woman? Most, if not all, of the women I know wouldn't accept that crap for one minute. Furthermore, most, if not all, men I know wouldn't treat a woman like Jordan treated Burrell. Like I said, Hehir's documentary raised many issues relevant to all kinds of human behavior.
Michael's methods occasionally were checked by Jackson, who talked about keeping team "camaraderie," but clearly the Bulls were led by Jordan's alpha dog approach. However, if he hadn't been able to back up his challenging and contentious behavior, his teammates might have lost their motivation and drive.
It is interesting that as part of ownership and the front office first in Washington and now in Charlotte, neither of those franchises have realized much success. After being retired for three seasons, Jordan, who was president of the Wizards, returned to the roster in 2001-02. However, the team finished 37-45. According to Wikipedia, "younger teammates complained about playing in Jordan's shadow and his unfair expectations of him."
All of which shows that timing is everything. The Bulls of the '90s were unique not only for their talent and the presence of a once-in-a-lifetime athlete in Michael Jordan. Their style of unselfish play, the coaching staff, and the swagger that Jordan initiated resulted not just in championships but also in the drive for perfection. Everything came together at that point in time. We may never see anything like it again.
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Posted on May 13, 2021