SINGAPORE — Is Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player? Is he a genius? Or is he overrated as a player, and vindictive as a person?
Those questions may arise if you had watched “The Last Dance”, a fascinating 10-part sports documentary by ESPN that is one of the few bright spots in the sporting world during this COVID-19 pandemic.
Chronicling Jordan’s final title-winning run with the Chicago Bulls in 1998, the show scored a fantastic coup when Jordan – normally reticent with interviews since his retirement from the sport – sat down and gave unfiltered opinions on his career, his team and his opponents.
No wonder it quickly became the most-viewed documentary in ESPN history, with an average of 6.1 million viewers tuning in to the first two episodes. In Singapore, it was also the No. 1 documentary on Netflix.
Fiercest competitor of all
For me, it was a nostalgic trip back to the days when National Basketball Association (NBA) stars were truly competitive – they were going for one another’s throats for the right to be called NBA champion. None of those brotherly hugs and words of encouragement that you see so often in today’s NBA play-offs.
And Jordan was the most pathologically competitive player of them all. He would take note of every slight, every criticism about him, and make those who uttered those uncomplimentary words pay.
And he still remembers those slights, as seen when he reminisced for “The Last Dance”. Rivals like the Detroit Pistons’ Isiah Thomas, even former teammates like Horace Grant, bore the brunt of his disdain and vindictiveness.
It is nonetheless a compelling part of his personality, and a big reason why he succeeded wildly as a player. In an era where the NBA became an overly-physical, occasionally-dirty battlefield, Jordan managed to outgun and outlast every one of his rivals, and lifted a moribund Bulls team to unbelievable heights.
Sheer willpower lifted Jordan to greatness
That alone makes him the greatest basketballer of the modern era. Some historians may point to the Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell (11 NBA titles) as more worthy of that accolade, but Russell played in the 1960s when there were only about 10 teams during his dominant years.
Jordan had to contend with 29 other teams, and many more rivals eager to dethrone him in the 1990s. He beat them all, and stomped his foot on the necks of those who dared to belittle him. All his six NBA titles were won convincingly, as he came up with game winners repeatedly to break the hearts and minds of all comers.
It was an astonishing display of sheer willpower. Coupled with his elite skills and extraordinary physique, Jordan was a once-in-a-lifetime force of nature, which “The Last Dance” dutifully captured even in the twilight of his great career.
No one can dispute his unquenchable desire to win, and fans of this generation could finally grasp how magnificent he was in his prime – by watching the documentary.
Genius label justified? Not really
But was Jordan a basketball genius?
Some pundits were quick to label him that after the release of “The Last Dance”, clearly enamoured with his knack of coming up with vital winning baskets and acrobatic slam dunks.
Yet I would argue that Jordan should not be viewed as a basketball genius; he is merely refining what is possible with the sport to the highest degree. Last-second winners, towering dunks – these are not exclusive skills that only Jordan could have executed, even though he did them exceptionally well regularly.
More crucially, it took him seven seasons since he turned professional in 1984 before he finally understood – with a big assist from renowned coach Phil Jackson – how to amalgamate his skills and desire into the Bulls team, and begin his six-title winning run in 1991.
Not much is being talked about those seven seasons, and “The Last Dance” preferred to focus on Jordan’s last triumph. But Jordan was viewed then as a player who did too many things himself, and alienated his teammates with his competitiveness.
It took him a while – and plenty of convincing from Jackson – before he was able to trust his teammates, and eventually refine his skills to lift his teammates to dominate the NBA.
Does that sound like he is a basketball genius, someone who understood innately what it takes to win in the team sport? When I take his career as a whole, including his “unsuccessful” years, I find it difficult to consider his eventual success as that of a genius.
Remembering Jordan’s greatness the right way
There are successful geniuses in the history of the NBA – players who did things no one else had thought of.
Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers was one; he won the first of his five titles in his rookie season and made astonishing no-look passes that dazzled the crowd. “Dr J” Julis Erving, the first player to improvise crowd-pleasing slam dunks in the 1970s, can be regarded as another. Even Larry Bird, with his innate sense of making his Boston Celtics teammates better by any means necessary, is arguably a genius.
Jordan was not a revolutionary thinker, even though he could easily improvise dunks and no-look passes. And that is why we shouldn’t remember him as a basketball genius.
No, we should remember his greatness in other, more correct ways: his graceful athleticism that made dunking easy amid brutish defenders; his insane competitiveness that drove him to thoroughly obliterate his rivals; and more crucially, his unbelievable work ethic to refine his skills, physique and temperament – so much so that it all adds up to a winning sportsman.
That sense of constantly pushing the limits of excellence is what made Jordan the greatest. And this trait allowed him to beat all other basketball geniuses in NBA’s history.
That’s why he is the greatest modern player. That’s what we should celebrate his legacy for. And that’s what we should learn from his momentous career.
“The Last Dance” showed Jordan’s success; fans should delve deeper into his career to understand that his greatness was not innate like a genius, but built magnificently on initial failures.
The author has covered both Singapore and international sports for the past 17 years, and was formerly sports editor of My Paper. The views expressed are his own.