You have heard him being referred to as an assassin. That he possesses true killer instinct. The embodiment of killer will. A living testament to human drive. A man possessed. Some, might even call him a conman? (Jeff Van Gundy). There are more sensational terms to describe the man who has proven to be the most compelling figure in American Team Sports. I’m sure you know who I am talking about. I say it in the title so I don’t want to ruin the flow with stating the obvious. However, among these terms, we have a newcomer. Michael Jordan, The Bully…
Upon his return to the NBA in 1995 and title run in 1996, much was reported of Michael’s mental assault on his fellow teammates. He was reportedly a tyrant to those who could not play up to his level and a thorn in the flesh to anyone having a dull moment. One would say he had quite a flair for the dramatic. Like all things drama, the root is often in the psyche. Michael Jordan in 1996 was a petrie dish of psychological warfare – mainly in his mind. His teammates were merely unwilling participants like audience members who become part of the show at an Avant-Garde performance on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, Off…Off Broadway.
Overcoming Defeat – For the first six years of his career with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan was not only the most talented player on his team but he quickly became the most talented player in the NBA. But like the greats before him, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, Michael would have to win a Larry O’Brien trophy (or two) in order to be officially recognized as the best overall. As the records show, this was no easy feat. Four straight years he was defeated on his way to the championship by none other than the “Bad Boy Pistons”. They had an unofficial defensive style of play which was meant to break not only his body but his will. The famous Jordan Rules. David took Goliath down in one slingshot so he never faced any defeat in the face of his arch nemesis. Jordan was defeated over and over and over. After three defeats, the mind takes over. It says to you:
– “ Maybe it’s not for you” “Maybe you were not meant to win” “It’s okay if you don’t win, you did your best” “Maybe you’re on the wrong team” “Maybe you’re not getting paid enough” “Maybe you’re not strong enough” “Maybe you were not born with the right gifts to defeat people so strong”…
I can go on but you see where this leads. By the fourth time he would have to face them, all he would have to do is look across the parkay floor and he would have more than enough material in his head to keep a smile on his face – if he lost! Michael Jordan fell to his “Goliath” not only once but three times. I think there might have been a different bloodline chosen for Christ if David missed with that slingshot or that story would have to be redacted for impact. So Michael not only had physical opponents prove their physical superiority, he would now have to deal with an unstable mind for auto-suggestion. But just as King David had the Most High in his corner, Michael Jordan had his father, James Jordan. In his own words, the “most positive man” he ever met.
James Jordan had been by his son’s side through the ordeal with the Detroit Pistons to his eventual ascent to the NBA throne. He had helped his son through the depths and shadows of his own mind into a reversal of what could have been a narrative of high talent that succumbed to repeated defeat. He saw his son through hell. But in the summer of 1993, James Jordan’s life was cut short. Michael retired from basketball at the height of his career but also in peak exhaustion as his fame as an American icon had sealed its line in the American lexicon. He had earned a new path or so he believed.
In 1995 a baseball lockout revealed to Jordan that his interest in basketball was not as lost as he may have supposed. He returned to the Chicago Bulls but the team was a shell of its former self. They were not shaping up well for the playoffs and their winning spirit was all but lost. Their fate was sealed in the Spring of 1995 when emerging talents Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway put the Bulls away in six games. The king Michael Jordan for the first time since 1990 faced defeat in the playoffs. This was also the first time he was playing basketball without his father. Surely, the thoughts returned. The doubts. Was he done? Had basketball moved on without him? Who would be able to ignite the imprint his father instilled in him in those dark moments of old? What was once a distant memory was probably now a haunting realization. Now he was old to the young Penny and Shaq as a Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston was having his moment in the sun since Jordan’s departure. Who would be his ace?
In the spring playoff run of 1996, Jordan was now the source of much consternation among his teammates, more than half of whom were not on the squad like in his earlier three-peat. They did not know his moods, his shorthand, his methods, his drive, except for Scottie Pippen, Bill Cartwright and perhaps Levingston. Jordan was with a new breed of player by his estimation. This was a new squad with which to revive a once past glory. And they were probably that much of more a reminder of his life without his inspiration and guardian, his father James Jordan.
On this matter I have personal experience. The loss of a highly positive influential father on a boy, or man on the ascent can be catastrophic if the emotional damage is not steered appropriately. A key thing that is lost is the sense of safety in the world. Which activates fight or flight so you would see the person either become extremely aggressive or apathetic as a form of dealing with subconscious expectation of hostility. Everything you were able to do while your father was alive (or in your life) now feels like another lifetime. Like an extraterrestrial hero that finds out some of his organs no longer function properly in his new planet. But as nature seeks balance, lack of one factor can sometimes drive abundance of another.
Go back to the first paragraph. Look at the words that were used to describe Michael Jordan. In fact, they are still used to this moment. And often times they are said as though to seek to relive the awe his name imbues one with. However, in a recent interview on the 7th episode of The Last Dance (ESPN), his Airness is moved to tears at the recollection of that fateful season when he recaptured his return to glory. For most it seemed a moment of regret at the reputation he can no longer correct. However, for me, I see something else. I see a man who is clearer about the fact that his anger and feistyness that 72-10 season was the first time he had to go through the hell of his mind in the absence of his great support system, James Jordan. He recalled the moments in that season when he had to fight off the thoughts of resignation, the thoughts of surrender to the new talent, the thoughts of an unceremonious end to career he once thought had eclipsed his predecessors Magic and Bird. The fear of being forgotten. He also had to help retool the Chicago Bulls into that once feared team that was known the world over. It is probable that every time he looked at an unprepared, unmotivated or lackadaisical teammate he would see in them personifications of his deepest fears, personifications of the limits his mind was suggesting to him. So in pushing his teammates, he was pushing himself. It was not them he was afraid would let him down. He was most afraid he would let himself down and without James at his side he might not know how to recover.
All the same, I cannot undermine any trauma, resentment or discontent this mental resistance on Michael’s part may have caused his teammates. Being within earshot of a brilliant malcontent has been known to derail the ambition of more than a few. But one thing all his teammates who were on the receiving end were granted at the end was the highly sought after Larry O’Brien trophy. They got to be champions next to someone who always showed them that when the moment was too heavy to bear he would pull them through the desert like Moses through the Red Sea. It is not wonder that when the Bull recaptured the title on June 16th 1996, Father’s Day that year, Jordan fell to his feet with the ball on his hand and wept. He had made his way back from hell FINALLY!