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How Michael Jordan altered what we expect from every athlete who followed him

Feb 14, 2013, 2:39 PM EDT

Michael Jordan dunk

There were fierce competitors in the NBA long before Michael Jordan ever stepped on a court. Go watch an interview with Bill Russell talking about how he hated to lose read about Jerry West and how big losses would make him physically ill.

But no player in any sport has had an ultra-competitiveness fused with his image like Michael Jordan.

Jordan wanted to win — and he wanted it publically at a time when the media focus on the NBA boomed and the league grew to wild new heights of popularity. Riding a wave of winning titles plus being the face of a then unprecedented Nike branding campaign, Jordan’s persona grew to larger than life levels. It grew and has lasted to the point that we as a sports nation are talking about his legacy as he turns 50 this weekend.

After Jordan, every athlete in virtually every sport — from LeBron James to Tiger Woods to Andrew Luck — gets compared to the Jordan standard. How committed are they to winning? How badly do they want it? Fair or not, Jordan made the mold we expect all athletes to fit.

Roland Lazenby, the author of “Blood On The Horns, The Long Strange Ride of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls” (which is being re-released right now by Diversion Books as an ebook edition in honor of Jordan’s birthday) and also the author of a new Jordan biography due out in the spring of 2014 (by Little, Brown), said Jordan was a perfect storm of the player, the personality and timing.

“As a culture, we’ve always recognized and admired people who care about things on a deeper level,” Lazenby told ProBasketballTalk. “In sports, that was why Jerry West attracted so many admirers, despite the fact that his Lakers lost six times to Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics teams in the championship. The idea was that West’s desire to win was almost a holy thing.

“Jordan resonated that and then made it so much bigger because his audience was so much larger. He literally came from nowhere to capture the public’s fancy, first with his ability to fly, then as time went on he was revealed as a competitor who cared on a deeper level than just about all of those around him. That commitment, combined with his theatrical and athletic style, created millions of new fans globally.”

Jordan’s legacy of fierceness becomes enshrined in games like “the flu game” where nothing could stop him from performing. We as fans often seem to care more about the team and a game’s outcome than the players — we want the guys who care like we do and will show that on the court. Jordan did.

“His willingness to play through injury and pain, like West before him and later Kobe Bryant, evidenced this higher level of caring. It meant more to them, so it meant more to us,” Lazenby said.

Jordan told Lazenby that timing was everything, and so it was with his career. In the 1970s NBA finals games were taped delayed and shown after midnight. The rivalry of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird changed that — compelling teams and compelling players that demanded and created a larger, prime time audience for the NBA.

Which served as a launching pad for Jordan.

“With Jordan, the audience was so much larger than what West or Oscar Robertson experienced,” Lazenby said. “Jordan was able to articulate that standard with the way he played.

“So the conversation for the greatest players begins in many ways with, how deeply do they care? How much are they willing to sacrifice? If it’s not immensely important, insanely important, to the star, how can it be that important to teammates and fans?

“As a culture, we marvel at that insanely excessive level of commitment, whatever the sport or endeavor. Basketball is such an emotional game. It attracts the sort of genius defined by physical ability and an unparalleled competitive will.”

Nobody ever combined physical ability and competitive will like Jordan.

With him he changed not just how we perceive basketball players but how fans perceive athletes in every sport. We look at Robert Griffin III and the first thing we fans ask is how deeply does he care? And if you fail to live up to that standard of passion and commitment — we’re looking at you, Dwight Howard — fans’ wrath ensues.

It was Jordan who changed all of that. That is just part of his legacy.

  1. ihavenonickname - Feb 14, 2013 at 2:53 PM

    Nice job Kurt, every now and then you remind of us why they hired you.

  2. ravensallday2012 - Feb 14, 2013 at 2:55 PM

    People will not agree with me because they don’t like ray Lewis but watching him for 17 years I can honesty say he night be the closest to Jordan. This guy practiced extremely hard and always played hard on every play. As a fan I appreciate the hard earned money I spent on the ravens because of guys like ray. Work ethic and the live for the game

    • airjunior23 - Feb 14, 2013 at 3:30 PM

      Dude I will say this plain and simple…if Ray did not have any allegations in the recent past, people would be lining up to agree with you. I agree…It’s nothing like people who work hella hard and get their just due based on that fact. Jerry rice Gretzky etc.

      • southbeachtalent - Feb 14, 2013 at 4:05 PM

        Allegations like gambling and potentially causing his fathers death??

    • 808raiderinparadise - Feb 14, 2013 at 5:57 PM

      I for one look at Ray VERY HIGHLY in my era of wathcing the NFL my fav sport.

      Yet I do have asterisk *Murder Allegations? * Drug deal gone wrong? *Steriods?

      Although for me, wathcing the game, I would want nothing more out of a player/leader than what Ray exemplefied for years at a high-level.

      As for MJ, he was in a special era- the 80’s morphing into the 90’s couldn;t have been a better time for a star to be born like himself. Advertising boom was bulging, TV-media was labeling stars and branding and merchandising was hitting new levels in the consumer markets.


      MJ was a great player, best ever? I would say so … but I would also shoot down the people who quickly reject LeBron, LeBron is 28 Mj didn’t have a ring tilll 28, 1, at that. Therefore you need to really understand LBJ is entering his prime so … 4-5 years he will be in the champ game, how many will he win? Nobody knows, but he will be breaking records everytime he steps onto the court and if he wins 5 more, he is clearly the GOAT being that today NBA has a whole diff athlete than the 80’s-90’s.

      • doctordanf - Feb 16, 2013 at 8:27 PM

        I was a Bulls season ticket holder 1987-1998, and couldn’t agree more. I saw MJ play more than 400 times, and still think he’s still the BOAT, but I have never seen anyone with LJ’s combination of size, speed, athleticism and basketball smarts. MJ’s only weakness was the same as Kobe’s – his conviction that his taking a marginal shot to win the game was better than his passing to the open teammate for the final shot. Both MJ and Kobe made the shot often enough, but passing off (as LJ is willing to do) is smarter ball. Give LJ time.

  3. Michael DeCicco - Feb 14, 2013 at 2:56 PM

    “How committed are they to winning? How badly do they want it? Fair or not, Jordan made the mold we expect all athletes to fit.”

    I think for basketball, this is absolutely the case. But for all sports? I don’t know about that. I think each sport has their own (for example, maybe Montana for football, or Pete Rose for baseball). I definitely see where this is article coming from, but I think it’s a bit of a stretch.

    • acdc363 - Feb 14, 2013 at 3:34 PM


    • bowens3181 - Feb 14, 2013 at 4:25 PM

      Completely agree. I have never personally, nor have I ever heard anyone else compare an NHL or NFL athlete to Michael Jordan. Hockey and football players get compared to Wayne Gretzky and Jerry Rice/Joe Montana/etc. respectively. Basketball, and MJ specifically are not such transcendental parts of sports history that every North American athlete that followed is compared to him.

  4. cosanostra71 - Feb 14, 2013 at 2:56 PM

    The growth of mass media and the speeding up of news delivery certainly helped grow his legend.

  5. money2long - Feb 14, 2013 at 3:03 PM

    jordan is basketball

    • camnellum12 - Feb 14, 2013 at 4:02 PM

      LOL no he’s not. But I’m pretty sure you’re like most fans, your knowledge of the NBA stops at 1984

  6. lucifershuttlesworth - Feb 14, 2013 at 3:29 PM

    Unfortunately for basketball, David Stern’s desire for Jordan to win was as great as Michael’s will to win.

    • LPad - Feb 14, 2013 at 3:43 PM

      Something tells me Byron Russell would agree with you.

    • paleihe - Feb 14, 2013 at 4:15 PM

      Right, right. It had nothing to do with Jordan or the Bulls organization.

      It was all rigged by Stern. Good point.

      • florida727 - Feb 14, 2013 at 4:46 PM

        Interesting that you bring this up. Ask Jerry Krause who’s responsible for the Bulls winning 6 titles in an 8-year span, and Jerry will tell you he, not Jordan, is the reason why they won.

        I grew up in Chicago, and have been a lifelong fan. I can tell this for a fact: during the Bulls championship runs, we as fans always looked to see who was refereeing the key games, and the Bulls never lost a game refereed by Steve Javie. Look it up. Never. Not once. EVERY game Javie called, the Bulls won. Rigged? No. I don’t believe so because you still have to win four out of seven. But that is one heck of a coincidence.

  7. asublimeday - Feb 14, 2013 at 3:42 PM

    Unfortunately for basketball, David Stern’s desire for Jordan to win was as great as Michael’s will to win.

    This is hating on its absolute deepest level. You clearly never watched Jordan in the playoffs. How many games can you actually statistically present where the number of fouls led to wins for the Bulls.

    And he was legitimately fouled 90% of the time. When people realized they couldn’t stop him, they fouled him.

    • camnellum12 - Feb 14, 2013 at 4:01 PM

      so Jordan getting fouled on FADEAWAY’S is legit?

      • paleihe - Feb 14, 2013 at 4:16 PM

        Are you saying it’s impossible to get fouled on a fade away?

      • camnellum12 - Feb 14, 2013 at 5:05 PM

        I’m saying he got a lot of phantom calls. I understand he’s the cash cow of the NBA, but some call were straight ridiculous.

    • lucifershuttlesworth - Feb 14, 2013 at 4:32 PM

      You got that half right sublime, I hate on Stern all day. I don’t hate on Jordan, I think he is one of the all-time greats. The problem i have is with him constantly being pedestalled above the other great players.

  8. itsonlyaspeedbump - Feb 14, 2013 at 3:51 PM

    Its funny about how we rank competitive drive, as if the Bulls beat the Suns in the finals because Jordan ‘wanted it more’ than Barkley. Actually what happened is Jordan PLAYED superbly and drew enough attention to get John Paxson an open shot for a game-winner. Paxson didnt get open because of Jordans competitiveness.

    Years before, Jordan put up a still-record 63 points in a playoff loss to the Celtics. That was the famous ‘God disguised as Michael Jordan’ game. Hard to imagine a more competitive performance than that. Of course, since the Bulls were swept in that series, its hard to make the case that all that fire helped him any.

    Before his first championship, people were saying Jordan was too selfish, and would never win anything with his temperment and style of play. The idea of his competitiveness separating him from his peers was something that really gained traction after he got a ring.

    To use another sport, when Jim Harbaugh is on the sidelines purple with rage at a missed call on the field, or Belicheck is so mad at losing a regular season game that he gives short, curt answers at the press conference after, we call them poor sports and crybabies. I would say they are the ultimate competitors. Not that it helps them.

    How would Jordan have acted had he lossed even just one of those Finals series? (maybe the Suns series.) Probably worse. But we’ll never know because he won all those series.

    My point is that Jordan is not the GOAT only because of his competitive drive. There have been plenty of seemingly less competitive greats who won a lot (David Robinson and Tim Duncan come to mind) and also some extremely competitive guys who didnt win jack (Reggie Miller anyone?)

    Too many things have to go right (or wrong) in a basketball game to just reduce the argument to ‘So-and-So just didnt want it bad enough.’ Its a poor way to judge players.

  9. camnellum12 - Feb 14, 2013 at 4:09 PM

    “Unfortunately for basketball, David Stern’s desire for Jordan to win was as great as Michael’s will to win.”

    That’s perfect, ever since Jordan, this has been a superstar league, for the players who drive profit. I know it’s common sense, because every major sport does it nowadays, but it’s the aspect that fans loving hero ball is crazy nowadays. Basketball fans sure love the individuals for a team sport….

  10. ezwriter69 - Feb 14, 2013 at 7:25 PM

    Who is the greatest winner in the history of sports? Bill Russell. He was the anti-Jordan. He literally never said a bad word to or about a teammate, ever, in practice or games or to the press. He competed fiercely, but did so with respect and without animus. He and Wilt Chamberlain went to dinner before games.
    You CAN win, you can dominate, you can be the greatest winner in the history of sports, without being a hateful disrespectful abusive bullying bleephole.
    I am a lifelong Bulls fan– actually, it was the Packers who I first rooted for in Chicago— and I’ll not argue against Jordan’s place in history as one of the greatest ever, in any sport — but you do not have to be the colossal prique that he is and was to be dominant.

    • tominma - Feb 16, 2013 at 8:30 PM

      Bill Russell…. more rings than fingers in 13 seasons!

  11. jollyjoker2 - Feb 14, 2013 at 7:28 PM

    pretty soon if lebron wins another title; he will be christened better than jordon. Anyone who has seen jordon or even majic johnson will laugh so hard they will keep over.

  12. kdbaker10 - Feb 14, 2013 at 11:08 PM

    I stopped reading at publically

    • 1historian - Feb 17, 2013 at 7:21 AM

      Thanks for noticing that – I was going to say something.

      Jollyjoker2 – his name is spelled ‘JordAn’

  13. weaselpuppy - Feb 15, 2013 at 12:48 AM

    All that fierceness and ability and will and transcendent atheleticsm couldn’t hit a AA level curveball for spit, even when told it was coming by the catchers…..of course he wanted to “challenge himself” and “follow his childhood dream and his dad’s vision for him” or”spend time w his family”…suuuuuuuuure…had nothing to do with gambling, finding canceled Jordan checks on the body of a dead coke dealer gambling buddy or betting on sports….

  14. asublimeday - Feb 15, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    Allegations like gambling and potentially causing his fathers death??

    Kill yourself.

  15. abgpt2013 - Feb 16, 2013 at 4:38 PM

    Michael is more than the greatest basketball player of all time, that is hardly debatable. He is even more than the most important athlete in his sport. He is the most important athlete in all sport. He changed all of sports, I think that is the point of this article.

  16. tirc2328 - Feb 16, 2013 at 5:10 PM

    A long time ago (probably 4 years ago), while hanging a picture of Jordan at my business, I argued to my co-workers that Jordan’s play in basketball set a standard for such a high level of “intense” commitment, that not only did it transcend basketball such that sports fans subconsciously (and sometimes consciously like now) after Jordan expect their football, soccer, hockey, baseball, etc. players to meet it, but even corporate America found a new example of just how “intense” their performance could be from the board room to the copy room.

  17. beantown985 - Feb 17, 2013 at 7:43 AM

    Personally, I don’t think Jordan changed how we look at every athlete who followed him. What I do think is that every time the media wants to start crowning someone (pun intended) like Lebron as the greatest player to ever walk onto the court, there needs to be a reality check. Even when they compare Kobe to Jordan, and as a Celtics fan I’m saying that Kobe is probably the closest that there is to MJ, and I still don’t think that it’s that close. People need a serious reality check and they’ve got to stop watching ESPN.

  18. kansas525 - Feb 17, 2013 at 8:48 AM

    Most competitive ever? Probably not, most hyped ever? Definitely. How about Dick Butkus, Ray Berry (one leg shorter than the other), Jim Thorpe and Jackie Robinson, overcoming all the prejudice. Plus, most of them were decent human beings (not real sure about Butkus, I think he was just mean, a joke).

  19. namriverrat69 - Feb 17, 2013 at 3:15 PM

    Michael Jordan was the best at what he did. He was a tremendous champion with the heart of a lion. Like so many great players he was a winner and brought out the best of other players on his team. I grew up in a different time. I had the priviledge of watching the great Bill Russell play and win 11 championships in 13 years, busting the Lakers over and over. The last 2 were as player/coach. He was the 1st black coach in professional sports to my knowledge. 2 years and 2 championships. He actually should have 13 rings. He should have gotten 2 rings as a coach and another 2 rings as a player those last two years.

    He changed the game of basketball because of him. After Russell’s senior year, the NCAA rules committee changed two rules for college basketball directly related to Russell’s dominance. The free throw lane was widened from 10 feet to 12 feet due to his ability to grab rebounds. In addition, offensive goaltending — touching the ball inside the cylinder — was banned.

    Russell was a fierce competitor who hated losing, as all great players do. He played defense with abandon, feeling their were enough scorers on the team to make the difference. He averaged 22.5 rebounds for his career. He was the greatest in his generation for the game he played. Watching him play 7’1″ Wilt Chamberlain was great. Russell only stood 6’9″ tall and he was thin. He gave up 4 inches to Wilt. He played position better than all the rest which is why he totalled 21,620 career rebounds.

    No center had ever played the game the way Bill Russell did. He revolutionized the position. His leadership brought out the best in all the players who played with him. Over all those years the face of the team changed again and again yet he still won 8 straight and 11 championships in 13 years.

    Could Jordan have coached any of his teams to a championship? I sincerely doubt it. Russell was a great student of the game while he played.

    Jordan was the greatest of his generation but if I was picking an all time player to build a team around, it would always be Bill Russell hands down.

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