Skip to content

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Rajon Rondo’s agent denies they asked Celtics for a trade

    Sep 1, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT

    Oklahoma City Thunder v Boston Celtics Getty Images

    Whether he asked out or not doesn’t really change his situation much.

  2. Report: Hedo Turkoglu nearing free agent deal to return to Clippers

    Aug 31, 2014, 11:00 PM EDT

    Washington Wizards v Los Angeles Clippers Getty Images

    Turkoglu didn’t do much in L.A. last year, but Chris Paul recently touted the importance of consistency in the Clippers’ chances for success next season.

  3. James Harden’s four-point play vs. Turkey (VIDEO)

    Aug 31, 2014, 7:59 PM EDT

    James Harden James Harden

    James Harden makes the PUJIT work for him.

  4. Team USA trails at the half, then pulls away for 98-77 win over Turkey at FIBA World Cup

    Aug 31, 2014, 6:29 PM EDT

    Team USA Showcase Getty Images

    The energy of Kenneth Faried helped Team USA pull away in the second half.

  5. Report: Kings finalizing deal to trade Jason Terry to Rockets

    Aug 31, 2014, 5:31 PM EDT

    Newly acquired Brooklyn Net's NBA player Jason Terry smiles as he is introduced to the media during a news conference in Brooklyn Reuters

    Terry was never going to be a fit in Sacramento, but could be a nice veteran addition for a Rockets team that plans on contending next season.

  6. Report: Grizzlies waive Jamaal Franklin

    Aug 31, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT

    Jamaal Franklin Jamaal Franklin

    Franklin only played one NBA season, but this will open up a roster spot in Memphis.

  7. Timberwolves set record for ticket sales after trading Kevin Love to Cavaliers

    Aug 31, 2014, 3:30 PM EDT

    Andrew Wiggins Andrew Wiggins

    In some ways, this new beginning in Minnesota is more interesting than if the team had simply proceeded with the status quo.

  8. Thad Young on Sixers rebuild: ‘They were getting rid of everybody and getting worse’

    Aug 31, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT

    Thaddeus Young AP

    There’s a big difference between the rebuilding that’s taking place in Minnesota and what’s going on with the Sixers.

  9. Report: Nike nearing deal to keep Kevin Durant for next 10 years

    Aug 31, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT

    BASKET-TPE-US-NBA Getty Images

    Under Armour made a huge offer, but Nike has exercised its right to match.

  10. Report: Rajon Rondo has told Celtics ‘he wants out’

    Aug 31, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT

    Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving,Tristan Thompson Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving,Tristan Thompson

    Rondo is in the same situation Kevin Love was in with Timberwolves, before he was traded to Cavaliers.

  11. Report: Hawks in talks to bring back Elton Brand to round out roster

    Aug 31, 2014, 9:30 AM EDT

    Atlanta Hawks v Brooklyn Nets Getty Images

    He played solidly, particularly on defense, for the Hawks last season.

  12. Deron Williams has resumed basketball activities following offseason surgery (VIDEO)

    Aug 31, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT

    Brooklyn Nets v Toronto Raptors - Game Seven Getty Images

    Deron looks good, and he’s back on the court ahead of schedule.

  13. World Cup Day 1 roundup: Brazil with big win, Andray Blatche puts on a show

    Aug 31, 2014, 12:45 AM EDT

    Raul Togni Neto, Nicolas Batum Raul Togni Neto, Nicolas Batum

    Andray Blatche had 28 points and 12 rebounds for the Philippines, and they still lost.

  14. Manu Ginobili gets statue of himself in Argentina

    Aug 30, 2014, 9:30 PM EDT

    Detroit Pistons v San Antonio Spurs Getty Images

    The statue is in Buenos Aires, in case you were looking to travel to get your picture with it.

  15. Brook Lopez confident he’ll be better than ever

    Aug 30, 2014, 8:00 PM EDT

    That’s a higher bar than most realize

  16. USA cruises past Finland in World Cup opener, 114-55

    Aug 30, 2014, 7:00 PM EDT

    Anthony Davis, Teemu Rannikko Anthony Davis, Teemu Rannikko

    Klay Thompson scored 18 points and Anthony Davis had 17 points on the night. Finland had great fans, though.

  17. Nik Stauskas makes 15 consecutive 3-pointers in 47 seconds (video)

    Aug 30, 2014, 6:30 PM EDT

    2014 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Getty Images

    Kings rookie rookie honing his 3-point Shootout skills

Featured video

Will LeBron get booed Christmas Day in Miami?
Top 10 NBA Player Searches
  1. D. Rose (3044)
  2. K. Love (2499)
  3. T. Mozgov (2343)
  4. K. Bryant (2323)
  5. C. Delfino (2318)
  1. L. James (2127)
  2. R. Allen (2027)
  3. J. Embiid (1978)
  4. D. Waiters (1953)
  5. A. Davis (1913)