Feb 14, 2013, 2:39 PM EST
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.
Jan 31, 2015, 11:00 PM EST
Three misses and a frustration foul on a single possession.
Jan 31, 2015, 9:30 PM EST
Minnesota fans boo Love during pregame intros, cheer him during tribute video
Jan 31, 2015, 8:00 PM EST
Jan 31, 2015, 6:30 PM EST
Kanter was dismissive of both Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut before Friday night’s win.
Jan 31, 2015, 5:00 PM EST
Cleveland plays the Timberwolves in Minnesota on Saturday.
Jan 31, 2015, 3:59 PM EST
Jan 31, 2015, 3:21 PM EST
With Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin back in the rotation the Timberwolves will not be such a pushover.
Jan 31, 2015, 2:00 PM EST
Green being unexpectedly held out led some to speculate that he might be dealt.
Jan 31, 2015, 12:30 PM EST
They’re not winning, but they still produce some highlight plays.
Jan 31, 2015, 11:00 AM EST
The tenth in Bryant’s signature line returns to a low-top silhouette, and the first colorway is inspired by Kobe’s early morning high dive as he recovered from Achilles surgery.
Jan 31, 2015, 9:30 AM EST
Denver’s offer of J.J. Hickson and JaVale McGee isn’t enough for Brooklyn to pull the trigger — especially with Lopez coming off of a 35-point, 12-rebound performance against the Raptors.
Jan 31, 2015, 8:00 AM EST
Those two together at this stage of their careers are a poor fit together.
Jan 31, 2015, 12:36 AM EST
Balance and defense win the day.
Jan 31, 2015, 12:01 AM EST
180 or 360?
Jan 30, 2015, 10:59 PM EST
It took Kobe Bryant being injured for Cousins to make the squad.
Jan 30, 2015, 9:49 PM EST
If it can happen to Duncan….
Jan 30, 2015, 8:45 PM EST
Robin Lopez has a long rap sheet of mascot abuse.
Jan 30, 2015, 7:51 PM EST
Jeff Green could get more run.
Jan 30, 2015, 6:56 PM EST
This is not a serious injury, but they will miss him defending Blake Griffin.
Jan 30, 2015, 5:59 PM EST
All of those teams could use point guard depth.
- Report: Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio set to return Monday vs. Dallas 5
- Nike unveils latest signature shoe for Kobe Bryant, the Kobe X (PHOTOS) 13
- Report: Nuggets trying to trade for Brook Lopez 12
- Last summer Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant talked, decided it wouldn’t work together 30
- Jimmy Butler even plans to play defense in the All-Star Game 9
- Damian Lillard “disappointed,” “disrespected” not to make All-Star team 45
- DeMarcus Cousins replaces Kobe Bryant in All-Star game 11
- Tyson Chandler, better than ever, thinking legacy 10