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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Michael Jordan Views Hall of Fame Induction as Sign of Mortality

It is said that an athlete dies twice. Rarely has there been a more poignant--and somewhat surreal--illustration of that concept than Michael Jordan's Basketball Hall of Fame press conference. Many athletes have been moved to tears upon being selected as Hall of Famers--and many deserving athletes who are on the outside looking in at the Hall of Fame want nothing more than to receive that fateful call announcing that they have joined the immortals of their sport. Jordan, who heads this year's class of David Robinson, Jerry Sloan, C. Vivian Stringer and John Stockton, had a decidedly different take on being chosen:

This is not fun for me. I don't like being up here for the Hall of Fame because at that time your basketball career is completely over. I was hoping this day would be 20 more years, or actually go in when I'm dead and gone. Because now, all along...you always [could] put shorts on and go out and play. Now, when you get into the Hall of Fame, what else is there to do? This is kind of a love-hate thing for me--great accomplishment, great respect that everybody's paying, but for me, I always want to be able to have you thinking that I can always go back and play the game of basketball, put my shorts on. As long as you have that thought, you never know what can happen...Am I? No. But I'd like for you to think that way. Hall of Fame, to me, is like, 'OK, it's over and done with, it's pretty much done, you can't ever put a uniform back on.' It's totally the end of your basketball career. But it's a great accomplishment. I don't walk away from it. But I never envisioned myself really wanting to be up here so quickly. I wanted it to be when I'm 70 years old, 80 years old. I'm 45 and I still think I can play. You guys don't know if I can or can't but at least I've got you thinking that way.

Jordan sounded and looked more than wistful; it seemed like he really wanted to rip off his suit, put on a jersey and challenge Kobe Bryant or LeBron James to a game of one on one right now. It does not surprise me that Jordan feels this way and I suspect that a few other Hall of Fame inductees had similar thoughts pass through their minds but I've never heard anyone explicitly say such things so strongly--Jordan seemed to be dead serious when he said that he would rather not be put in the Hall of Fame until he is either old or even dead. As I watched him utter those words, I had decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, I appreciate how extraordinarily competitive he is; nothing will ever be as fulfilling or meaningful to him as those moments when he was at the peak of his powers and simply killing anyone who stood in his way. When Jordan retired for the first time and said that he was going to spend more time with his family that statement was plainly absurd, because Jordan is as single-mindedly devoted to what he does best as any other genius is single-mindedly devoted to his passion; a PBS special about Albert Einstein noted that the great physicist wrote out a series of demands that his wife had to follow in order to stay married to him, including to only speak to him when spoken to first by him and to deliver him his food precisely when he wanted it so that he could eat in solitude while he pondered the mysteries of the universe: geniuses--whether in sports, physics or any other field--often place greater value on their work than they do on relationships with other people. When ESPN aired those "SportsCentury" documentaries a decade ago, it struck me that Jack Nicklaus was about the only person who could claim to be the greatest at what he did who appeared to have a somewhat "normal" family life and relationships with other people.

At the same time that I very clearly understand exactly how Jordan feels and why he said what he said, I could not help but think of The ABA's Unsung Heroes, players like Roger Brown, Mel Daniels and Artis Gilmore: induction in the Hall of Fame would mean so much to them, to their families and to everyone who was affiliated with the ABA. Sadly, they will likely never receive the recognition that they deserve, while Jordan--who knew that he would be a first ballot selection--trivialized the highest honor in the sport. I'm sure that Jordan did not mean for his comments to be taken that way--if nothing else, he is way too focused on his own thoughts and feelings to even consider how what he said could be interpreted regarding larger issues--but in some ways what he said was a slap in the face to everyone who has been inducted in the Hall of Fame as well as to people who should have received that honor long ago but have been snubbed. Jordan is not concerned with being a sports immortal because he considers such status to be a given in his case but most people treasure being chosen as a Hall of Famer.

Jordan's bold defiance of the natural order--the aging process that cruelly robs all of us of our youth, our talents and ultimately our very existence--is at once inspiring and sad; it is what made him so great but it could also end up making him a very miserable old man if he does not find an outlet for his competitive juices or a way to channel all of that energy into other endeavors. If Jordan never discovers anything else that provides meaning or value to him then the next few decades of his life could prove to be very empty. When he is 75 years old is he going to be limping on to the court before game one of the Finals and still proclaiming that he wants everyone to think that he can still play? When Jordan says that at age 45, for at least a second you think that maybe he really could still compete, at least for a few minutes in a half court set--but not too long from now, such declarations are going to seem more delusional or pathetic than proud or defiant. Hopefully, Jordan can emulate the path of Jerry West and Joe Dumars and be satisfied to sublimate his personal competitive urges to the task of building a championship team but somehow I doubt that even winning a championship as an executive would mean a fraction as much to Jordan as the chance to play just one more NBA game as a dominant player.

Andrea Jaeger is an elite athlete (the second ranked tennis player in the world in 1981) who has devoted her post-tennis life to helping ease the suffering of ill children; Jaeger is obviously an exceptional example but perhaps Jordan would be more at peace--and could help make the world a better place--if he uses the profile he has acquired and the resources at his disposal to help people who are less fortunate than he is. Garry Kasparov--arguably the greatest chess champion of all-time--is the same age as Jordan and has been retired from competitive chess nearly as long as Jordan has been retired from the NBA but Kasparov has created a second life for himself as a political activist, author and strong supporter of chess as a positive activity for young people.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:44 PM

18 comments

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18 Comments:

At Tuesday, April 07, 2009 8:04:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

As you know probably know by now, David, I'm a big fan of your blog and think you offer some of the best basketball analysis anywhere. So I don't mean for the following to be offensive, and apologies in advance if it comes off that way.

Sometimes I think you take it too far in your adoration of the supposed psyches of superstar athletes.

For instance, how do you know that Jordan didn't retire the first time to spend more time with his family? I frankly, do not know exactly why he retired in 1993, 1998 or 2003.

You wrote "When Jordan retired for the first time and said that he was going to spend more time with his family that statement was plainly absurd, because Jordan is as single-mindedly devoted to what he does best as any other genius is single-mindedly devoted to his passion"

If Jordan was so single-mindedly devoted to his passion why did he retire in 1993 (or 1998)? Shouldn't his "single-minded devotion" have pushed him to chase the marks set by Bill Russell's Celtics? And by the way, if Jordan was as focused and obsessed with perfection as you make him out to be, why did he engage in off-the-court activities that could potentially (and in some cases did) cause turmoil and interfere with his singular focus.

I also don't understand the continuing comparisons between athletes and scientists. To be honest, being a scientist is nothing like being a basketball player. I'm not sure if I believe in the notion of genius, and I've obviously never met Albert Einstein, but I have met many first-rate mathematicians who have normal family lives and don't treat their work like a religion. Of course, that's not as romantic as the image of the eccentric, obsessed genius that people like to hang on to, whether it be in sports or science.

Here's something else you wrote:

"On the one hand, I appreciate how extraordinarily competitive he is; nothing will ever be as fulfilling or meaningful to him as those moments when he was at the peak of his powers and simply killing anyone who stood in his way."

I don't see why Jordan's alleged desire to "kill" or humiliate his opponents on the court is an admirable quality, or even relevant at all. As far as I'm concerned, it didn't make him a better basketball player than some with apparently more gentle personalities (Chamberlain, Erving). I also don't think Jordan's alleged obsession or single-minded focus (if it in fact existed) made him a better basketball player than some who always defined themselves as being much more than mere athletes (like Kareem or Magic).

Anyway, I guess where I agree with you is that Jordan should probably find something else to do. He came off sounding sort of pathetic and desperately in need of an identity outside of basketball.

 
At Tuesday, April 07, 2009 9:32:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

As I sat in a restaurant and watched footage without sound of the highlights of Jordan's induction in the Hall of Fame, with the tacky logo in the background, I thought the same thing: what would induction into some "hall of fame" mean to Jordan, who had accomplished more than anyone in that group (at least in his own eyes) and reached the heights of global popularity? It's like receiving a CEO of the Year award when your company has already racked up trillions in profits. Jordan has already reaped the rewards of being the "Greatest Player Ever" (apologies to Dr J and Wilt Chamberlain), this extra one will not give him any more recognition than he already has. This is in direct contrast to the lesser known players you mentioned, who would benefit from the title of "Hall of Famer" in the form of added recognition. In any event, I think people buy into the Jordan myth if they say they believe he could contribute to an NBA team at this stage of his life. Even in his Wizards years, MJ was wildly inefficient (I don't mean this in a statistical sense necessarily, just that he played a lot of minutes without making a positive contribution), and was not well liked in the locker room. It would only be worse if he were to try to come back now, with everyone deferring to the player Jordan once was.

 
At Tuesday, April 07, 2009 11:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I am not "adoring" MJ's "supposed psyche" but merely sharing my observations about his personality, based on his public actions (I do not know him and have never interviewed him). I think that I have some insight into this personality type, though of course readers will judge for themselves whether or not my commentary rings true.

I "know" that MJ did not retire to spend more time with his family because almost immediately after his first retirement he was riding through the backwoods of the South while pursuing a minor league baseball career, not spending time with his wife or young kids. I'm not judging his actions as right or wrong, just saying that his stated reason for retiring did not match his actions after he retired. I did not speculate about why he retired; I merely challenged one of the reasons that he provided to the public.

When MJ decided that playing baseball was his new passion (replacing NBA basketball), he practiced harder and longer than any of his teammates; that is not my opinion but rather what his manager at the time (Terry Francona) and other observers said at that time.

Obviously, MJ's real reason or reasons for retiring are likely complex and he may not even know exactly why he did it. I could turn the tables on you and ask how do you know that he did not subsequently regret retiring and perhaps squandering the chance to break Russell's record? Being a genius does not make one infallible or mean that one's choices are always correct or even always consistent.

All I am saying is that single-minded geniuses don't tend to have other people's thoughts/desires/opinions as a primary motivation. When the MLB strike blocked his path to the majors (MJ vowed to never cross a picket line), he turned his focus back to basketball and reestablished himself as the league's best player and a champion.

I am not comparing basketball and science per se but rather I am analyzing the personality traits that it takes to become the very best at something. I believe that people like MJ, Kasparov, Einstein and Fischer are "wired" very similarly in certain key respects.

With all due respect to the unnamed scientists you know, are any of them as eminent in their fields as Einstein or MJ? I draw a big distinction between being "first rate" and being world class. Every player in the NBA could rightly be described as "first rate"--he is better than 99% of the basketball players on the planet--but very few NBA players (if any) are "wired" like MJ.

When I said that I "appreciate" how competitive MJ is all I meant is that I understand how he apparently feels about basketball and what he misses about getting older. It is possible to understand something without necessarily agreeing with it. I don't think that anybody can dispute that my description of how he feels is quite accurate.

Erving is my favorite player of all-time and Chamberlain ranks right up there (I like MJ a lot as well). It could be argued that in certain situations* perhaps they would have won more if they had taken a "killer" approach but, on the other hand, they likely experience more fulfillment and balance away from the court than MJ does.


* I am thinking in particular of when Willis Reed infamously limped out to play against Wilt. Bill Russell later said that he would have taken it as a personal insult if someone had tried to play against him on one leg. Similarly, during MJ's time with the Wizards he was befuddled when Kenyon Martin mentioned that he had a bad leg; MJ made a point of going after Martin, not to injure him but to take advantage of his lack of mobility. It seemed like Wilt did not want to be seen as the "bad" guy by beating a hobbled Reed. Dolph Schayes--who coached Wilt earlier in his career--once told me that it exasperated him when Wilt would shoot fadeaway jumpers instead of relentlessly going in the paint, but that Wilt always wanted to show that he had finesse and was not just a big guy who was overpowering people.

 
At Tuesday, April 07, 2009 11:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

I don't think that MJ could make a significant contribution to an NBA team as a player today and in his remarks MJ himself acknowledged that (reluctantly), even as he stated how much he wanted to preserve the illusion that it is possible for him to come back.

During his time as a Wizard, MJ displayed as much heart, desire and work ethic as he did as a Bull but his body simply could not hold up to the demands that he placed on it. The book "When Nothing Else Matters" provides some vivid descriptions of just how much MJ pushed himself, defying doctors' orders and literally dragging his bad leg up and down the court in practice sessions that were closed to the public so that no one outside of the team would know just how much MJ was hurting. Just like MJ's HoF speech simultaneously reveals what made him great but also has a tinge of sadness to it, there are elements of both greatness and sadness to how MJ ended his career. MJ always said that he could accept failure but he could not accept not trying and he lived out that credo in Washington.

 
At Wednesday, April 08, 2009 2:03:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

How does someone who has a "single-minded devotion" to basketball all of a sudden switch passions and develop a similar devotion to another field? That doesn't sound very single-minded.

I don't know why MJ retired as many times as he did, as I said before. But I find it hard to believe he was as obsessed with or devoted to basketball as you portray him to be given all of his retirements. I would expect someone described in that way to use all of the opportunity that they have to work towards perfection in their field of passion (of course no one achieves perfection, but the best work towards it). The mathematician Euler, for instance, kept producing even after having gone blind!

I had something else in mind when I said first-rate. I don't know if any scientist today is as eminent as Einstein, but some of the people I was referring to have won Fields Medals and others are of a similar caliber. I don't know if that's "world-class" enough in your opinion, but I truly do not believe that all of the best people in their respective fields are wired like MJ.

Going back to basketball, several players in your pantheon were apparently not wired like MJ. Doesn't that contradict your theory?

As for Wilt, what was he supposed to do against Willis Reed? Reed had something like 4 points and 2 rebounds. Wilt didn't have his best game, but he was old and coming back from an injury himself. He still had 21 points and 24 rebounds. I've seen the tape of that game, and when looking at it in context I do not believe that Wilt took it easy. He was being swarmed by several defenders and the Lakers had trouble just getting the ball in to him.

It's not surprising that Russell made those comments, since that was during his estrangement with Wilt when the two greats would regularly take shots at each other. I'm curious what Bill Russell would have done differently if faced with the same age, lack of mobility and team as Wilt. Maybe he'd top Wilt's 21 and 24 with 8 and 24. Maybe he'd react by missing a point-blank layup or two as he did after Wilt left the 1969 Finals with an injury and Russ presumably decided to take advantage of the insulting situation of being guarded by Mel Counts.

As for the fade-away, shouldn't Wilt actually be getting credit for that? Isn't it the mark of a genius to try to perfect your skills? Doesn't Wilt's dedication in going out and developing a good fade-away jumper show uncharacteristic devotion towards becoming the best? Was 50 ppg on 50%+ shooting not enough for Dolph Schayes?

 
At Wednesday, April 08, 2009 5:48:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I don't know why MJ retired and that is why I did not speculate about this in my article. I do know, based on his actions, that he did not retire to spend more time with his family. I stand by that statement 100%.

You are defining "single-minded" too narrowly. When MJ played baseball he displayed the same single-minded focus that he did when he played basketball. When MJ returned to the NBA his single-minded approach enabled him to once again become the league's best player and a champion.

Are you seriously questioning MJ's single-minded devotion to developing his individual basketball skills and to winning championships? That suggestion does not even merit a reply.

I am not saying that every single world class performer is wired like MJ but I think that a large percentage of them are wired that way. I am referring specifically to a particular kind of single-minded focus on the task at hand, a distinctive kind of stubbornness that crops up in their professional and personal lives and a high degree of arrogance/confidence. MJ's arrogance/confidence are surely well known to basketball fans; one example of Einstein's arrogance/confidence is his declaration--before his theories had been proven to be correct--that if his ideas were wrong he felt sorry for God for not designing the universe the way that Einstein had depicted it. There is of course a fine line between confidence and delusion and with geniuses it is not always easy to tell the difference. World Chess Champion Wilhelm Steinitz stepped well over that fine line when he said that he could give God pawn and move and still win but before that late life mental illness set in Steinitz' confidence surely played a big role in his success.

Obviously, not every single world class performer is wired exactly the same way but if you study the lives of the top figures in many different fields you will find that even people who on the surface may seem to be completely different actually are similar in some of the ways that I described. Are other templates for world class success also possible? Of course, but I think that in addition to the traits I described above world class performers also tend to possess a certain nastiness at some level, though they may sublimate it in certain situations (as Einstein did in public). Chamberlain and Erving are two examples of world class performers who did not have that kind of nastiness but I think that they are the exception more than the rule. Tommy Heinsohn once fondly said of Russell that he was the "meanest SOB" he knew.

I am aware that Wilt put up very good numbers in game seven in 1970, that the Lakers had trouble getting him the ball at times and that he had fairly recently come back from a serious knee injury; I have written about all of those things before. I am as much of a "Wilt" guy as anybody but I think that it is possible to acknowledge Wilt's greatness and still say that in certain situations he should have perhaps had a different approach. Russell won 2 NCAA titles, one Olympic gold medal and 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons. Sure, Russell had many HoF teammates as a Celtic but before he arrived in Boston the Celtics were a high scoring team that never won anything, much like the Suns of recent vintage; his rebounding and defense turned the Celtics into a dynasty. I don't know what Russell would have done differently if presented with a similar situation to Wilt's versus Reed but Russell was very good at identifying exactly what his team needed to do to win; perhaps Russell would have run the floor, leaving Reed in the dust and giving the Celtics a numbers advantage on the fast break, though other Celtics may have ended up taking the open shots. In that scenario, Russell could theoretically have scored eight points but had more of an impact than Wilt did by scoring 21. This is all conjecture, of course, but I think that in your zealous defense of what you perceive to be an attack against Wilt you are not considering the other side of the issue.

I am not convinced that it is advantageous for a post player to develop a lower percentage shot if opponents cannot stop him in the paint. Schayes' contention is that Wilt was unstoppable in the paint but that he would shoot fadeaways to show off his versatility. Schayes also felt that the fadeaways took Wilt out of offensive rebounding position. One thing that I have always respected about Shaq is that on offense he stays in the paint and goes with his strengths, as opposed to having "little man" syndrome and straying outside to shoot jumpers. I am not suggesting that Shaq is a greater player than Wilt--or that he is meaner, for that matter--but I think that as great as Wilt was he could have benefited from staying on the block more often and using power moves.

It should be obvious that this is completely different from my comparison of Kobe and LeBron, who are both perimeter players, not post up scorers; it is important for them to be able to consistently make midrange jumpers, something that Kobe has perfected while LeBron is still an erratic shooter from that area. The development of individual skills has to dovetail with what is in the best interests of the team.

 
At Wednesday, April 08, 2009 6:36:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

"Are you seriously questioning MJ's single-minded devotion to developing his individual basketball skills and to winning championships? That suggestion does not even merit a reply."

No. Clearly MJ worked extremely hard and was very driven to become the best basketball player he could be. What I am saying is that when you use terms like "single-minded", to me you portray him as a guy who cares about basketball significantly more than anything else. I find that hard to be true given his retirements. Obviously, he must have cared about something else (whatever it is I don't know) very significantly in order to stop playing basketball twice (and satisfy whatever urge he had to do something besides play basketball) when he could still play at a very high level.

I think your observation that many high-level performers are wired like MJ has some merit. However, I think you take it too far. There is obviously no way to prove this, but my observations lead me to believe that for every high-level (or world-class, or whatever you want to call it) performer wired like MJ, there is a high-level performer who isn't wired like MJ.

Look at your pantheon for instance. Based on what I know, I would say half of the players were not wired the same way MJ is (Chamberlain, Erving, Jabbar, Johnson, Baylor). You could probably make a decent argument that the others (Bird, Robertson, West, Russell) were. Look at current pantheon-level players. Kobe seems to be wired the same way as MJ, while Tim Duncan doesn't seem to be. I don't know about LeBron. Maybe you could offer more insight on that since you cover the Cavs and have interviewed LeBron.

As for Wilt, let's suppose that shooting fade-away jumpers was a clear negative for the purpose of helping his team win. Still, doesn't the drive to develop such a shot anyway just to prove how talented he was show a certain amount of arrogance/confidence? You suggested that Wilt developing a fade-away was an example of how he wasn't wired like MJ. I actually think it provides an example where he displayed the same type of "wiring" as MJ (although, as I've made clear, I think overall the two players were very different in this respect).

Having said that, I'm not convinced that Wilt shooting fade-aways was a stupid thing to do. As he wrote in one of his books, having that shot in his arsenal gave him an option when he was in foul trouble that could allow him to continue to contribute while avoiding the possibility of picking up an offensive foul. Here's another key point: suppose Wilt never shot fade-aways and put up 65 ppg on 70% shooting (or whatever). Do you honestly believe that the league would not have stepped in and altered the rules to force him to stop bullying guys in the paint? As you know, the league stepped in anyway even with Wilt shooting plenty of supposedly silly jumpers. Their action would have only been more aggressive if Wilt powered his way to every basket. Wilt played in a totally different era at a time when people were not prepared to accept what he brought to the table. From what I've read, he was very aware of this himself and it is possible that it influenced how he played. I don't blame him for developing a fade-away.

Anyway, Wilt did not spend his whole career shooting a large amount of fade-away. From what I know, he rarely used the shot in the last half of his career. And he was always overpowering people more than anyone else in the league, even when he shot jumpers regularly. We are not talking about Kevin Garnett here.

If Bill Russell was put in Wilt's situation in 1970, would he have been able to run the floor and be successful, given advanced age and reduced mobility from injury? If he could, would it even matter, since he'd be playing on a non-running Lakers team (rather than his Celtics) and was facing a much younger and quicker Knicks team?

Did Russell usually identify exactly what his team needed to do to win, or did his team always win so that in retrospect Russell could say he knew exactly what needed to be done? (The truth is probably half way in between.) Let's not forget about Auerbach's presence and the fact that besides Russell all the other stars (Havlicek, Jones, etc.) were unselfish and bought into the system. I wonder if it would have mattered even if Russell knew exactly what to do if he took Wilt's top on the 1970 Lakers. He wouldn't be coaching. And even if he was coaching (or heavily involved in the decision process) how would his plans sit with two superstars who throughout their careers expected the offense to revolve around them?

One more thing. Suppose Wilt did have MJ's personality and that pushed his team over the top in 1970 and maybe another time. Who is to say that it wouldn't hurt him in other situations? Would Wilt have agreed to cut his scoring in 1967 and 1972 if he was wired like MJ? Probably not. If Julius Erving had MJ's personality, how would he have reacted to Moses Malone's arrival in 1982? It can be argued that being ruthless and having a mean streak helps in some situations, but being an overall nice and pleasant person can have its advantages too. I'm not saying Wilt or Julius Erving could never have benefited from a different approach. There probably were some playoff series where being a bit more selfish and being a little meaner may have helped their teams. But it may have hurt at other times.

 
At Thursday, April 09, 2009 1:07:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Does Borg's early retirement mean that he was not single-minded about tennis? Similarly, I don't think that Jordan's early retirement--and subsequent return, retirement and return yet again--prove that he was not single-minded about basketball. Jordan had a "love of the game" clause inserted in his first NBA contract so that he could play pickup basketball whenever he wanted; this was years after NBA stars regularly played at the Rucker and other locales--by the 1980s, teams did not want their players participating in basketball away from team supervision because they feared that their players might get hurt but Jordan insisted that he be able to play hoops whenever and wherever he wanted. Jordan's love for the game and his single-minded approach to excellence at the sport are both undeniable. I don't believe that his retirements have anything to do with his love for the game or his single-mindedness about it and I think that the proof of that is precisely the fact that he did come back and play at the highest level.

There is probably a continuum in terms of how high achievers are wired and Jordan may occupy the more extreme end of that continuum but I still say that a large percentage of the elite performers share at least some of the traits that I mentioned in my previous comment. I think that Kobe and MJ are wired almost identically in many respects (which is not to say that their skill level or accomplishment level are the same).

Let me clarify/modify my position about Wilt shooting fadeaways. I do not mean to suggest that developing that skill was a bad thing for Wilt to do. I just think that Dolph Schayes makes a valid point that perhaps Wilt settled too much for that shot in situations where he could have gone to the hoop more forcefully. Wilt was certainly a highly competitive individual and in that regard he was very similar to MJ. I think that they differed in the way that Wilt wanted to be perceived as a good guy, while MJ did whatever he thought he had to do to win. Of course, the ironic thing is that Wilt was often cast (by the media) as the "bad guy" and he lamented that "nobody loved Goliath," while MJ and his handlers so deftly managed his image that MJ became (and remains) a very beloved figure.

As I said, my description of what Russell might have done was purely hypothetical. I just wanted to present the other side of the argument. I think that you should give Russell a little bit more credit than you do; he was a dominant defender and rebounder and those are the two areas that great coaches say that you have to control to win championships (read the quotes from my recent interview with Popovich). Russell possesses an extremely high basketball IQ. When he was at USF, he used to tell K.C. Jones to make it seem like his man had gotten past him (though Jones actually led him to a particular area) so that Russell could block the shot inbounds and Jones could retrieve the ball and trigger the fast break. Could Russell have run for one more game if that was what was called for versus a hobbled opponent? I certainly think that he would have tried to do so.

Your counterexample about Wilt being willing to reduce his scoring is interesting. As I noted in my questions to Rod Thorn and Pat Williams, scoring certainly seemed to be very important to MJ--much more important than it was to Dr. J. Wilt played a major role on arguably the two greatest single season teams of all-time, with Dr. J's 1983 76ers and Jordan's 1996 Bulls also being claimants to that title.

I agree that there are benefits and drawbacks to both approaches. In this article I was attempting to explain what makes MJ tick and why he said what he said as opposed to either justifying or condemning his perspective, though I made it clear in the final paragraph that for his own sake he may want to consider reframing his mental approach (though it may be very difficult if not impossible for him to do that).

Dr. J has always been and will always be my favorite player, but when MJ came along and had that total freedom to score and then won championships doing so I always wondered how Dr. J's NBA career might have been different if he had taken that approach and/or if his NBA coaches had encouraged him to shoulder more of the scoring load. In the ABA Dr. J averaged 28.7 ppg over a five year period but if you read the literature from that time he was constantly talking about reducing his scoring to the 25 ppg range (but what always ended up happening was the team needed him to score 30-plus ppg in order to win, so Dr. J did just that). Even in his highest scoring days Dr. J was a reluctant scorer in a sense, which is of course much different than MJ.

Billy Cunningham came closest to bringing back the ABA version of Dr. J circa 1980-82, when Cunningham declared that the Sixers (under previous coach Gene Shue) had "too many chiefs and not enough Indians" and noted that in the ABA Dr. J had clearly been the number one option and "all he did was win championships." Dr. J averaged 26.9, 24.6 and 24.4 ppg in those three seasons--which resulted in two Finals appearances and a game seven loss in the ECF--and it is interesting to wonder what might have happened if Dr. J had led the Sixers to the title in 1981; the Sixers lost three straight games to the Celtics in the ECF and it could be argued that Dr. J should have demanded the ball more (it could also be argued that a factor in those losses was the inability of his teammates to make open shots when the Celtics sagged off of them to trap Dr. J).

 
At Saturday, April 11, 2009 3:18:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Do I think MJ had a single-minded drive towards excellence whenever he was playing, practicing, or otherwise involved in basketball? Yes. I just feel like some of your comments (such as comparing him with Einstein and how picky he was to never be bothered at any time of the day) present the situation as if MJ constantly cared about basketball much more than anything else. I just don't think it natural for a human to care about one thing and only that thing and then wake up one day and decide they care about a different thing enough to quit their previous obsession. I feel like there is a certain continuity in the feelings of human beings. MJ's retirements to me make me feel that while MJ was totally focused and giving his all in 1993 (or 1998) when dealing with basketball, a significant part of his thinking and energy must have been consumed by a desire to do something else. Otherwise he wouldn't have quit. That's a lot of speculation, of course, and I could be wrong.

I don't necessarily object to the following statement:

"There is probably a continuum in terms of how high achievers are wired and Jordan may occupy the more extreme end of that continuum but I still say that a large percentage of the elite performers share at least some of the traits that I mentioned in my previous comment. I think that Kobe and MJ are wired almost identically in many respects (which is not to say that their skill level or accomplishment level are the same)."

However, it seems like a departure from the more sweeping statements made in your original post (like "Jordan is as single-mindedly devoted to what he does best as any other genius is single-mindedly devoted to his passion"). As I said, your pantheon is half-way filled with guys who weren't wired like MJ. Of course one argue the other half is, and 50% is still a very large percentage, but that still leaves an equally large percentage of elite performers wired differently.

As for Wilt, it may have been to his advantage to settle for jumpers less. But as I mentioned in a previous reply, Wilt played in a different time when the league and fans were not willing to accept what he brought to the table. If he dunked over people every time down the court, the league would have stepped in and changed the rules (as they did anyway, but the more aggressive Wilt was, the more drastic the rule changes would have been). For instance, dunking could have been prohibited. I don't think this should be overlooked.

Bill Russell is of course one of the greatest players of all-time and I certainly acknowledge that. It's just that, while he certainly possessed a very high basketball IQ, he seems to exaggerate his own basketball genius. If Russell tripped over his own shoelaces in a game, I would expect him to explain it away afterward as some sort of tactical mind game he was playing on his opponents, or some technique to inspire his teammates. Not everything that happens on the court is part of some bigger, perfect plan.

I think your comments about MJ and Dr. J are very interesting. MJ won a whole lot while shooting such a very high volume of shots. Before MJ's time, the conventional wisdom was that a more balanced offensive approach was the right way to win. This was supposedly confirmed in part by Wilt's failures against the Celtics. I think before MJ and the Bulls the last team to win a championship with a player winning the scoring title was Kareem's Bucks 20 years earlier. Now after MJ the thinking has been reversed. Star players are now criticized when they are perceived as not having taken every big shot down the stretch of every big game.

(One point I would make is that while being wired like MJ would ensure an approach of trying to score a lot and single-handedly put a team away, a player could still try to score a lot and push his team to victory without being wired like MJ. The early careers of Wilt and Kareem are examples.)

My take on the issue is that MJ and the Bulls caught lightening in a bottle. I still believe that a balanced offensive approach is best. But for a team as defensively dominant as the Bulls, they could make up for a more one-dimensional offense with a defense that didn't let the other team score much.

Dr. J took an MJ-like approach in the 1977 finals and it wasn't enough. I don't know if it would have made a difference against the Lakers in 1980 or 1982 either. The Lakers simply had too many offensive weapons for one guy to try to compete with. The one exception I think could have been the 1981 series against the Celtics that you brought up. The 76ers had substantial leads late in Games 5, 6, and 7 and lost all three. I think Dr. J should have, during at least one of those games, decided to try to put it away himself and go for 40 or 50. He actually tried to take over in Game 7. There was a stretch in the 4th quarter where the 76ers were down and then Dr. J scored 10 straight points to put them up. But of course, he later made some costly turnovers and missed a crucial jumper and the Celtics had enough of an opening to win.


If you watch a game from the 1977 Finals and then watch a game from, say, the 1981 or 1982 playoffs, you can see the difference in the pressure Dr. J was putting on the defense. Every time he got the ball against the Blazers, their entire team was scrambling to stop him before he could even get started.

 
At Sunday, April 12, 2009 3:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Not to stretch the analogy to the breaking point but Einstein made discoveries that paved the way for quantum mechanics but then spent the second half of his career "in the wilderness" rejecting the implications of a field that he had done so much to create. This is of course not exactly the same thing as MJ being the best basketball player, retiring to play baseball, coming back to play basketball, retiring and then coming back again to play basketball but people can have complex and shifting motivations that change at different stages of their lives. MJ's first retirement from basketball came shortly after his father was murdered, his first comeback came when he refused to cross MLB picket lines, he retired again in the wake of Krause breaking up the Bulls/the lockout and then he came back again to try to teach/motivate/inspire the young Wizards (and perhaps to create a buzz that would sell more tickets, though that may have been ownership's motive more than his). So each of those situations was unique and has to be considered on its own merits, plus there also could have been factors affecting his thinking that are not publicly known. My point in this post is that MJ has a strong love for the game that makes it almost impossible for him to accept the reality that he can no longer just walk into any gym on the planet and be a dominant player (though if he scrupulously avoids gyms containing LeBron, Kobe and a couple dozen other guys he may very well still be the best player, at least for short bursts).

I don't know whether or not rules would have been changed if Wilt had dunked more often but I agree with Coach Schayes that this was not what motivated Wilt; Wilt wanted to "prove" that he was not dominating simply on the basis of his size. I think that Wilt should have dunked as often as he could and if the rules were changed, so be it. A no dunking rule may very well have hurt Russell more than Wilt considering the shooting range of both players.

There may be some revisionist history in Russell's take on certain events but his high basketball IQ and mean streak--in the best sense of those two words--are undeniable.

You are correct that between early Kareem and prime MJ there was a belief that balanced scoring was a better offensive attack than having one player dominate. In fact, when Dr. J joined the Sixers that was exactly the message that G.M. Pat Williams delivered: the team wanted to have three players averaging around 20 ppg, not one guy scoring 30 ppg and the others scoring in the teens. Dr. J went along with that willingly, though he broke loose in the 1977 Finals when McGinnis slumped horribly.

I think that the best player should initiate the play as often as possible, shooting when he has a matchup advantage and passing the ball when he is trapped and/or when a teammate has a matchup advantage (which may simply consist of a player like Kerr being wide open). I thought that at times the Sixers went away from Dr. J and/or he did not assert himself enough; I would have advocated putting the ball in his hands on most possessions, forcing the defense to react and then playing from that point. If Dr. J had asserted himself a bit more in that 1981 series it literally could have changed basketball history; he may have ended up with two NBA titles instead of one, while Bird may have ended up with two titles instead of three. Or, Doc may have simply ended up with only one ring anyway, because perhaps the Sixers would not have acquired Malone. Or, the Sixers could have rode the confidence from a 1981 championship run to win again in 1982 or 1983 even without Malone. In any case, it is certainly fair to say that the 1981 ECF was a de facto championship series because the winner was all but certain to beat Houston in the Finals.

 
At Monday, April 13, 2009 3:05:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

Wow, I'm woefully late but I will still comment. First of all, I had exactly the same feelings listening to Jordan's comments on HoF induction. Not necessarily about the implied slight, but about the fact that he actually seemed about to ask around "Do you mean I'm retired?" He seemed surprised that the basketball world considers him firmly established in the past.

 
At Monday, April 13, 2009 3:11:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

Other issues. I am not sure Dr J could have become another Michael Jordan because he did not have Jordan's ballhandling ability. As a matter of fact, the player I see taking a role similar to Jordan before him is Rick Barry in 1975, concentrating almost all of the Warriors offensive capacity in his hands either for shooting or passing. Dr J had the body control and the awareness, and I have collected as many 1976-77 season games as possible with the firm intention to watch them in succession at some point in the future and "take it in"; but I do not think he could dribble or pass like Jordan could. That's partially a result of Jordan's ridiculously convoluted path to basketball heaven, which resulted in him acquiring basic playing skills as late as 1987-88. Great players evolve during most of their careers, but this is ridiculous. [PD: Another player reputedly similar to Jordan was Jerry West, but I've watched just a few games of the last stretch of his career. By the way, he does get a free pass compared to Wilt.]

 
At Monday, April 13, 2009 3:25:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

I do get the analogy with other people in the very top of their profession. I have the feeling that just as the body of an athlete is an extreme deviation from a "normal" body, which quite often results in major physical issues as they age, their minds are also "borderline". You just can't win at a certain level if you don't develop a number of mental processes not exactly healthy. Michael Jordan is a well documented example, but the same thing could be said of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, for instance. I don't think you'd accept a friend or a spouse having such an attitude, focused so much in their activities. It's a price. I'm doing a piece on Jordan, all based on secondary sources I am afraid, and I've devoted quite some time at understanding his retirement - the first one, natch; the second one is a clash for control much easier to dissect (I think that his "love of the game" clause has much to do with the fight over his return from injury in 1986). There is never a single or simple explanation, but I think that it has to do with a feeling of losing control of his life, which was becoming a soap-opera, and of course the death of his father, which made him go back to being a teenager. Pro athletes don't really grow up, do they? His repeated comments about becoming a carpool father sounded ridiculous even at the time and I don't think he came back to basketball because of the strike, either. The thing about Jordan is how he created his own mental world and then replaced reality by this "idea of his about reality". He wasn't really cut in HS, but he felt he was. He wasn't really frozen out in the ASG, but he felt he was. He wasn't really the subject of unfair criticism by the media, but he felt he was. And his own belief superseded any real events, just like he managed to visualize himself winning a game and then have that visualization supersede the actual game, and win in the real world. He had the power to make his thoughts real, for good and bad. He just can't fully control that power.

 
At Monday, April 13, 2009 4:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JN:

No comment is too "late" as long as it contains a fresh and interesting perspective :)

 
At Monday, April 13, 2009 4:45:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JN:

When Red Holzman selected his "All-Time Team" circa 1986 for the Pro Basketball Handbook, he included Dr. J and said that if Dr. J had been starting his career in the mid-1980s he likely would have been a shooting guard because of his ability to handle the ball. Dr. J was a bit right hand dominant but that is also true of several other great players (Pistol Pete, Jerry West). Dr. J was a very underrated passer and he played some shooting guard during his last two seasons, though he never played point guard, as Michael Jordan did briefly for Doug Collins, amassing a string of triple doubles. I certainly think that he had the requisite skill set to be a perennial 30 ppg scorer until at least 1983 or 1984 but that kind of role never particularly interested him, nor was it something that the 76ers wanted him to do.

Rick Barry's 1975 season was amazing; Sport did a cover of him as "Superman."

If I understand your comment correctly, I agree with you that West "gets a free pass" compared to Wilt in terms of number of championships won; West only won one ring--with Wilt--and perennially lost to the Celtics in the Finals, yet his nickname is "Mr. Clutch." Not to say that West was not a clutch performer--he certainly played well individually--but it is a bit of an ironic nickname and reputation considering the dearth of championship success.

I think that it would be worth paying good money to see an in his prime West going one on one against an in his prime Jordan or Kobe Bryant. "Modern" fans probably think that it would be a total mismatch but "small" guys like Dumars and Kevin Johnson guarded MJ as well as anyone and West was better at both ends of the court than either of those guys. West was a lot more athletic than most people probably realize; I have a book that has a still picture of West easily dunking two handed; other than perhaps David Thompson or Dennis Johnson, West may have been the best shotblocking guard prior to Jordan.

 
At Monday, April 13, 2009 4:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JN:

I think that you have a pretty good understanding of exactly what I was getting at with this post.

Regarding the "love of the game" clause, I don't have the details handy but I think that the clause predated the broken foot; that injury happened early in his second season and I think that the "love of the game" clause was in his rookie contract. The controversy with his broken foot is that Krause wanted MJ to sit out the whole season so that the Bulls would miss the playoffs and get a better draft pick; MJ wanted to come back and play. The two sides "compromised" by putting MJ on a regimen of limited minutes, which of course left the coach in the middle between MJ and Krause. That was just one of many incidents between MJ and Krause, culminating with Krause's vow--which he kept--to break up the Bulls even if they won the 1998 championship.

I do think that MJ came back the first time because of the strike. A lot of people forget that after his celebrated .202 batting average in Birmingham he next played in a tougher league and was batting somewhere upwards of .280. MJ was improving and even though the clock was obviously ticking due to his age, he was serious about earning his way to the majors. When the strike happened, he declared quite forcefully that he would not cross a picket line and while MLB sorted out the labor dispute he started poking around the Bulls' practices. That led to the comeback. Without the strike, MJ would have been playing minor league ball somewhere and would have been nowhere near the Bulls. I am not the only person who has said/written that the best thing about the strike is that it brought MJ back to the NBA.

 
At Monday, April 13, 2009 7:06:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

I'm not sold on Dr J as guard, something that only happened because of a crunch at forward while Toney had gone down. Dr J had a great one-dribble move to the basket, and he had a wide array of finishing options that included passing off to a teammate, but I don't think any coach would inbound the ball and have him dribble upcourt, something that Jordan or Barry could do.

I've only seen games of West shooting midrange jumpers alongside Goodrich, and they looked quite similar players. Of course, Jerry West had been playing for ten seasons in the NBA by then (likewise, I don't think I own any game where Elgin Baylor goes to the rim) and pre-1970 games are extremely hard to come by. But I do have one of those annual season "pro basketball handbook" guides and it's funny how they grill Chamberlain as a loser for winning just one ring, and on the next page they claim West is a winner even though at that time he had none. I mean, I can see their point, but I also detect some anti-Wilt bias.

Contract details are almost always impossible to verify, but I think the "love of the game" clause may have been in it before the injury. The clash with Krause/Reinsdorf, however, must surely have convinced Jordan of its importance as he had the memory of a herd of elephants when he felt slighted. Also, Gene Banks had his contract voided after getting injured in a summer league which kind of hammered in the point, if there was need for further confirmation.

I think the strike provided Jordan with a handy excuse. I don't know the ins and outs of minor league baseball as I'd like, but I think that he could have sidestepped the issue and remained in the minors. Also, his own history regarding the NBPA and decertification makes me question the ethical foundations of his position. Jordan always wished to be "one of the boys" (at least in part), but he did not have a problem remaining uncommited on outside issues such as politics. His second season did show some progress, but I also think it made it clear he would never become a decent player in the majors. I think the whole baseball career thing had began to unravel, and the strike simply forced him to address the situation at that moment instead of, say, the following summer.

By the way, I found Krugel's book on his "third coming" much more critical than I expected. I had read his earlier book with Jordan and I feared the worst, but "One Last Shot" is surprisingly decent for an authorised book.

 
At Monday, April 13, 2009 4:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JN:

You are correct that the reason the 76ers shifted Dr. J to guard was that Toney had gotten hurt but the fact that Dr. J could make such a transition late in his career when he obviously was past his prime suggests that he would have done even better as a guard had he played that position from the start of his career, as Holzman suggested would have happened if Doc had been starting out in the 1980s.

As I said, I am pretty sure that the love of the game clause preceded the foot injury and the Gene Banks situation but I have not gone back to look this up.

MJ was fully committed to trying to earn his way to the big leagues (as opposed to being called up purely on the basis of his fame). He stopped playing in the minors after the strike precisely because he could not obtain his goal--he had no way of knowing how long the strike would last and he refused to be called up to replace players who were striking. All of the evidence supports Jordan's public take on this matter, namely that he would have kept playing baseball had there not been a strike: he was working very hard on his game and he was making progress, contrary to the popular myth (in contrast, none of the evidence supports Jordan's statement that he retired to spend more time with his kids).

 

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