Being the Michael Jordan of Basketball

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I probably should not be allowed to write a post in praise of Michael Jordan. I have his image permanently branded onto my arm. Objectivity is not an option. Objectivity is also boring. So I’ll make a deal with you. I promise to do my best to back up all the wild claims I make, if you promise to read this with the understanding that I am a giddy fanboy when it comes to this subject. Deal? Deal!

In my HoF posts on John Stockton and David Robinson, I explained why I don’t believe they became prototypes for modern point guards and centers. Well Jordan is more than the prototype for shooting guards. He is the blueprint when it comes to on-court play, but he’s also the model for all superstars in terms of marketing, and he’s the modern example of success and greatness in any field.

Prior to the Bulls double three-peat in the 1990s, NBA champions and dynasties had been built on the shoulders of big men. Cousy had Russell. West had Wilt. Oscar and Magic both had Kareem. Dr. J had Moses. Bird had McHale and Parish. Isiah had no dominant post player but a cadre of brutal bigs in Laimbeer, Edwards, Mahorn, Salley, and Rodman. The only genuine exception to the rule was Rick Barry’s 1975 Warriors who won a title after a 48 win season and never again.

The point of the previous paragraph is not to say that Jordan is better than all of those great players (we’ll establish that later if there’s time), simply that before Jordan and the Bulls did it, the notion of creating a dynasty with a high-scoring wing as its most important player and no high quality center did not really seem feasible. Big men were assumed to be necessary to create high percentage scoring opportunities and to provide defensive presence in the paint. Nobody drafted Clyde Drexler, Dominique Wilkins, or even Michael Jordan thinking that this perimeter scorer was going to be the key to winning titles.

That has changed. The success of the Bulls’ style of play sold the rest of the teams on the idea of building around talented wings and guards. The tremendous popularity of Michael Jordan influenced the following generations of players, and shooting guards and small forwards worked to develop games similar to Michael’s, merging explosive athleticism with great ball-handling, shooting, and post game skills. Now the three best players in the league may very well be LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Dwyane Wade.

Of course there’s a secondary reason for the preponderance of great wings and guards in today’s game. The league changed the rules to make defense contact on the perimeter illegal, allowing ball-handlers to attack defenders with much greater effectiveness. Simultaneously the league added a defensive three second rule which made it illegal for defenders to occupy the lane for more than three seconds at a time, effectively limiting backline help against slashing moves to the basket.

These rule changes may actually have been intended to make it easier to finally find the “new Jordan” that the media had been searching for since Mike’s first retirement in 1993, including but not limited to LeBron James, Dywane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Grant Hill, and Penny Hardaway. The reason I make that conjecture is that Jordan not only changed the way the game was played by the individual players and the way teams were constructed by GMs, he also changed the way the game was marketed. I don’t want to delve too deeply into the money side of things, because I only care about how the game itself was effected, but it probably doesn’t need to be said that Jordan’s promotion by David Falk, Nike, Gatorade, and all the others changed sports marketing’s focus from the team to the individual. It became in the league’s best interests to make individuals look better on the floor, flashy perimeter scorers like Jordan most of all. That’s just a theory though. I’m sure whatever canned reason David Stern gave is really why the rules were changed.

As a quick aside – take a look at this post at Basketball Reference and the original here at Truehoop. It bears mentioning that the persona assumed by today’s stars is modeled off of Jordan. Clean-cut yet cool. Intelligent but down to earth. Child-like yet powerful. And completely glazed over and safe from the Artest-like dangers of candid responses. A personal marketing tool rather than a personality. Again, I don’t care much, because I’m concerned with what happens on the court, but it is an important influence MJ had on today’s players.

So how did the common idiom to call a high achiever “the Michael Jordan of his or her field” originate? Irrelevant to his all-time standing, in his day there was no one else in the NBA whose achievements were even close to Jordan’s.  He was seen by those within the basketball community and by outsiders as the absolute best, the pinnacle of the sport, to such a degree that his name became synonymous with success and excellence.  His predecessors like Magic Johnson, Jerry West, and Bob Cousy were calling him the best player ever even before his first retirement. If his extensive list of titles and awards was not enough, the point was hammered home all the more by his big moments.  The seemingly endless array of game winners, especially playoff and finals game winners, the late game defensive plays, the game winning passes, and the way he would always go out and dominate at least one game in a playoff series to make sure the other team knew it was hopeless. There was an aura of invincibility, an honest belief that it simply did not get any better. The words “Michael Jordan” meant “without rival.” That’s how Tiger Woods became the Michael Jordan of golf instead of the next Arnold Palmer.

If we could be like this guy.

And this is how Michael Jordan became the Michael Jordan of Basketball:

  • 6 Time NBA Champion
  • 6 Time Finals MVP
  • 5 Time Regular Season MVP
  • 1 Time Defensive Player of the Year
  • 1 Time Rookie of the Year
  • 10 Time All-NBA 1st Team
  • 9 Time All-Defense 1st Team
  • A look into Jordan’s stats and the play style behind them tonight / tomorrow.

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