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

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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.

Magic Johnson shrugs off concern about Lonzo Ball realty series

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Lonzo Ball has yet to play in one NBA game, yet he has his own signature shoe line, and he — along with his father LaVar Ball and the rest of his family — have their own reality show on FaceBook. Lonzo told me he doesn’t foresee this show, nor his bombastic father, being a problem with his teammates or on the court.

Magic Johnson agrees with that. At least for now.

The head of Lakers’ basketball operations said as training camp opened that he’s not worried about the show Ball in the Family being a distraction. If it is, he’ll step in, he told Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

“Only time I am going to concern myself with what [Lonzo] does off the court is if it is affecting his play on the court,” Johnson said at the Lakers’ media day when asked about Ball’s reality Facebook series, “Ball in the Family.”

“Right now, I think it is awesome,” Johnson said. “His family is great. They came out Saturday, we had a big Laker picnic. … His dad is wonderful with me, and I am cool with him. … I think [Lonzo] is tired of all this [hype]. He is just like me; I just want to play and I think he wants to play, and then Saturday night [for the Lakers’ preseason opener], sold out, in Anaheim, wow!”

It’s Magic’s job to put a positive spin on things.

That said, he’s right. The Lakers (and every NBA team) have dealt with overinvolved parents before and know how to create some space for the player to focus on the game. Locker rooms have a way of sorting themselves out in these kinds of situations. Plus, the Lakers have been down the reality show road before (when Lamar Odom married Khloe Kardashian), and while that had an ugly ending, it wasn’t for lack of Lakers’ players and others in the organization trying to step in and help. (Odom just wasn’t yet in a place to accept help.)

Soon LaVar will be focused on his other sons and Lonzo, who appears practiced at tuning his father out and focusing on what is in front of him, will have the grind of the NBA schedule to worry about.

Former NBA player Chuck Person named in college basketball bribery scandal

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The recruitment of major college athletes — and then the steering of the handful that get to go pro to shoe companies and agents — is a sleazy business. It makes HBO’s “The Duece” look like Disneyland. It’s something sports fans know but largely turn a blind eye to until it forces its way into the headlines.

It turned up in the headlines Tuesday when four college assistant coaches from major universities were charged by federal prosecutors in a bribery scandal along with a representative of Adidas and others to steer players to specific agents or a financial handler.

Former NBA Rookie of the Year Chuck Person, now an assistant coach at Auburn, was among those named in the scandal.

Person is making headlines because he’s the biggest name in the scandal. He is charged with accepting approximately $91,500 from a business manager, who has flipped and is working with prosecutors. This “business manager, offered bribes to Person to steer players toward his services, as well as another person charged in the scandal.

Person told prosecutors he gave $18,500 of the money he took to two players’ families, according to the filings.

Person was the No. 4 pick in the 1986 NBA draft and went on to win Rookie of the Year, followed by a 13-year NBA career. He made $22.9 million over the course of his career.

PBT Podcast: Cavaliers, Bucks, Central Division Preview with Dan Feldman

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LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers remain the team to beat in the East — I’m not picking against his team to win the Eastern Conference until someone beats them. This year’s Cavaliers may be deeper than previous years.

However, much of the Central Division is intriguing this season. Milwaukee is a team that, on paper, should take a step forward, but never seem to do that two years in a row. Still, they have Giannis Antetokounmpo and that makes them must watch. Detroit has one of the best centers in the game in Andre Drummond, and they have Marcus Smart on the roster now, but can Reggie Jackson bounce back? Then there are the Bulls and Pacers, both of whom are rebuilding.

Kurt Helin and Detroit-based Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break down the Central Division in this latest PBT Podcast.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

Reports: Dwyane Wade “leaning heavily” toward joining Cavaliers

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This race may have been decided before it ever started.

While Miami has the draw of home, and Paul George and Russell Westbrook have come hard at him, it seems Dwyane Wade always knew where he wanted to be after Chicago — reunited with LeBron James. Just now in Cleveland. From Joe Vardon of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Dwyane Wade is leaning heavily toward the Cavaliers as his new team once he clears waivers and may have already decided on a reunion with LeBron James, league sources with knowledge of Wade’s thinking told cleveland.com…

Wade has given no indication publicly what he will do, and at least three teams — the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, and his old team the Miami Heat — are interested in him. His agent is taking calls from those teams and others, and Wade told the Associated Press he would do his due diligence as well.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN confirmed this.

This is not a shock.

What does Wade want in a destination? A chance to make another run at a ring, minutes, and a comfort level with the organization. Cleveland provides all of those, plus easy access to the Gravy Fries at Greenhouse Tavern (which may not be on Wade’s in-season approved list by his nutritionist).

Even without Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers are and should be the favorite to come out of the East, then take their swings at the Warriors (or whoever comes out of the West, I feel obligated to write just to be nice to the folks in Houston and Oklahoma City). The Cavaliers are smack in the middle of the NBA’s second tier. Wade averaged an efficient 18.3 points per game for the Bulls last season, and he can for stretches still dial-up his vintage self and dominate games.

Wade would probably start at the two over J.R. Smith, and even if he came off the bench he could get just about all the minutes his aging knees will handle. That said, I’m not sure the Cavs can play Wade and Derrick Rose together, particularly during the playoffs, due to spacing and defensive issues. And obviously, with his good friend LeBron there, Wade has comfort with the organization (just don’t expect him to sign more than a one-year deal).

This was always the most likely outcome, Wade and LeBron together again for one more run.