Michael Jordan dunk

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.

PBT Podcast: Derek Fisher fired, plus your trade questions from Twitter

Derek Fisher
Associated Press
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Derek Fisher is out as coach of the New York Knicks.

In this latest podcast, NBC Sports’ Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman discuss the odd timing of that move — we expect another shoe to drop as to why. It’s not that Fisher was a great coach, but replacing him with Kurt Rambis mid-season is not an upgrade. And Luke Walton isn’t available until this summer.

After struggling to figure out what the Knicks are thinking, Helin and Feldman answer questions off Twitter from readers/listeners on the coming trade deadline including discussions of Blake Griffin, Jeff Teague, the Pistons, the Jazz, the Knicks, and more.

As always, you can listen to the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunesdownload it directly here, or you can check out our new PBT Podcast homepage, which has the most recent episodes available. If you have the Stitcher app, you can listen there as well.

Warriors’ center Festus Ezeli to have knee surgery, out indefinitely

Golden State Warriors center Festus Ezeli, left, of Nigeria, looks to pass the ball as Denver Nuggets forward Darrell Arthur defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, in Denver. Golden State won 118-105. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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Festus Ezeli has been a rock-solid backup for the Warriors this season, playing almost 18 minutes a night behind Andrew Bogut giving the team 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds a contest. Golden State’s defense is 3.6 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court, and he’s part of the team’s long-term plans.

But he’s going to be out for a while now following knee surgery, the team announced and as reported by Monte Poole at CSNBayArea.com.

http://www.csnbayarea.com/warriors/festus-ezeli-undergo-knee-surgery

The surgery is exploratory, which is why the Warriors say there is no timeline for recovery yet.

The surgery is on his left knee; it was his right one that had reconstructive surgery and forced him to miss all of two seasons ago.

This is a blow to the Warriors’ depth, but little has slowed their march this season. More Mo Speights is not ideal, but the Warriors can just go small more often and run teams out of the building that way.

Ezeli is a restricted free agent this summer and the Warriors would like to keep him on the roster and expand his role, particularly if they do not retain Andrew Bogut. The severity of this knee injury could impact Ezeli’s ability to earn a big contract this summer, but hopefully for him, it’s not that serious.

Russell Westbrook stands behind Kevin Durant, mimics him during interview (video)

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, right, gestures after scoring as forward Kevin Durant stands by during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Thunder won 117-113. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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Choose your spin.

This is why Kevin Durant is leaving the Thunder. Russell Westbrook doesn’t respect him.

or

This is why Kevin Durant is re-signing with the Thunder. He and Russell Westbrook have so much fun together.

Report: Magic open to talking Tobias Harris trade, looking to add experience

Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen (9) grabs the uniform of Orlando Magic forward Tobias Harris (12) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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Tobias Harris signed a four-year, $64 million contract with the Magic just last summer.

Now, just 50 games later…

Marc Stein of ESPN:

I’m skeptical this is significant. Teams discuss trades for many players for a variety of reasons. That doesn’t mean the player is likely to be dealt.

Orlando in particular has a roster of players who cause significant debate about their value. It’s helpful to know what other teams think of Harris, and soliciting trade offers is a good method to learn his worth.

It’s more intriguing the Magic are looking to add experience. They should probably go the opposite route, but they’ve tried (and failed) for years to accelerate their rebuild. At 22-28 – four games and three teams from playoff position – now is not the time to seek shortcuts. Spend the rest of the season developing young players – and probably securing a higher draft pick in the process.

One of Harris’ best traits is his youth. He’s just 23. See what other teams would offer for him, sure. But, in all likelihood, it’s better to let him grow into the veteran Orlando needs rather than trading him for one when the rest of the team isn’t ready to win, anyway.

My guess is that’s what Orlando will do. Remember, always consider who has incentive to leak this information anonymously and what they’d be positioned to know.